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Richard Barr Writer (and lawyer)

Noise Annoys

The high pitched whine of a mosquito, the rasping snoring of one's partner, the rhythmic drip of a tap with an aquatically challenged washer, the shriek of a vacuum cleaner, the squeak of a hamster on a wheel, the drumming of fingers on a table.

Daily we put up with these irritants in our homes. They are part of our lives. True, snoring may lead to divorce. Mosquitoes end their lives  splatted on walls. Hamsters are occasionally strangled and taps are every now and then ripped from their basins. But we live with the noise and generally do not invite outside intervention.

But when noise is generated from beyond the ramparts of our castles, it all too often creates  stresses which are out of proportion to the nuisance complained of and leads to news items about warring neighbours.

The point is illustrated by two recent stories. The first concerned jangling wind chimes which so incensed the neighbours that a  constable had to climb over a roof and along a wall in Devon to remove them and so prevent a breach of the peace.

The second item in the news was about greyhounds – nine of them. Their howling and barking kept the neighbours at wake at night, but the local authority felt that the noise was not enough to justify enforcement proceedings. Instead it argued that no one should be allowed to keep more than six dogs. The council sought an order that the excess dogs should be culled. The dog owners invoked the Human Rights Act.

To the relief of animal lovers everywhere the court did not order any dogs to be slaughtered but accepted instead an undertaking that the owners would not replace the dogs when they died.  However the problem of noise remained.

Barking dogs have been a part of our lives since we occupied caves (indeed it is now thought that dogs contributed materially to our progress to what we optimistically consider to be civilisation). If the dog is your own, you shout at it or offer it a bone when it barks.

But once you have decided that the neighbour's pooch  is upsetting you, every whimper, every muted growl, is an affront and sends your stress levels through the roof.

It is often not a matter of decibels. Nuisance is generally measured on loudness, but when the sensitive equipment barely registers, the officials retreat, leaving the complainants fuming and all the more ready to kill for a little peace.

Crowing cockerels used to be the stuff by  which law students learned the law of nuisance. . Now that  suburban gardens resound with wind chimes which produce random notes, future law lecturers will be giving tuition on new wave noises (perhaps to the accompaniment of aeolian harps).

The perennial problem is that one neighbour’s pleasure is another’s torment.  And the law is not a very good instrument for putting things right. Whichever decision is made, someone will be affronted. Solutions in the end are more likely to be found in compromise, with a robust back up if that fails. If you don’t like wind chimes, try acquiring nine greyhounds. But if it is greyhounds which are causing the problem then you could do worse than blast the neighbours with the biggest and loudest set of wind chimes that money can buy.


Published in Solicitors Journal 1 June 2001

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