A proposed law that sets out penalties for those who cause unreasonable disturbance to their neighbours would help deal with severe disputes, but only as a last resort, said MPs interviewed.
Under the Community Disputes Resolution Bill introduced in Parliament on Monday, offenders may be fined up to $5,000 or jailed for up to three months for a first offence.
But these would be meted out only if the offender breaches a court order issued by a tribunal proposed under the Bill. It will have the power to order the offender to pay damages of up to $20,000, or apologise, for instance.
Offensive actions cited as examples in the Bill include causing excessive noise or smell, or allowing one's pet to urinate near a neighbour's home.
The Bill is designed in a "step-wise fashion", said Jurong GRC MP Desmond Lee, who is Minister of State for National Development. "We want the neighbours to be able to solve problems among themselves first, and the penalties are only for situations that escalate to an acrimonious level."
MPs said they trust that judges have the discretion to mete out penalties fairly. Sembawang GRC MP Vikram Nair, for instance, said it was unlikely for a first-time offender to be jailed. Mr Zaqy Mohamad, MP for Chua Chu Kang GRC, added that it would be fair for neighbours to pay compensation if a resident's home has been damaged as a result of an offending neighbour's actions. Mr Nair and Tampines GRC MP Irene Ng said having such legal sanctions was important.
Currently, neighbours can seek help at the Community Mediation Centre (CMC) if they cannot resolve disputes either on their own or with the help of grassroots leaders. But the centre cannot issue legal orders, and there is little the authorities can do if neighbours do not want to make up.
Said Ms Ng: "The critical point is that people know that they can be hauled to court for causing unreasonable disturbance to neighbours and, hopefully, this will help shape behaviour."
More importantly, if the law is passed, the tribunal can order neighbours to go for compulsory mediation - a key move, given the dismal attendance at the CMC. Currently, attendance is not compulsory, and the no-show rate is 60 per cent. Mediation helps: The resolution rate is 75 per cent for cases where the neighbours show up.
"I've had residents tell me they don't want to go for mediation because their blood pressure will go up or they will have a heart attack if they meet the other party," said Mr Lee.
"With the Bill compelling neighbours to mediate, at least there would be an opportunity for the community mediator to try and work things out between the neighbours."
The Bill will likely be debated in Parliament early next month.
This article was first published on Jan 24, 2015.
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