Noisy neighbours? These are your rights
by Roy Bregman
Shakespeare said in The Tempest (2:2), “Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows.”
When we live side by side in high density complexes, it’s inevitable that you will encounter neighbours that are unpleasant and make your life miserable with barking dogs, loud music, arguing and shouting, swearing, banging doors or drilling.
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South African law distinguishes between ‘Disturbing Noise’, which is “objective and is defined as a scientifically measurable noise level,” and ‘Noise Nuisance’, which is a subjective measure and is defined as “any noise that disturbs or impairs, or may disturb or impair the convenience or peace of any person”.
What rules apply?
Disturbing Noise in an urban environment is governed by municipal by-laws. An example of this kind of noise would be loud music that is played to all hours of the night. Most municipalities have by-laws in place that focus on the level of decibels reached rather than the actual time frame in which noise is made.
Noise Nuisance is more subjective, and usually happens over a longer period. It’s defined as noise that “disturbs or impairs or may disturb or impair the convenience or peace of any person”.
This could include any of the following:
dogs that bark incessantly;
playing a musical instrument or operating a television set loudly;
operating machinery or power tools;
shouting and talking loudly;
operating a vehicle that causes a noise;
driving a vehicle on a public road in a manner that causes a noise nuisance;
the discharge of fireworks in a residential area causing noise nuisance.
Noise Nuisance is always illegal and is enforceable, regardless of when it takes place.
Dealing with the problem:
The most practical and cost-effective way to deal with a noise nuisance would be to approach your neighbour directly and politely and tell them of the problem and, together, find a solution.
If you cannot sort out the problem, you should consider appointing a mediator to facilitate a resolution to the dispute.
If a neighbourly approach doesn’t work:
The first option is to lay a complaint with your local authority by way of a written statement. Law enforcement officials will investigate the problem to see how serious the situation is. If necessary, they can instruct the reduction of the noise and if the offenders don’t comply, they can issue a fine, and in extreme cases even confiscate the equipment causing the noise nuisance.
If the above fails and the offence persists, your lawyer would ask your neighbour to desist and if that too fails, will approach the court for an interdict to stop the noise nuisance. The court considers these factors when determining if the actions are unlawful: the type of noise, the degree of persistence, where the noise occurs, the times when the noise is made, and all efforts made to resolve the matter. You must satisfy the judge that the noise has negatively affected your quality of life, your health, your comfort and your general well-being.
If an interdict is issued and the neighbour persists with the unlawful actions, the neighbour may be found guilty of contempt of court, in which case the court may impose a fine or alternatively imprisonment in serious cases.
The Community Schemes Ombud Service Act (“the CSOS Act”) applies to noise in sectional title schemes, where the CSOS adjudicator hears disputes between neighbours.
A balancing act:
The legal principle is that “a man is allowed to have free use and enjoyment of his property, provided that in doing so, he does not infringe on the rights of his neighbour”. Our judges have adopted the view that “some discomfort, inconvenience or annoyance from the use of neighbouring property needs be endured”.
Roy Bregman is a director of Bregman Moodley Attorneys in Johannesburg.