Judge rejects condo's 'disproportionate' bid to remove resident's pet dog

The management council of JC Residence in Joo Chiat had taken the dog owner to court based on the woes of an aggrieved neighbour.
The management council of JC Residence in Joo Chiat had taken the dog owner to court based on the woes of an aggrieved neighbour.ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM

SINGAPORE - A judge refused a condominium management corporation's (MC) bid to remove a resident's dog from the condo premises, warning against misuse through subjective interpretation of a condo by-law to force the move.

The management council of JC Residence in Joo Chiat had taken dog owner Yan Wen Ting to court based on the woes of an aggrieved neighbour.

But five other residents in the 12-unit condo building came out in support of Ms Yan, attesting that the dog did not show aggressive behaviour or cause noise or trouble.

"I should highlight that this is not a numbers game. The fact that an animal causes annoyance to only one subsidiary proprietor does not necessarily lead to the conclusion that there is no breach of (the by-law)," said District Judge Clement Julien Tan.

"Conversely, even if the animal causes annoyance to many subsidiary proprietors, this does not mean that (the by-law) is breached although that is more likely to be the case. The entire factual matrix of the case has to be considered," he added in judgment grounds issued last week (June 20).

Ms Yan found the dog two years ago, when it was still a puppy, in an area near the condo. She took it home and named it Mocha after her favourite drink.

The MC claimed residents began to have problems with the dog at the start, pointing out it was often left unleashed and showed aggressive behaviour.

In May 2016, the management council advised the owner not to let the dog run loose and to keep it muzzled at all times when it was in the common areas of the property, warning her it would invoke the relevant by-law to have the dog removed if she failed to comply.

Ms Yan, 24, apologised and took remedial action which included, among other things, hiring a professional to train her in the skills needed to handle the dog.

But about seven months later, one resident complained, recounting the dog's aggressive behaviour towards him and that it was found unleashed in the common areas.

Following his complaint, the MC through its lawyers wrote to Ms Yan in January 2017, giving her two weeks to remove the dog or face legal action.

Ms Yan apologised and, among other actions, hired a dog trainer to teach Mocha and offered to have the parties seek mediation, but the offer went unheeded.

At a meeting in February, the MC resolved to seek a court order to have the dog removed.

By the time the case went to court on June 9, the wife of the resident whose complaint sparked the court action, reported two more incidents, claiming the dog showed aggressive behaviour.

The MC's lawyer Harjeet Singh argued in court that Ms Yan broke the relevant by-law, which should be read subjectively such that once an animal has caused annoyance to an owner or resident, the by-law is breached.

District Judge Tan disagreed and called for an objective approach, requiring the court to take into account all relevant considerations, "the touchstone being that of reasonableness".

"A subjective interpretation of (the by-law)... would cultivate a culture of pettiness and small-mindedness between neighbours. Furthermore, if such an interpretation were to be adopted, pet owners would face a great deal of uncertainty. They would be unsure of when (the by-law) might one day be wielded against them by an unhappy or a particularly sensitive neighbour. A subjective construction should therefore be eschewed," said the judge.

"Such an interpretation could lead to By-law 14 being abused or misused by unreasonable subsidiary proprietors or those with particular sensitivities, phobias or aversions towards certain animals. In order to live harmoniously in a densely populated country like Singapore, there should be a reasonable degree of toleration and give and take between neighbours," he said.

He noted that other than one family's complaint, there was no evidence of complaints from others. The judge further noted the steps Ms Yan had taken to be a more responsible dog owner.

District Judge Tan said the parties should have tried to resolve the issue amicably - as earlier proposed by Ms Yan - before resorting to legal action and ruled that removing the dog "would be disproportionate to the alleged complaints as such".

Ms Yan, who defended herself in the case, said she has been a "lifelong dog lover" and looked forward to moving on after the case.