Saturday 14 March 2015

Community Disputes Resolution Tribunals to be set up under new Act

Parliament passes the Community Disputes Resolution Bill on 13 March 2015
If neighbours can't settle disputes, law will step in
Tribunal will determine unreasonable behaviour based on facts of each case
By Charissa Yong and Kok Xing Hui, The Straits Times, 14 Mar 2015

WHAT counts as unreasonable behaviour in longstanding disputes was a key concern raised by several MPs yesterday as they debated a law to resolve difficult arguments between neighbours.

Parliament passed the Community Disputes Resolution Bill yesterday. Under the Bill, residents can haul recalcitrant neighbours who have "unreasonably interfered with their enjoyment of their residence" to a tribunal specialising in community dispute resolution cases.

Such unreasonable interference includes causing excessive noise, smell, smoke, light or vibration, and littering near or obstructing the neighbour's home.

But what is unreasonable, or excessive?

Ms Lee Bee Wah (Nee Soon GRC) recounted an unhappy pregnant resident's complaint that the constant smell of cigarette smoke from her neighbour living one level below her flat would affect her unborn child.

She asked: "Smoking at home, what is wrong with that? Does the Bill solve such a problem?"

Added Mr Hri Kumar Nair (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC): "There will always be clear cases, but there's also going to be a vast pool of very, very grey cases."

Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong assured the House that the tribunal will determine what constitutes unreasonable and excessive behaviour "based on the facts of each case, using a commonsensical approach and the light of everyday experience".

Over the two-hour debate, 14 MPs spoke on issues from dealing with residents with mental illnesses to preventing vindictive neighbours from abusing the process.

The MPs, all of whom supported the Bill, said that turning to the tribunal should be a last resort.

In reply, Mr Wong made it clear that the tribunal is, in fact, meant as the last resort to resolve difficult private disputes.

"Their first recourse should be for the individuals concerned to take responsibility of the issues, to speak to each other and to strive to resolve the issue amicably," he said.

Should informal mediation be unsuccessful, the tribunal can order residents to attend mandatory mediation sessions at the Community Mediation Court.

Mr Wong said this feature of the Bill addresses some current limitations to mediation. About 60 per cent of residents do not show up for mediation, as it has not been compulsory, he added.

Offensive acts cited in the Bill also include surveillance of, and trespassing on, a neighbour's home. Offenders can be ordered to pay damages of up to $20,000, or apologise, for instance.

Ms Lee Li Lian (Punggol East) said the Bill should "balance the respect for each individual's privacy in the sanctuary of their personal space, and the common interest of other residents living together in the community".

At least six MPs also asked how the tribunal would address residents with mental illnesses.

Ms Tin Pei Ling (Marine Parade GRC) recounted a case of a resident who accused her neighbour of taking and producing drugs, and continued to press the authorities to charge her neighbour even after they had investigated and found the neighbour innocent.

Existing laws and procedures regarding mentally ill persons will continue to apply, said Mr Wong. If a neighbour suspected of mental illness breaches a community dispute order, the court can order his family member to enter into a bond with the condition that he goes for medical treatment.

Mr Patrick Tay (Nee Soon GRC) and Non-Constituency MP Lina Chiam suggested ways to improve access to the tribunal. Mr Tay said it should accommodate dialect speakers, and Mrs Chiam suggested void decks could be mediation venues.

What you need to know
By Kok Xing Hui and Priscilla Goy, THe Straits Times, 14 Mar 2015

If my neighbour is singing karaoke or having a party late at night and it is disturbing my sleep, can I file a case at the tribunal?

You can try to solve the problem informally by talking to the neighbour, who may not be aware of the nuisance he is causing.

Public feedback showed residents would rather be approached by neighbours first.

What if my neighbour continues to be intolerably noisy? Would the tribunal take on my case?

The tribunal is meant to be a last resort to resolve difficult disputes. It will usually require parties to show that mediation was attempted before it would hear cases. But this is not an absolute rule and the tribunal has the discretion to decide whether the parties must attend mediation.

Why must I show that I have attempted mediation?

Past figures have shown mediation to be effective. Of the more than 500 mediation cases at the Community Mediation Centre (CMC) in 2013, 70 to 75 per cent of them were resolved. But the no-show rate is also 60 per cent.

How long does mediation take?

A typical mediation session at the CMC takes about two hours although some cases may require a second or third session.

If both parties consent, a mediation session can usually be arranged within a month from the time the case is registered.

Would going to the tribunal be costly?

Fees are not finalised but the intention is to keep them affordable, yet not so low that it encourages frivolous filing of cases. Costs can be kept low as no lawyers are involved and all proceedings are judge-led.

Does this mean I can file a case against a family member or a fellow tenant if they are annoying?

No, the Bill does not cover an individual who occupies the same place of residence.

What kind of evidence do I have to produce to file a case at the Tribunal?

The Bill does not specify or limit the kind of evidence which can be produced to prove a victim's case. There is nothing to stop evidence from video-recording and other technological devices from being produced. The court will decide on issues like admissibility and weight of evidence.

How were the penalties for the new Bill derived?

The penalty for breaching a special direction - given after a previous court order is disobeyed - is benchmarked against a repeated breach of a nuisance order under the Environmental Public Health Act. The penalty under this Act is a maximum fine of $20,000 and/or a jail term of up to three months. In view of the private nature of nuisance under this Bill, the fine is less, at a maximum of $5,000, to reflect the lower severity of such offences.

Community wardens to help settle noise spats among residents
They will be trained and deployed in pilot project this year
By Joyce Lim, The Straits Times, 14 Mar 2015

THERE will soon be new help to deal with noise disputes - the No. 1 problem among neighbours.

A group of community wardens will be given the job to settle strife over noise.

Trained in basic law and mediation, they will have the power to take down particulars, advise people to keep it down and also help to deliver composition notices on behalf of the police.

They will be taught self-defence, be allowed to carry defensive equipment such as a baton to protect themselves, put on body-worn cameras and carry a special identification card.

The Police Force Act yesterday was amended to allow for the appointment of these wardens, or civilian police assistants as they are described by law.

These wardens will be first deployed in Tampines North and Boon Lay in a six-month pilot project to be launched in the second half of the year, said Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Home Affairs Teo Chee Hean.

Their effectiveness will then be reviewed before deciding on longer-term plans together with the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth.

Last year, a public consultation on how to better manage community disputes revealed that noise issues topped the list. More than 70,000 noise complaints were received every year by various agencies, including the Housing Board and police.

The introduction of wardens is part of a larger push, which includes the new Community Disputes Resolution Bill passed yesterday, to better deal with the tensions that are part of living in a densely populated city-state like Singapore.

Workers' Party chairman Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) wanted to know how these wardens will be picked. "For example, would there be a minimum age to ensure that a certain degree of maturity is there to deal with the public?"

She asked if volunteers would also be included.

DPM Teo said volunteers could be involved down the road, but the pilot will have only civilian officers employed by the police.

He also explained that while educational qualifications will be taken into account, the more important thing was for wardens to have "good people skills as they will be on the front line dealing with disputing neighbours".

The Police Force Act was also amended to create another group of civilian officers called forensic specialists who would assist in investigations. They would have the powers to secure and search crime scenes, seize evidence and take statements.

These specialists would also be allowed to carry batons and handcuffs to help in their duties.

Dr Janil Puthucheary (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC) raised his concern on whether these civilian officers would "be given the same legal protection extended to police should anything happen to them while they are on duty".

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