Asia Law Network is collaborating with 99.co to bring great property-related legal content to readers of both blogs. In this article, Lawyer Anil Lalwani talks about neighbour disputes.
Disputes between neighbours can a big problem
With 80% of Singapore’s population living in high-rise buildings, disputes are likely to flare up between neighbours.
The number of disputes between neighbours in Singapore has long hogged newspaper headlines, and sparked off many discussions about shocking behaviour displayed in each complaint of neighbour’s disputes.
Common sources of disputes between neighbours
There are many reasons why neighbours might quarrel, but data has shown that almost 70% of neighbour disputes involve excessive noise. Excessive noise attributed to running and stomping, noisy pets, nosier students or party-going tenants with the habit of speaking loudly after their exhilarating night out. From time to time, you have inconsiderate neighbours who play loud music in their homes oblivious to the rest of the world. Other bugbear complaints include littering or neighbours blocking access with personal belongings in the corridors. If you tried moving their personal belongings, you are in for an unwarranted quarrel.
Noisy or inconsiderate neighbours lead to complaints being made. When complaints go unheard, they lead to irritated complainants desperate to stop the nuisance in their neighbourhood. If no action is taken to stop the nuisance promptly, every complainant then hopes to find his or her justice with the Courts.
A surprising number of people turn to the law to solve intractable disputes
There are two main methods by which complainants turn to the law to solve their disputes.
The first is the Community Mediation Centre (CMC), which was established in 1998 to resolve disputes without escalating cases to the Courts.
Based on statistics gathered by the CMC, the centre has seen more than 8,000 community disputes over its history, with 459 cases mediated in 2015. The CMC reports unfortunately only a 76% success rate when it comes to mediating cases, with unsuccessful cases mostly resulting in civil lawsuits.
Despite the efforts of hardworking mediators at CMC tackling issues of the parties, the mediators’ hands are tied in that CMC does not have the power to issue legal orders, or to compel respondent neighbours to appear at the mediation sessions. If equipped with this information, respondent neighbours would be shrewd to avoid the mediation sessions altogether.
The second method is the recently established limb of the States Court operating as the “Community Disputes Resolution Tribunal”.
The Community Disputes Resolution Tribunal
The Community Disputes Resolution Tribunal (CDRT) was established in October 2015, drawing its legislative powers from the Community Disputes Resolution Act (2015), to tackle difficult and intractable disputes that cannot be resolved at the CMC. It is a last-ditch effort by the Courts to help affected parties resolve their issues before considering a civil suit in the Courts. The CDRT’s decision has binding effect.
The CDRT has comparatively more powers than the CMC. The CDRT can order a hearing and it also has the power to compel a respondent neighbour to pay for damages or to extract an apology or an undertaking. The CDRT can grant Special Direction orders – which ensures compliance by the neighbour to obey a Court Order or to order a more draconian Exclusion Order, which can force the respondent neighbour to move out of their home.
Based on statistics compiled by the State Courts in its 2016 Annual Report, there were 90 disputes between neighbours that were projected to be filed for the case to be heard before the tribunal under the Community Disputes Resolution Act.
Frequently asked questions
Question 1: I have a dispute with my neighbour. Can I file a complaint against him under the Community Disputes Resolution Act?
Under Section 4 of the Community Disputes Resolution Act, you are only allowed to file a complaint against your neighbour if your neighbour causes “unreasonable interference” with your enjoyment or use of your current residence. This “unreasonable interference” can be caused by a deliberate or accidental act, so long as it directly or indirectly causes:
- Excessive noise, smell, smoke, light or vibration;
- Littering at, or around the vicinity of your residence;
- An obstruction to your residence – via the placement of an object or something – at or around your house;
- Interference with your movable property (e.g. your potted plants are moved around);
- Surveillance of you, or your residence;
- Trespassing into your residence;
- An animal owned by, or under the care and control of the neighbour, trespass into your residence, and cause excessive noise or smell, or to defecate or urinate at, or near your residence.
In this context, a “neighbour” is defined as someone who lives either in the same building as you or within 100 metres of you; and does not reside in the same house as you.
Question 2: So how do I bring my neighbour to court?
If you have a dispute with your neighbour, you are encouraged to only turn to the Community Disputes Resolution Tribunal as a means of last resort.
You should first attempt to work out a solution with your neighbour, and then attempt mediation with the help of Grassroots Leaders and/or the Community Mediation Centre. Only after those two options have failed, you may then bring your case to the Tribunal.
In order to file your claim for the Tribunal to examine your case, you will need to submit a completed Claim form to the Community Justice and Tribunals Division at the State Courts. As part of this claim, you will need:
- Your Identification Card, or other forms of personal identification;
- Your neighbour’s full name and address; and
- Evidence of the act(s) of “unreasonable interference” by the neighbour (e.g. photographs, videos, police and/or medical reports, printouts of the emails, etc).
After filing your Claim and submitting the evidence, you must give your neighbour a copy of the claim and the evidence within 14 days. After which, your neighbour has another 14 days from the date of receiving your claim and evidence to object to, or contest the claim.
A Pre-Trial Conference date will be given for you and the neighbour to appear before a Judge. Do note that the Judge may order you and/or the neighbour to attend mediation or counselling if he feels there is still room for parties to mediate to resolve their issues.
If the dispute cannot be resolved, then both you and the respondent neighbour will be directed for a hearing where parties will receive details on the day and time of the hearing.
