Tuesday 14 May 2013

More help on the cards for feuding neighbours: Lawrence Wong

Mandatory mediation, new tribunal being considered for difficult cases
By Robin Chan, The Straits Times, 13 May 2013

SOME feuding neighbours who cannot resolve their differences may have to undergo compulsory mediation, possibly through a new government tribunal.

This tribunal may also prosecute those who do not follow orders set out after mediation, Acting Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong said yesterday.

These are "preliminary" and "conceptual" ideas being considered to strengthen the current community dispute resolution framework, so as to deal with cases that are particularly difficult to resolve, he said.

"We are looking at how to have a more robust community resolution framework, one which will give recourse to residents who are dealing with some very frustrating cases, but will not undermine the community's efforts to solve its own problems. So, we are trying to find the right balance," Mr Wong said to reporters at the sidelines of a ministerial visit to Admiralty ward yesterday.

Currently, if neighbours cannot resolve disputes on their own, they may be asked to take the matter to a Community Mediation Centre (CMC). But going for mediation is voluntary, so warring neighbours can choose not to go.

The CMC handled 593 cases in 2011, up from 498 in 2010. It has dealt with about 6,000 cases since being set up in 1998. But 30 per cent of its cases are not resolved successfully.

These cases take up a lot of the time of grassroots leaders, town councils or police officers who try to keep the peace, Mr Wong said.

The Government is studying the systems in Britain and Hong Kong, among others, and looking at local examples to better understand disputes and how they can be resolved.

The result could be that the powers of the CMC are strengthened, or a separate tribunal is set up to deal with these matters, similar to a Small Claims Tribunal.

The Government will be studying how to put this in place "over the next few months". The aim is not to tilt responsibility away from residents, but to still have them resolve most disputes among themselves, he said.

The idea of a tougher framework for settling neighbourly disputes was first raised by Law Minister K. Shanmugam last August. He said another approach could be to develop norms of conduct between neighbours.

Sembawang GRC MP Vikram Nair said many disputes are over noise. "The more enforcement mechanisms you have, the more you can try and compel people to do it. But obviously, it is better if it comes from within, and you get along with the neighbours."

Mr Desmond Lee, an MP for Jurong GRC, said these steps would help to fill a current gap between voluntary mediation and criminal prosecution for such disputes.

During his visit to Mr Nair's Admiralty ward, Mr Wong met residents and students at a park, and performed two songs on his guitar to celebrate Mother's Day. At a dialogue with residents later, they asked about housing, childcare, education, transport and foreigners.

Resident Joan Ng was concerned with a 25 per cent hike in fees at her local PAP Community Foundation (PCF) kindergarten.

Mr Wong explained that the PCF is a non-profit charity and runs at a loss. It has to raise fees from time to time due to higher salaries for staff. There are, however, schemes to help families cope with these higher costs.

Common space: flashpoint of disputes
CMC sees more cases, but mediators urge feuding parties to talk it out first
By Lim Yi Han And Sue-Ann Tan, The Straits Times, 15 May 2013

NOISE, verbal abuse and squabbles over common corridor space are the most common reasons for disputes between neighbours, the Community Mediation Centre (CMC) says, as it revealed it is facing an increase in cases.

Last year, the CMC, a department under the Ministry of Law, handled 607 cases, up from 593 in 2011 and 498 in 2010.

Its spokesman said feuding neighbours made up the bulk of these cases; disputes between family members and strangers or colleagues made up the rest.

About 30 per cent are not resolved successfully.

Members of Parliament told The Straits Times they refer residents to the CMC when they are unable to settle differences, even after third parties such as grassroots leaders have stepped in.

Nee Soon GRC MP Lee Bee Wah, who refers about 10 cases a year to the CMC, said: "A mediator can play a key role in a dispute. Sweeping things under the carpet is not conducive for good relations between neighbours."

MP Tin Pei Ling refers "a handful" of cases a year from her MacPherson ward. She said: "Cases were usually about noise and disturbances. One case had two women physically fighting in the block. Mediation is a good solution with a trained neutral third party stepping in to help."

A session is typically conducted by two mediators at the CMC's two locations, at The Treasury building and the Subordinate Courts. There are 145 trained volunteer mediators.

Disputes are usually resolved in one session, which lasts for several hours. Mediator Lela Kaur, 55, said in some cases, she and her colleagues have to speak to the parties separately, such as when they notice "that the atmosphere becomes tense".

Mediation sessions are voluntary, so warring neighbours can opt not to go. But on Sunday, Acting Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong said compulsory mediation is being considered for difficult cases, possibly through a new government tribunal. Those who do not follow orders set out after mediation could be prosecuted.

Some MPs said taking matters to the CMC should be a last resort. Chua Chu Kang GRC MP Zaqy Mohamad said: "Usually we try to settle disputes ourselves with the town council and grassroots leaders. If such measures are unproductive and we reach a deadlock, we turn to the CMC."

Mediators said feuding parties should talk it out first. Mr G. Anthony Samy, 78, said many disputes start as neither party talks about "about the issues that they are displeased with".

"They would usually complain to a third party agency to look into it and this might sour the relationship even before any kind of discussion can take place."

New Community Disputes Resolution Tribunal for neighbours at war to be set up

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