90 neighbour disputes filed in tribunals in 2016

There were 90 neighbour disputes filed under the Community Disputes Resolution Act last year, the recently released State Courts 2016 annual report showed.

The cases, resolved in the court's Community Disputes Resolution Tribunals (CDRT), include spats over excessive noise or smell, interfering with movable property and littering.

The report also stated that the number applications for protection orders and non-publication orders under the Protection from Harassment Act decreased from 159 in 2015 to 100 last year. The CDRT started in October 2015 and saw 27 cases in the first three months. The tribunals are given the power to resolve intractable neighbourly disputes as a last resort.

Lawyers told The Sunday Times they believe these tribunals are an effective way to resolve longstanding neighbour issues.

Previously, people approached the Community Mediation Centre (CMC) if they could not settle disputes on their own or with the help of grassroots leaders. But the CMC cannot issue legal orders, and there is little the authorities can do if the parties do not want to make up. The CDRT, which has jurisdiction on claims of up to $20,000, can be more effective.

For unresolved disputes, the judge may order a hearing where he can make certain orders, like asking the neighbour to pay damages or apologise, or order an injunction for one party to cease a certain act.

Lawyer Rajan Supramaniam said: "(The tribunals) are held in a formal setting with some sort of authoritarian figure, so it's more likely that there will be respect given to the order made, and parties will comply."

Mr Supramaniam spoke of a case that happened last year, where a family approached the CDRT to resolve a dispute with their immediate neighbours.

"The complainant was upset that their neighbours would practise certain rituals that would get dust and water all over their doorstep," said Mr Supramaniam.

"This went on for a few years and their relationship became so hostile that they even got into a staring incident."

In the end, the court ordered the latter to be more mindful of their conduct and, after talking it out, the two families are now on good terms, he said.

However, lawyers also said the CDRT should be a last-resort solution, and neighbours should "ideally" mediate among themselves or with a neutral party first.

Mr Supramaniam said that while he has referred people to the CDRT, he always advises them to try to approach the neighbour and talk to them first.

National University of Singapore sociologist Tan Ern Ser said: "I believe going to the CDRT is a last resort, as most people would prefer to have a friendly chat and allow reasonableness to prevail, thereby not making an enemy out of a neighbour."

Lawyer Nedumaran Muthukrishnan said: "Ideally, if neighbours were talking like the good old kampung days, perhaps these disputes could be resolved between themselves.

"But those days are gone and we tend to respect our privacy more, so it's harder to engage each other... So, for unresolvable spats, I believe this is the way for reconciliation."

Correction Note: The story has been edited to reflect that 90 neighbour disputes were filed last year and that the report stated a decrease in the number of applications for protection orders and non-publication orders. We are sorry for the errors. The figures reported are all projected and not the actual figures.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 28, 2017, with the headline '90 neighbour disputes settled in tribunals'. Print Edition | Subscribe