The Dial-A-Law library is prepared by lawyers and gives practical information on many areas of law in British Columbia. Script 400 gives information only, not legal advice. If you have a legal problem or need legal advice, you should speak to a lawyer. For the name of a lawyer to consult, call the Lawyer Referral Service at 604.687.3221 in the lower mainland or 1.800.663.1919 elsewhere in British Columbia.
Many of us have had occasional problems with neighbours involving noise, untidy premises, dogs, fences, trees and hedges, second-hand smoke, water damage, or trespass. This script describes the laws that deal with these problems. In most cases, you can talk to the person causing the problem. They may not know of the effect they’re having on their neighbours and talking to them may solve the problem. But if speaking with your neighbour is not possible or does not solve the problem, you have other options, this script explains.
Many of us have had our peace and quiet disturbed by squealing tires, loud stereos, barking dogs, or noisy equipment. What can you do to stop it? First, try talking to the person causing the noise. They may not realize how irritating it is.
If that doesn’t work, call your city hall and ask if there is a noise bylaw. If there is one, talk to the person who enforces it. For example, in Vancouver, you would call the Environmental Health Officers. Each municipality’s noise bylaw is different, but most are broad. In Vancouver and many other municipalities, the bylaw covers noise from animals including dogs and birds, heavy duty equipment, lawnmowers, loud parties, stereos, and many other things. Usually, the municipality’s enforcement officer will try to solve the problem informally. If they can’t, they may prosecute the person in court for violating the bylaw.
If the noise is on a weekend or at night and city hall is closed, you can call the police. If a person is screaming, shouting, swearing, or singing to the point they are creating a nuisance for others, they may be causing a common disturbance—an offence under the Criminal Code. In all these cases, call the police and report it.
You can also sue the person causing the noise. You could sue for damages for nuisance or negligence, or ask the court to order the person to stop the noise. But this can be a long, expensive, and stressful process, and there’s no guarantee you will win. There may be cases without a solution. For example, a noise or odour may be permitted by zoning or custom (in an industrial or agricultural area). And a court may decide that the noise or odour isn’t significant enough to be a nuisance.
Most municipalities have bylaws to control garbage, junk, overgrown yards, or abandoned vehicles. For example, in Vancouver, every property owner must keep their property in neat and tidy condition, consistent with a reasonable standard of maintenance common in the neighbourhood. In these cases, it is best to speak with a neighbour if possible, but if this fails or is impossible, your next step is the local government. Explain your situation to the person who enforces bylaws. They may investigate and if your complaint is valid, order the owner to clean up the property. If the owner doesn’t, the municipality can clean it up at the owner’s expense.
The responsibilities of dog ownership are described in 4 places: local bylaws, provincial laws, the Criminal Code, and the common law, as explained below.
- Local bylaws
Local bylaws cover licensing and may prohibit dogs from being in certain places. You can find a copy of local bylaws at your public library, courthouse library, or local government offices. Many local bylaws are also available on the municipality’s website.
Many local governments have passed bylaws to prohibit dogs running loose. In Vancouver, for example, dogs cannot be on the street or in a public place unless they’re on a leash not more than 8 feet long (2.5 meters)—except in off-leash parks. As well, female dogs must be kept indoors when they’re in heat.
The Vancouver animal control bylaw also requires “aggressive” dogs—those with a known tendency to attack or bite, or dogs that have bitten another domestic animal or person without provocation—to be muzzled or kept indoors or in a pen. The city may seize and impound (for up to 3 weeks) a dog that has bitten someone. A dog found running loose, or unlicensed, will be taken to the pound and, if it isn’t claimed within three days, it may be put up for sale or destroyed. The owner could also be charged fees for impounding the dog, keeping it at the pound, and any veterinary services it needs. The owner may be fined for violating the bylaw.
Health bylaws in Vancouver and elsewhere prohibit dogs in restaurants and other places where food is kept or handled. These bylaws don’t apply to private homes, nor do they prohibit “seeing-eye” or other types of service dogs from entering restaurants or other public establishments.
Vancouver has a bylaw requiring that you to pick up your dog’s excrement on property that is not your own. Failure to do so can result in a fine of up to $2000. This law does not apply to working “seeing-eye” dogs or service dogs.
Vancouver’s animal control bylaw also regulates the noise of barking or howling dogs. For example, if your neighbours complain that your dog’s barking unreasonably disturbs the peace and quiet of the neighbourhood, you could be fined up to $2,000. Other local governments also regulate dog barking in their noise-control bylaws.
- Provincial laws
The BC Livestock Act protects farm animals from attacks by dogs. For example, anyone can harm or kill a dog that is running at large and attacking or viciously chasing cattle, goats, horses, sheep, swine, or game.