Once the hearing is completed and all the evidence considered, the Judge will make his ruling and may issue an Order allowing damages to the aggrieved party, an order to prevent the other party from doing (or not doing) something that affects you, or an apology from the neighbour to you.
Question 3: How much would it cost?
After an initial filing fee of $150 for each application (before any additional charges or fees), you would not need to pay anything for the first day of hearing. The second and third day or hearing, you will need to pay $100 for each day. From the fourth day onwards, you would need to pay $250 for each day of the hearing. By having a progressive fee structure for such cases, it acts as an incentive for you and your neighbour to resolve the case as soon as possible, instead of letting it drag out unnecessarily in court.
The Judges are very mindful of parties not wasting the Court’s time and resources and would often guide parties to focus on their evidence to save the Court’s time on the evidence presented. Lawyers are not allowed to represent their clients in this Tribunal. Non-legal representatives will only be allowed for minors or those who are unable to represent themselves.
Question 4: The branches of my neighbour’s tree are overhanging into my land. Can I hire a contractor to cut off the branches that are dangerously hanging over? I am worried it may cause some injury to me and my family.
The generally accepted legal position is that the law allows the affected neighbour to cut the branches that protrude over his land but he must not keep any fruit found on those branches. Although it is not often you would find fruits on protruding branches. It is also crucial that cutting the branches may be necessary if it poses a danger or a hazard to the other party. It will be reasonable for you to first contact your neighbour to seek his or consent before taking matters into your own hands. You may well be able to negotiate with your neighbour to get them to bear the costs of removing the dangerous or protruding branches.
Question 5: My neighbour appears to have rented out all of his flat to some Chinese ladies. Of late, I have noticed that these Chinese girls bring different men to the flat and they make a lot of noise and blast the music till late. They are strangers and I have never seen these people before. Their guests would litter the corridor with cigarette butts and stand in the corridor smoking away and blocking the access to my place. I am not even sure if my neighbour is living in the flat. I have told my neighbour about this issue several times but he seems to do nothing about it.
As a neighbour, the initial concerns would be to consider whether your neighbour is permitted to sub-let out his flat in its entirety. Some HDB units are only permit partial sub-letting of the flat. Second, you would want to ensure that these tenants are entitled to live and work in Singapore and are not illegal immigrants. The penalties of a landlord harbouring illegal workers or those without proper permit or authority to stay in Singapore are stiff and it is a serious offence.
With regard to the excessive noise and littering, you should first engage your respondent neighbour of your complaints and monitor if the progress of the noise and litter improves. If you continue to be aggrieved by the neighbour, then your course of action is to raise it with your Grassroot or RC members. If internal mediation fails, then you may need the assistance of the Community Mediation Centre. If the matter persists, you may have little choice but to seek the help of the Community Disputes Resolution Tribunal.
Question 6: I have seen my MP, my Resident Committee Chairman, the CMC and I have a pending hearing at the Community Disputes Resolution Tribunal. Nothing has worked so far. In fact, my neighbour has been hounding me and my family and has threatened my children. I am really fed up with my neighbour’s cats mewing away in the middle of the night and the unbearable smell. Can I proceed with a civil suit and sue my neighbour for all the nuisance? What if the Tribunal’s outcome is unfavourable? Can I appeal?
It is completely understandable that you are feeling a sense of anxiety and despair. Allow for the hearing at the Community Disputes Resolution Tribunal to be completed first as you may get an outcome which is reasonable to you. If the outcome is unfavourable for whatever reasons, you may appeal but your scope of appeal is limited. You may only appeal on a point of law or on the jurisdiction of the tribunal or on the special orders granted by the presiding Judge of the Tribunal. It would be advisable to consult a lawyer to assess if there are any grounds to appeal the decision of the Tribunal.
It is important that you do not take matters into your own hands as it may escalate into a case for harassment and your neighbour may then claim that he or she has been harassed by you and your actions. Harassment includes both physical and verbal abuse.
The Community Disputes Resolution Act does not prevent you from electing to pursue a civil suit by engaging lawyers to prepare and submit your claim. If you elect to proceed with a civil action, your solicitors will help you to frame your case on the evidence you have and to guide you accordingly. If you elect to pursue your claim with the Community Disputes Resolution Tribunal, then your remedies are as defined in the Act and your scope for appeal is limited. However, you should be aware that the legal costs of pursuing a civil matter are significantly more expensive.
With all said, it is recommended to try to settle your disputes with limited Court involvement if possible. It is a lot less stressful, costly and time-consuming if you can work things out amicably with your neighbour. Do try to have a reasonable conversation with your neighbour first before choosing to escalate things.
If your neighbour is unreasonable and you cannot reach an agreement with your neighbour, you may then turn to mediation through CMC. If you are still unsuccessful in obtaining your outcome, you have the option of referring your matter to the Tribunal or to pursue a civil suit. Whichever option you choose, do consider your resources, whether it is time, costs or the anguish of going through the Court process. Matters may become more acrimonious if minor disputes are escalated to the Courts. All efforts should be taken for neighbours to live harmoniously.
Have a legal question?
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This article does not constitute legal advice or a legal opinion on any matter discussed and, accordingly, it should not be relied upon. It should not be regarded as a comprehensive statement of the law and practice in this area. If you require any advice or information, please speak to a practicing lawyer in your jurisdiction. No individual who is a member, partner, shareholder or consultant of, in or to any constituent part of Interstellar Group Pte. Ltd. accepts or assumes responsibility, or has any liability, to any person in respect of this article.