Leiden Law Blog

Watching quarrelling neighbours

Watching quarrelling neighbours

For many years in the Netherlands there has been a very successful television programme called ‘de Rijdende Rechter’ (the Travelling Judge) in which a judge, Frank Visser, tries to solve painful, long-lasting quarrels between neighbours. It’s not so much the judgment that I find interesting in this programme, but the road that leads to it and the aftermath. It shows how apparently small matters can be blown up to gigantic proportions, how people can get mentally stuck in their opinions and parties kept apart by a mere psychological barrier.

Quarrelling about a tree

The problem that gave rise to the quarrel is nearly always very minor. Recently I saw, for instance, an episode that centred on a quarrel about a tree that according to one neighbor was growing too close to his house. He thought its roots were creating cracks in the walls of his house and its overhanging branches were making the walls damp, etc. In an earlier episode, about a year ago, the Travelling Judge had already decided that the distance of the tree to the house was legally permitted, which meant that the owner was not forced to remove the tree. And so he had left it where it was. But a year later the quarrel had not yet stopped.

Communication breakdown

The owner of the tree appeared to have a large garden with many other trees in it. It would have been a small thing for him to just respect the concerns of his neighbour, and remove the tree anyway (and maybe plant a new one a little bit further from his neighbour’s house). But he hadn’t. The other neighbour had responded by regularly cutting off branches  that were hanging over his house. This had annoyed the owner of the tree a lot, and a few other annoyances had developed on top of that, with the result that they tried to avoid contact as much as possible. It was clear that the legal decision to allow the tree to stand hadn’t solved the problem.

The third party

In this case the Travelling Judge had become more like a mediator. He had to try to reopen the deteriorated communication between these neighbours. As always, this turned out to be nearly impossible. Not only is the Travelling Judge the third party here in this programme, but also the people watching it. Both can see that it’s pretty pointless for the two parties to blow up their quarrel to such gigantic proportions. They’re witnessing people showing themselves to be quite small minded, struggling with psychological problems and stubbornly holding on to their own opinions. Seen from a third-party perspective, the solution to the quarrel seems quite easy to generate, even without applying the law. But obviously this had been impossible for the parties involved.

Respecting our neighbours

Small-scaled quarrels like this can make us more aware of the fact that we all have neighbours around us (even if they live a fair distance away) and have to avoid quarrels with them at all cost; that we have to make sure that little annoyances, if they arise, are recognized and dealt with immediately, before they can grow to an unmanageable, monstrous size. They might even make us realise that neighbourly quarrels on a larger scale – between countries or  populations in a country, like in Syria, Gaza or the Ukraine – are not very different. In a similar way they might have started with something relatively futile – a different interpretation of a certain ancient custom, tradition or of a few sentences in a book.

As the episodes of the Travelling Judge have shown again and again, unfortunately we’re not very good at dealing with problems when they arise, and have the tendency to avoid them. And we get blind to the fact that the resulting barriers exist only in our heads.

5 Comments

adam zahir
Posted by adam zahir on September 23, 2017 at 14:33

this article very useful for my way. Thanks for this works

Wim Bonis
Posted by Wim Bonis on March 30, 2016 at 12:15

Dear Ben,

In my blog I have argued that to prevent quarrels getting unmanageably big they need to be faced as early as possible, and also that involvement of third parties in quarrels – even when they´re backed up by the law – need not bring the solution any closer, when the involved parties are unwilling to settle their arguments and keep blaming one another. The fact that in your case a neighbour already got him- or herself and your wife involved in the quarrel, enlarging the scale, doesn´t make it easier to find a solution.

I can imagine you feel you are the only third party member left who could still intervene. But being closely related to the parties involved it will be difficult not to choose sides in advance. If you´re driven by the urge to defend your next of kin, then there is always the danger of becoming part of the problem, adding fuel to the fire, inviting escalation. The question is: how much room is there still left in you to be a real mediator, whose main objective must be to bring the quarreling parties together again, to trigger them into a willingness to face each other directly and even understand the quarrel from the other’s point of view?

In the end it’s up to the quarreling parties themselves to heal the damage done.  No one else can do this for them. From criminal cases it is known that when the offender and victim (who are usually kept apart in the justice system and initially also want to keep a fair distance themselves) are directly confronted with each other, meet each other face to face, this is often already a very healing event for both parties. Hopefully your neighbours and their child are still willing to look you and your family straight in the face, and can acknowledge the value of a good mutual relationship – and that it is really in the best interest of you all to leave this quarrel behind.

owiny ben
Posted by owiny ben on March 30, 2016 at 00:19

thanks for this, my wife was recently attacked by a neighbor because our son had a fight with the other child.I thought adults would solve this small issue but it became their ‘fight of words’.should I intervene?

Wim
Posted by Wim on August 29, 2014 at 16:09

Dear Reino,

Thanks for your response. Not so nice to hear you’ re involved in a quarrel with your neighbour about trees. I hope you solve it in time and that it does not escalate into something unmanageably big!

Bye,
Wim

Reino
Posted by Reino on August 28, 2014 at 22:18

Hi Wim, very nice to read, the more since we are in sort of a quarrel with our neighbor about trees. And we more or less said the same you say about Syria, Gaza or the Ukraine! If we are not able to solve minor problems in a decent way, how can we expect people to solve major problems in a decent way. We will continue our battle against the trees !!!
Greetings, Reino

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