Close to 30 "neighbours from hell" have been hauled to court in the first three months of operations of the body set up last October to resolve ugly community spats.
A total of 27 cases had "proceeded with actual court filings" at the Community Disputes Resolution Tribunals (CDRT) as at the end of last year, a spokesman for the State Courts, which oversee the tribunals, told The Straits Times.
Four cases have since concluded, with two withdrawn by applicants and the other two dismissed by the judge. The rest are ongoing.
Under the Community Disputes Resolution Act passed in March last year, the tribunals are given powers to resolve intractable neighbourly disputes as a last resort.
Previously, people could turn to the Community Mediation Centre (CMC) if they could not settle disputes on their own or with the help of grassroots leaders.
IRONING OUT DIFFERENCES
Having neighbours meet to settle differences must always remain the first and best option.
DR WILLIAM WAN, Singapore Kindness Movement's general secretary.
But the CMC cannot issue legal orders, and there is little the authorities can do if the neighbours do not want to make up. Others do not even turn up: The no-show rate there is about 60 per cent.
The CDRT, which has jurisdiction on claims of up to $20,000, has more teeth. For unresolved disputes, the judge may order a hearing, in which he can make certain orders, like asking the neighbour to pay damages or apologise.
If the order is breached, the other party can apply for a Special Direction to ensure his neighbour complies. Penalties include a fine of up to $5,000, or up to three months' jail, or both for the first offence.
An Exclusion Order can also be applied to force the neighbour to move out of his home.
300 - Inquiries received by tribunals in first three months
85 - Pre-filing consultations held
27 - Actual court filings
The tribunals received nearly 300 inquiries in their first three months, with a total of 85 pre-filing consultations conducted.
These sessions have helped potential applicants save time and money, said the State Courts spokesman. They are free and allow applicants to understand court processes better and consider other ways to resolve spats.
Of the 27 cases, 60 per cent were complaints about excessive noise. The rest involved excessive smell, smoke, light or vibration as well as issues such as littering, obstruction, surveillance, trespassing and interfering with movable property.
Mediation centre getting fewer cases
The number of cases handled by the Community Mediation Centre (CMC) has fallen ever since the new community tribunals opened their doors to the public in October last year.
According to Ministry of Law data, the centre mediated 99 cases from October to December last year, a drop from 128 over the same period in 2014 and 118 cases in 2013.
Observers say residents frustrated with recalcitrant neighbours may have taken their cases straight to the Community Disputes Resolution Tribunals (CDRT) for legal recourse.
But a spokesman for the State Courts, which the CDRT comes under, noted that unlike the CMC, the tribunals do not conduct mediation.
Set up in 1998, the CMC allows residents to resolve relational, community and social disputes without litigation.
Trained volunteer mediators conduct mediation but attendance is voluntary. For the 440 cases mediated by the CMC last year, disputes between neighbours made up 72 per cent. They included cases ordered for mediation by the CDRT.
Said the State Courts spokesman: "In cases where parties have already gone for mediation at the CMC before filing a claim in the CDRT, the CDRT may still order them to go for mediation if it's of the view that it would be in the best interest of both parties to do so."
Those who fail to comply with the order to attend mediation commit contempt of court and face jail or a fine.
While the CDRT can make court orders, some aspects of its proceedings differ from those of a normal court. For example, lawyers are not allowed to represent the parties except in special cases.
Costs at the tribunals are lower than at other courts. The total cost at the CDRT is estimated to be $200, compared with $510 at a district court.
In dealing with noise complaints, the CDRT considers whether it is reasonable for such noise to be generated, as well as the time, duration and loudness of the noise.
In one case, neighbours with young children were supposedly making too much noise in the evenings. The parties were ordered by the CDRT to go for mediation at the CMC with their spouses, although they had previously gone for mediation before the claim was filed.
After two mediation sessions and three case-management conferences, the family with young children agreed to install carpets and put rubber studs on their chairs. The neighbour downstairs agreed to be more tolerant of noise that occurs before 9pm.
A claim dismissed by the CDRT involved an applicant complaining that the neighbour in the unit above hers cleaned her windows by splashing water, causing dirty water to seep into her flat regularly.
That neighbour was unresponsive when the applicant tried to engage her. But after a claim was filed at the CDRT, both were sent for mediation and had to attend two case-management conferences. In the end, the neighbour agreed to clean her windows using a damp cloth.
"Through the consultations at the pre-filing stage and court-referred mediations, most of the disputing parties were able to understand each other's concerns and points of contention, and managed to reach a mutually agreed settlement between themselves," said the State Courts spokesman. "We are encouraged by these outcomes."
Noting that the tribunals are not meant " to circumvent mediation", Dr William Wan, general secretary of the Singapore Kindness Movement, said: "The initial numbers are a good sign because they show that cases which can be resolved in other ways are being filtered out before they are heard at the tribunals.
"Having neighbours meet to settle differences must always remain the first and best option."