What is the Law on Noise From Neighbours?
With dogs in every garden and construction on every other street, South Africa has never been a particularly quiet place. That said, from time to time, the noise emanating from a nearby property becomes more than any reasonable person can bear and steps need to be taken to bring some kind of peace back to the neighbourhood. We like to think that we’re all in agreement as to what is acceptable and what constitutes excessive noise but, sadly, what works for the man across the street may not necessarily work for you. This raises a few important questions, for instance, When is something considered too noisy? What is the Law on Noise From Neighbours?
The Noise Control Regulations of South Africa make a key distinction between two kinds of noise, namely – Disturbing Noise and Noise Nuisance.
- Disturbing Noise – This type of noise is objective and is considered to be a scientifically measurable noise level. Simply put, a neighbour playing music so loud that you can hear every word of it as it shakes the glass in window panes would be considered objectively loud. In most provinces, the focus here is not necessarily on when the loud noise occurs or how frequent it is, rather, it is on the number of decibels produced.
- Noise Nuisance – By contrast, this type of noise is subjective and is defined as a sound that ‘disturbs or impairs or may disturb or impair the convenience or peace of the person’. This type of noise may not be as loud but usually occurs over a longer period of time and can include a wide range of sources such as barking dogs, power tools and even shouting.
Both of these types of noises are prohibited by the relevant articles of legislation, so why make a distinction in the first place? Well, the type of noise your neighbour is causing can have a major influence on how you go about stopping it.
What is Classed as Unreasonable Noise?
As mentioned, a disturbing noise can be proven objectively through scientific measurements. The precise level at which noise becomes disturbing may differ slightly depending on the municipality in question as each area is governed by its own bylaws but, for the most part, a disturbing noise is considered to be 7-decibel points above the continual ambient sound level of the area.
By contrast, a noise nuisance is objective and thus, it needs to be proven to a reasonable standard. Individuals charged with settling such disputes, be they police officers or judges, will determine whether or not the noise in question is loud enough to be considered intolerable or seriously affecting the complainant’s enjoyment of their property. This is an important fact to keep in mind because what one person may consider an unacceptable noise nuisance may not be viewed similarly by a court of law.
At what time do Neighbours have to Keep the Noise Down?
Most people tend to think that you can make as much noise as you want on a Friday or Saturday night and the neighbours just have to deal with it, but this isn’t actually the case.
As noted, Disturbing Noise (such as a raucous house party with loud music) is usually policed on how loud it is rather than on how long it lasts for. That said, most municipalities have bylaws that tolerate this behaviour (within reasonable levels) until certain times (usually around 22:00), so most complaints to the police before this point will probably produce lacklustre results.
Noise Nuisances, on the other hand, are illegal regardless of the time of day. In other words, a dog constantly barking may be considered a Noise Nuisance even if it occurs during the day.
What Can I do about my Neighbour’s Noise?
Your response to an unacceptably noisy neighbour should be graded. It should only increase in severity when the previous approach fails. Instead of calling in the SANDF when your neighbour’s 80th birthday bash gets out of hand, try the following steps –
- Talk to them – Most loud parties don’t need a police officer to get them to calm down. Simply (and politely) inform your neighbours that the noise is too loud and ask them if they’ll be so kind as to turn it down a little.
- Contact the Local Authorities – Inform the police about the issue, ideally with a written complaint. The authorities should come to investigate and, if the noise is excessive, they should remedy the matter. Usually, this just involves the police asking your neighbour to keep it down, however, if they continue with this behaviour the police may give them a fine or could even confiscate their equipment.
- Go to Court – If the problem persists, you can seek a judicial solution. Your lawyer can formally request that the neighbour desist from their behaviour and, if that doesn’t work, you can go to court. When approaching the courts, you can either apply for an interdict against your neighbour or you can sue for damages suffered because of the noise.
Interdict vs Damages
When approaching the courts in these cases, most people will request that an interdict be filed against their neighbour. If an interdict is successfully issued and your neighbour continues with their behaviour, they will be found guilty of contempt of court and can be hit with a fine of up to R20 000 or (in extreme scenarios) a prison sentence of up to 2 years.
Trying to sue is a bit more tricky as you will have to provide proof that the damages have been caused by the noise. You will normally have to prove that the noise has been substantial and continual and has negatively affected your health, quality of life and general well-being.
Regardless of which action you go for, the courts will base their decisions on the following factors –
- The type of noise.
- How persistent it is.
- Where the noise occurs.
- The times during which the noise is heard.
- The efforts that have been made to resolve the matter.
Each situation is different and thus each case will be decided based on the particulars of these factors. Once again, it’s important to remember that nuisances are judged against a factor of ‘reasonableness’, in other words, you will need to prove that the noise in question is unacceptable from a reasonable standpoint, rather than from your own. Additionally, complainants need to remember that their neighbours also have the same rights when it comes to their lifestyles and the enjoyment of their property.
In Conclusion – What does the Law say about Noisy Neighbours?
In South Africa, unlawful noise is split into two categories, namely –
- Disturbing Noise
- Noise Nuisances
A Disturbing Noise is objective and can be scientifically measured, it is considered to be 7-decibel points higher than the continual ambient sound level of an area. Neighbours playing loud music at night during a party would usually fall within this category. In most provinces, the factor that is considered in these cases is the noise level itself rather than the times at which the noise is present. That said, there are usually times during which such disturbances are tolerated.
By contrast, a Noise Nuisance normally occurs over a longer period of time and thus, it is illegal regardless of when it happens. Noise Nuisances are subjective and, while they may not be as loud as a Disturbing Noise, they can disturb or impair the convenience or the peace of the person. This noise can come from a wide range of sources and usually includes things like power tools, shouting and constantly barking dogs.
When dealing with neighbours who produce these sounds, individuals should first attempt to remedy the matter peacefully by making a polite request. If your neighbours continue with their behaviour, you can contact the local authorities who should come and deal with the situation. Normally this just leads to the police asking your neighbours to keep it down but, in certain circumstances, this can devolve into fines, arrests and confiscations.
If the problem persists, you can hire an attorney to formally request that your neighbours desist with their noisy behaviour, if that doesn’t work, you can seek a solution from the courts. When approaching the courts you can either ask for an interdict to be issued against your neighbours or you can sue for damages.
If your neighbours don’t change their ways once an interdict has been issued they can be arrested or fined for contempt of court. On the other hand, if you can prove that damages have been caused by the noise itself, you may be able to successfully sue them. These damages could include things like a negative impact on your health or general well-being.
Before approaching the courts, you should remember that the judge will consider the facts of the case from a reasonable perspective. In other words, to win a case, the noise must be seen as unacceptable from the perspective of a reasonable person rather than from your own personal view.
Disclaimer LAW101: All of our posts are for research purposes only. Law 101 aims to assist its readers with useful information on the laws of our country that can guide you to make decisions in line with the South African Governmental Laws currently in place. Although our posts cite the constitution in many instances, they are intended to assist readers who are looking to expand their knowledge of the law. Should you require specific legal advice we advise you to get in touch with a qualified legal expert.
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