Under section 49 of the BC Community Charter, local governments may seize and impound some dangerous dogs. The local government may apply to provincial court for an order to destroy the dog. The local government does not need a specific local bylaw to exercise these powers.
- The Criminal Code
It’s against the Criminal Code to willfully cause unnecessary pain or suffering or injury to any animal or to willfully neglect or fail to provide suitable and adequate food, water, shelter, and care for it. If you don’t take reasonable care of your dog, you could face a fine or jail term and a criminal record. Also, if you don’t take reasonable care to prevent your dog from harming others and an attack or injury occurs as a result, you may be charged with criminal negligence.
- If your dog injures someone—common law
If your dog injures someone, that person may sue you under the common law in civil court. If they succeed, you’ll have to pay them for the injuries your dog caused them. If you have insurance, you should check with your insurance agent to find out if your insurance covers these cases. Better yet, if you have a dog that is likely to bite or attack a person, always keep it under control.
A legal concept known as “the doctrine of scienter” applies to dog bites in BC. This doctrine requires the following things to be proven in court for a dog owner to be liable for a dog bite or other attack:
- who owns and controls the dog;
- the dog has a history or tendency for violence; and
- the owner knew of that history or tendency for violence.
But the court may not follow this doctrine. Or it may apply it in a way you may not expect. If your dog bites someone or a dog bites you and you want to know your options, contact a personal injury lawyer. The Canadian Bar Association’s Lawyer Referral Service can refer you to a lawyer for an initial consultation. Call 1.800.663.1919.
Local bylaws often control how high a fence can be, both natural fences, including hedges, and those built of wood, stone, or other materials. If your neighbour builds a fence higher than the bylaw allows, you can talk to them about it. You can also call the city, which can order the person to obey the law. Without a complaint, your municipality is unlikely to inspect neighbourhood fences to see if they comply with height bylaws.
A fence on a property boundary belongs to both property owners. People often share the cost of a fence, but they don’t have to. Both are responsible to keep it in good shape and they must get permission from the other one to take it down. The section below called “Trespass” has more on fences.
Trees and hedges
If your neighbour’s tree branches hang over your property, you can cut them, but only up to the property line. You cannot go onto your neighbor's property or destroy the tree. The reverse case is also true.
If a tree on your property somehow damages your neighbour’s property (for example, a branch falls on their roof during a storm), you are not responsible for the damage unless it was caused intentionally or through negligence. Negligence means you did not take reasonable care or you were warned or knew the tree was damaged or diseased and may fall. But if your tree’s roots go under their property and damage their pipes, lawn, or foundation, you may be responsible under the common law principle of “nuisance”. Whether you will be liable for any damages depends on the facts of the case, but normally the courts will not allow use of a property that causes substantial discomfort to others or damages their property.
If your neighbour’s smoke comes into your house, as in all these cases, you should first speak with the neighbour. If that doesn’t work, what to do depends on the situation. Does the smoke come from a tenant? If so, does the lease prohibit smoking? If not, you still have the right to “quiet enjoyment” of your property, and the smoke may violate that right or be a nuisance under common law. You should speak to a lawyer if you want to sue because of second-hand smoke.
Normally, a neighbour is not responsible for damage caused by the natural conditions of land. For example, if rain runs from a neighbour’s yard onto your property and makes your lawn soggy and kills the grass, your neighbour is not likely responsible. But if a neighbour changes their property and the change causes more rainwater to come run onto your property than before and causes damage, your neighbour may be financially liable to you. Similarly, your neighbour may be liable if they are negligent. Examples of negligence could include leaving a sprinkler running too long, flooding your property and causing damage. Negligence is part of common law, so you should speak to a lawyer about your options.
If a neighbour comes onto your property without your permission, they are trespassing. If they refuse to leave when asked, you should call the police. If a neighbour builds a fence or other structure, such as a shed, that encroaches on (goes onto) your property, this is also a form of trespass. Often the encroachment is unintentional and can be resolved by getting a land survey. If you have spoken with your neighbour about the matter and have had a survey showing that the structure is encroaching, you can sue your neighbour for trespass. Usually, a court will order the neighbour to remove and relocate the fence or structure so it’s off your property.
What if no bylaw, provincial law, or the Criminal Code deals with your problem?
You may have a problem that these laws do not cover. For example, your neighbour’s property may be producing a terrible smell. In this case, you could try mediation. It may be the best and most cost-effective way to resolve neighbour disputes, because the relationship between you and your neighbour continues and you don’t want to harm or destroy it.
Or, you may decide to sue your neighbour. In that case, you should speak to a lawyer promptly because the laws may set a time limit for suing.
[updated October 2017]
The above was last reviewed for accuracy by Daniel Sorensen, Nathan Ganapati and Anna Kurt, and edited by John Blois.
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