Town councils to take legal action only as last resort

Two pre-action protocols for town council prosecutions are to be implemented next month. These will prescribe steps that must be taken before initiating criminal prosecution for some offences, including unlawfully parking a vehicle.
Two pre-action protocols for town council prosecutions are to be implemented next month. These will prescribe steps that must be taken before initiating criminal prosecution for some offences, including unlawfully parking a vehicle.ST FILE PHOTO

New approach for some offences among steps to refine court processes

Residents who run afoul of town council bylaws or fail to pay service and conservancy charges (S&CC) will face court action only if they fail to settle their offences through new protocols.

The new approach of making legal action a last resort is part of a slew of new initiatives unveiled by the State Courts yesterday at their annual Workplan seminar to refine court processes and better serve users.

Other initiatives include pre-action protocols that seek to encourage negotiations towards settlement of defamation offences before writs are filed.

Justice See Kee Oon, the presiding judge of the State Courts, said yesterday that two pre-action protocols for town council prosecutions are slated for implementation next month.

These will prescribe steps that a council must take before initiating criminal prosecution for some regulatory offences under the Town Councils Act. These offences include unlawfully parking a vehicle on common property, obstruction of common property and non-payment of S&CC charges.

These offences - which are considered low-level and punishable with fines only - accounted for more than 95 per cent of all the town council cases that were filed in the State Courts last year.

Nearly 86 per cent were settled. The charges were then withdrawn - but not before a lot of time and public resources were spent.

  • Other key initiatives

  • Consolidating management of volunteer mediators under the State Courts Centre for Dispute Resolution to enable them to oversee their appointment or reappointment, and map their training requirements.

    •Rolling out learning and development initiatives every year to encourage court administrators to upgrade their skillsets.

    •Establishing a cost-effective and time-saving option for parties to conduct their civil trials and hearings on assessment of damages with documents only. Parties involved in low-value disputes save time and costs as witnesses do not need to attend hearings and give oral evidence, leading to shorter trials.

    •Establishing an alternative dispute resolution tool so parties can resolve their disputes without going to trial.

    •Streamlining the Magistrate's complaint process.

    •Leveraging on technology to set up a transcription system that recognises human voice and transcribes speech and oral evidence into text in real time, allowing parties and the courts to conduct their cases in a more expeditious manner.

There are viable and cheaper alternatives to this, Justice See said. These include engaging the offender on a mutually agreeable solution such as an instalment plan. This would allow early settlement of claims at a lower cost before initiating criminal action.

In cases involving non-payment of S&CC, a council must issue at least two notices to the resident before issuing a statutory demand. Councils can also consider filing most of their S&CC claims in the Small Claims Tribunals to recover outstanding payments, said the State Courts.

"The diversion of such offenders away from the criminal justice system also means that valuable court time and resources can be channelled elsewhere," they noted.

The State Courts added that all the town councils they engaged have indicated that they are agreeable in principle to the initiative, which could help them identify residents who face real difficulties in paying the S&CC arrears or composition amounts.

Workers' Party MP Pritam Singh said the Aljunied-Hougang Town Council will support the initiative.

Mr Lim Biow Chuan, MP for Mountbatten, told The Straits Times yesterday: "We are already doing some of the things they asked us to do. When residents are in arrears, we send three reminders. After the third reminder, we send our property manager to visit them.

"For those in financial difficulty, we try to work out an instalment plan with them. Those with long-term financial difficulty are referred to the Social Service Office, and will get assistance to pay. We are generally slow to take legal action, unless they ignore our reminders or don't talk to our property manager."

Mr Lim added: "We hope to engage the State Courts to find out more and whether we are far from what they are prescribing. If we are already in compliance with the protocol, then I don't have an issue with it."

There were also measures aimed at reducing costly and time-consuming defamation proceedings, including introducing protocols to guide parties on the technicalities in defamation actions, ways to improve the quality of pleadings and to encourage constructive negotiations towards settlement.

There were at least 50 defamation writs filed each year between 2013 and last year, peaking at 79 in 2016. This was due to the growth of social media and instant messaging platforms, which also facilitate repeated publication.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 10, 2018, with the headline 'Town councils to take legal action only as last resort'. Print Edition | Subscribe