We’d spent the best part of the year debating whether to build an extension to our home or move to a bigger house. The boys were growing up and we needed more space, but money was tight and property prices impossibly high. We explored areas further afield, but eventually decided a more spacious home wasn’t worth trading proximity to family, and opted for the extension.
As our home was semi-detached, we needed our neighbours’ consent or be prepared to embark on the party wall process (dispute resolution), which would be costly in both time and money. As we’d consented to our neighbours’ extension a few years ago, we weren’t expecting any issues and although relations weren’t as warm as they’d once been, we remained on polite terms. Consequently, we were surprised when our request was met by a steady stream of objections questioning the stability of the structure. We tried to placate them with reason and reassurance, but it was to no avail and the project stalled.
Deeply disappointed and incensed by our neighbours’ intransigence, we retreated to consider our options. We were reluctant to pursue the party wall process, because of the cost, but concluded we had no other option. Already on a tight budget, we swallowed our reservations and went ahead, leading to months of protracted exchanges. This eventually led to us meeting the expenses of two surveyors because our neighbours refused to agree to a joint surveyor. It was now abundantly clear to us that our neighbours were determined to be as obstructive as possible.
By now the summer had arrived and we left the matter in the hands of the surveyors, as we set off for a holiday to Italy. We hoped a change of scenery would provide some welcome respite, as we struggled to come to terms with the impasse at home. Being a woman of deep faith, I prayed throughout this period for strength, courage and guidance, but it was in Italy where I felt God speak to me unequivocally. Firstly, we were unexpectedly upgraded to a family suite at our hotel in Venice, leaving us to enjoy a level of luxury, which was far beyond our budget. Only God could understand how much that upgrade meant at that time, when we felt so embittered and discontent. It was a celestial hug, which lifted our spirits and got the holiday off to a great start. After Venice, we moved to Rome and saw God in the stunning monuments and of course the Vatican, but it was one experience in an unexceptional church, which proved pivotal.
After an exhausting day sightseeing in the intense heat, we were in desperate need of rest, when we stumbled on a small church nestled in a secluded side street. Delighted at our discovery, we ventured inside and rested. When I regained my strength, I began to walk around the church and felt God’s presence everywhere. As I wandered around, I was drawn to a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary, where I marvelled at the serenity she exuded, when I suddenly noticed she was crushing a serpent beneath her right foot. I recoiled in horror, as the image was incongruous with the peace she personified, but as I stood reflecting on the symbolism, a verse from my favourite Psalm (Psalm 91) came to mind “Thou shalt tread upon the lion and adder: the young lion and the dragon shalt thou trample under feet.” I immediately felt God was responding to the anguish we’d endured in recent weeks and was telling me He understood my pain and asked me to trust Him. I was hugely strengthened by this encounter and returned home fortified by the love of God.
When we got home, matters progressed quickly after our surveyor brought the matter to a swift conclusion and building works began. Although we were elated by the breakthrough, we were outraged that the surveyors’ recommendations were little more than what we’d offered our neighbours at the outset and that the months of delay and additional expense could have been avoided.Our fury refused to subside and we began to openly discuss the possibility of taking legal action to recover the costs we’d been forced to incur.
It was during this time that I thought a great deal about my father, who had passed away before the extension could be built. He was a man of principle and I recalled how when I was still a child, he had successfully sued a heating engineer who installed a defective system in our home. Even though my father had no legal qualifications (he was a bus driver), he borrowed heating manuals from the public library and pored over them to single-handedly mount a successful lawsuit. That story became part of family folklore and always served as a reminder to take a stand against injustice. I talked it over with my husband and we decided that we had to take action. Although it wasn’t a huge amount of money at stake, it was a significant amount to us and we felt our neighbours should meet the costs unfairly incurred.
Although I was a lawyer by profession, I had no knowledge of party wall disputes, but was inspired by what my father had done forty years earlier. I began to research the issue and although there were no precedents, I discovered courts had discretion in awarding costs where unreasonable behaviour could be proven. As I’d built a catalogue of evidence during interactions with the neighbours, I prepared what I believed was a convincing argument chronicling their unreasonable behaviour. Naturally, we offered to settle before commencing proceedings, but as our neighbours refused to engage, we filed a submission in the small claims court. Our neighbours responded by instructing lawyers, which resulted in a day’s court hearing, where we represented ourselves.
