Parliamentarians have recently voiced concern over "deadlocked" community disputes in which one party refuses to mediate a settlement.
While there have not been any recent neighbourhood disputes of the severity of the Everitt Road case in 2002, which ultimately ended up in the Subordinate Courts, some 70,000 complaints from neighbours, largely over noise problems, are received by public agencies each year.
The proposed Community Dispute Tribunal (CDT) seeks to "strengthen the framework for the management of community disputes" and present a viable channel for settling difficult cases between neighbours in conflict.
The CDT follows the establishment of the Community Mediation Centre (CMC) in October 1997 to mediate community disputes. Since 1998, the CMC has mediated in some 7,000 cases.
Despite the large number of reported disputes annually, however, less than 1 per cent turned up for CMC mediation. Of the 1,500 applications for dispute resolution registered by the CMC, at least one of the parties concerned failed to show up in 60 per cent of cases. The new tribunal is designed to address this problem.
Mediation is a voluntary forum where a neutral third party facilitates dispute settlement by getting the parties to work out mutually acceptable solutions and come up with an agreement. The proposed tribunal, in contrast, will have stronger powers to compel parties to attend mediation sessions and even arbitrate.
Orders made by the proposed CDT will be deemed to be equivalent to that made by a district court, and will be enforceable as such. There are similar tribunals and dispute resolution forums in other communities overseas, such as New Zealand's community tribunal, Norway's Konflikt-rad and San Francisco's community boards. Each has its own problems.
The 450 community mediation centres in Norway, established since 1991, have been criticised for "becoming more like the institutions that they were supposed to be alternatives to", namely the court system, complete with an adversarial and adjudicatory process that tends to deepen conflict rather than heal relationships.