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New property law reforms to come into force on 1 September

A terraced street in Bruges, Belgium (Wikipedia Creative Commons, Dimitris Vetsikas/Pixabay)
06:43 25/08/2021

A new property law will come into force in Belgium on 1 September which will make it easier, for example, to resolve disputes between neighbours.

The latest changes to the Belgian Civil Code, which dates back to 1804 and has undergone several reforms in recent years to adapt it to modern times, will clarify the position of citizens when it comes to gaining access to their neighbour's property or recovering property from their neighbour's home.

Most people who have ever shared a fence will know that it’s inevitable that a toy from your neighbour’s child will at some point end up in your garden, or that one of your animals will find its way next door. In cases like these, most of the time, good neighbourly relations make it possible to find a quick and friendly solution. Either you kindly return the toy, or your neighbour allows you to come round and look for your pet.

However, when relations between neighbours are more tense, a dispute can arise and escalate, which can sometimes lead to legal action. When this happens, the courts have difficulty in deciding because two rights are opposed: the right to ownership of the land on the one hand, and the right to property on the other.

"When an animal involuntarily goes over to the neighbour’s land, the owner of the animal has a legitimate right to recover it,” explains Pascale Lecocq, professor of law at the University of Liège and specialist in the reform of property law. “The owner of the land, similarly, has a legitimate right to tell us to go home, as it is their land."

But this right to recover one's property does not mean that you have the right to enter the property of another person without asking for their permission. "We don't advise you to go in all the way if the neighbour doesn't allow you to," explains Professor Lecocq. “That would be trespassing, and no lawyer would advise you to do this.”

According to the new reforms, if it is necessary to go as far as court proceedings, depending on the case, it will be the neighbour who has not agreed to return the property who will be sanctioned.

“If the neighbour refuses to return the property which has ended up on their land or refuses access to the land to recover it, if you go before a judge it will be the the neighbour who is ordered to return the object or the animal," continues Professor Lecocq.

The new property law also concerns the right to access the neighbour's property, if necessary, to carry out construction or repair work on your own home. The existing law allowed the owner of an adjoining wall or a non-terraced hedge to access the neighbour's land to maintain the hedge or wall. This law has now been expanded.

From 1 September, an owner who has work to do on their property will be able to rely on the new property law to access the neighbour's land if this proves essential to the work. For example, it will be possible to ask the neighbour to install scaffolding or a crane on their property if it is necessary. Before installing scaffolding at your neighbour’s house, for example, "you must first make a prior notification to the neighbour who, in principle, must agree to this if it is necessary for the execution of the construction, repair or maintenance work," Professor Lecocq explains.

However, the neighbour can refuse if they have legitimate reasons. "For example, if the neighbour’s daughter is getting married next week and they need to put tents up in the garden, they have the right to refuse,” says Professor Lecocq. “The scaffolding would not look very pretty in the photos.”

If the neighbour agrees to access and the installation of equipment to complete the construction or repair, "it must always be done in the least damaging way possible for the neighbour and they will be entitled to compensation if they suffer any damage or hardship as a result."

Asking for prior authorisation will help to avoid many issues in the event of a dispute. "If you do it without warning and the judge considers in the end that there were legitimate reasons for the neighbour to oppose it, you will be responsible and you will have to pay compensation," adds Pascale Lecocq.

In addition, the new reforms allow neighbours to consult the legal system before a dispute occurs, meaning citizens will no longer have to wait until a situation has escalated before turning to justice. "The law establishes a procedure that allows a question regarding the neighbourhood to be submitted in advance," explains Renaud Grégoire, notary and spokesperson for the Federation of Notaries. Until now, a conflict between neighbours had to have already happened for it to go to court.

“We can now ask a judge whether such behaviour that is occurring or is about to occur is abusive in terms of law and ask the judge to rule on certain facts regarding this behaviour.” It is hoped that this new option will help defuse neighbourhood conflicts before they become serious.

The new property law in the Civil Code also brings changes to the rules regarding rural areas. From now on, it will be possible to access certain areas of private land, such as vacant land, without risk of prosecution. "It is no longer an offence to walk on a path, as long as it is not clearly indicated, on property that has not been fenced off and that is not indicated as private property," explains Renaud Grégoire. It is therefore up to the owners to mark and fence their property correctly.

Written by Nick Amies