The judge listened carefully to the evidence and postponed judgement, asking each side to submit their costs. We were horrified to discover that our neighbours had spent £25,000 compared to our £2,100 and it was at this point that the enormity of the situation hit me. Suddenly, I felt a stab of terror as I realised the consequences, which would follow if the judgement went against us. We spent two anxious months waiting for the decision as the pendulum of emotion swung from one extreme to another. I continued to cling to a fading hope that the judge would sympathise with our position, and was devastated to discover the judgement went predominantly in favour of our neighbours. They were found to have acted reasonably, but were ordered to pay the costs of the second surveyor. All that now remained was a decision on who should meet the costs of the legal proceedings and the judge asked both sides to make written submissions.
By now, I was physically and emotionally exhausted. Up until the arrival of the judgement, I’d clung to the hope that God shared my quest for justice. Although I hadn’t directly sought His advice prior to filing the claim, I believed He would take care of us. However, when the judgement arrived, I felt my hand slip from His and retreated into a quiet state of despair. I felt abandoned and spent an anguished few weeks, akin to a period of mourning. I felt no enthusiasm for my faith and stopped praying altogether. God, who had always been my strength and comfort, was now a distant stranger and I kept Him at arms length as I wallowed in my sadness.
However, despite my detachment, I was surprised to note that I was still able to hear from God. I felt Him urge me not to give up, but to channel my pain into drafting a convincing submission. He spurred me on by planting ideas in my mind and encouraged me to document every shred of evidence to produce a forceful chronology, justifying why the neighbours should meet their costs. As I did so, I felt my spirit and faith return and once again I took God’s hand, in the face of what I believed was almost certain defeat. A friend sent me a song by Don Moen (God Will Make A Way) and the simplicity of the lyrics about creating rivers in the desert kept me hopeful that a victory was still possible.
As we waited for the decision, I had time to reflect on events and my own actions. I realised I had confused God’s justice with legal justice. Although we’d been awarded the surveyors’ fees, it was a hollow victory as we found ourselves in a far worse situation than if we’d done nothing. I had never stopped to seriously consider the judgement going against us and was haunted by the fact that we were the authors of our misfortune. However, it was too late for regrets and as our families rallied around us, we prayed that the judge’s decision would bring a reprieve.
Weeks later, the decision arrived and I could barely bring myself to read it. I quickly scrolled to the last page of the judgement to see how much we had been ordered to pay and was astonished to discover we didn’t have to pay a penny. The judge had ordered our neighbours to meet our costs as well as their own. I was speechless and called out to my husband to double-check what I’d read. Together we read and re-read the entire judgement, and only when we were certain we hadn’t made a mistake, did we allow ourselves to breathe again. My husband punched the air in victory, as I collapsed in a heap, still reeling from the shock. Even at my most optimistic, I had never expected such an outcome and I suddenly thought back to that statute of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who had been a catalyst in our decision to pursue this path. It had taken two long years, but God had delivered us against all odds and a verse from Psalm 91 came to mind “I will say of the Lord, He is my refuge and my fortress: my God; in Him will I trust”.
When I now reflect on this episode, I view it differently. If I had my time again, I wouldn’t have pursued the matter through the legal process, but would have taken my pain to God and let Him dispense justice in His way. At the time, we were angry and hurt and took it upon ourselves to right a wrong. However, life isn’t always fair and when it isn’t, it’s better to leave justice to God. I hadn’t consulted God before we took action and by doing things on our own strength, we made matters worse. Time and wisdom taught us to pause rather than act and to let emotions dissipate in the trusted knowledge that God will take care of things, His way.
There were many times during those two years when I was exhausted emotionally and physically and all I could do was cling to God. I remember the pain, anger and despair at unfolding events as I took hold of my Book of Psalms and prayed from the depths of my soul. I eventually realised that this episode wasn’t about an extension, a party wall or legal costs, but about trusting God.