New law needed to tackle ‘problematic’ neighbours

By Pang Saw Pin and Datuk Chang Kim Loong

In this day and age with the advent of technology, there is plenty of information available online that can help or assist one to shop for the one’s elusive and perfect dream home.

More often than not, one will be advised to conduct the necessary due diligence on the property and legal owner.

However, one aspect that is often neglected is to check the calibre of those living next door.

In some cases, you would not even know who are your neighbours, especially when buying property in the primary market (direct from developer), and only come to suffer when you later find out your neighbour is a real pain.

Through no fault on your own, having a bad neighbour can take a huge toll on your life.

From rowdy mid-week or wee-hours parties to dogs that bark incessantly, the neighbour’s cat’s faeces at your doorstep and the excesses of inconsiderate neighbours are among the most annoying aspects in a community living.

Current ineffective legal framework

Legally speaking, the annoyance caused by your neighbour can be classified as nuisance, which is a branch or subset of the big tree of tort of law.

When confronted with such annoyance and after having exhausted all available diplomatic means and self-help remedies, such as having peaceful talk with the “hellish” neighbour, complaining to the local authority and lodging police report, but yet fail to yield the desired results at the end, then the last resort would be to take a legal action.

However, many will know this is not economically viable in most instances as legal fees are expensive and the case would be time consuming.

As such, this is the gap that needs legislative intervention from the government to address this prevailing social issue of dealing with problematic neighbours.

We need a law that can, among other things, facilitate the resolution of community disputes (with the neighbours next door) in a speedy, inexpensive and effective way.

As we seek to explore some possible features of our proposed new law, it may be instructive for us to refer to Singapore for its Community Disputes Resolution Act, 2015 (Singapore CDRA) as a starting guide.

New law modelled after Singapore’s CDRA

By taking the cue from the Singapore CDRA, there are few salient features that our proposed new law should encompass.

1. Residential Properties

Our proposed new law should only confine to residential properties, similar to the Singapore CDRA. It is also instructive to note the word ‘neighbour’ used in the Singapore CDRA, is a person who lives in the same building as you or lives within a 100-metre radius of your place of residence, but does not include a person who lives in the same place of residence as you.

2. Interference (nuisance)

Generally, in order to establish the tort of nuisance, one must prove that the act or omission of the neighbour has caused unreasonable interference with his or her enjoyment or use of the place of residence.

For better illustrations, the Singapore CDRA lists down ten (10) examples of interference by the neighbour (not exhaustive), namely:

These examples can serve as a guide to shed light on the prospective complainant when he or she is contemplating to file a claim in the tribunal (to be discussed next) for the interference caused by his or her neighbour.

It is important to note that whether or not a particular act tantamount to nuisance or unreasonable interference, it is ultimately up to the tribunal to decide having regard to the facts and circumstances of each case.

3. Dispute Resolution Mechanism: Tribunal

Central to our proposed new law is the establishment of a quasi-court in the form of tribunal, acting as an accessible and efficient platform for individuals to resolve their neighbour disputes.

By having a special tribunal for handling neighbour disputes, this ought to expedite the resolution of such disputes, as the proceedings are less formal compared to the conventional courts of law, and more importantly, cost- efficient.

As with any other tribunal, only the party to the proceedings can present his or her own case, without representation by any lawyer, unless otherwise ordered by the tribunal.

This special tribunal should be given powers to grant orders which could typically be made by the conventional courts, such as damages, specific performance, injunction, etc.

Perhaps, it may be a good idea to direct the parties involved to mandatorily attend mediation before the case is being heard by the judge, as mediation has a high success rate for a dispute of this nature.

It is foreseeable that there would be a limit on the monetary jurisdiction imposed on this special tribunal. In the Singapore CDRA, the maximum monetary order that its tribunal can grant is S$20,000.

As such, more studies and research need to be carried out in establishing the monetary jurisdiction for this special tribunal.

Further, all checklists, prescribed forms and documents necessary for the filing of a claim, as well as clear guidelines, processes, list of registration fees and ‘frequently-ask-questions’, should be made available on its website, so as to render it accessible, more user-friendly and easily understood by the general public.

Just like the proposed Residential Tenancy Act (RTA), it is high time that our law makers should give our proposal as put forth above a serious thought in order to put an end to the woes caused by the neighbours from hell.

Perhaps, the proposed law governing neighbourly behaviours be merged with the RTA to be wholesome.

However, as with any law enactment process, we should not just adopt the law from other countries blindly without taking into account of our very own social, culture and economy circumstances.

There needs to be robust discussions and in-depth studies by the relevant stakeholders before codifying this into a law and thus figuratively speaking, turning our neighbourhood into a better place to live.

This article is written by Pang Saw Pin, one of the Legal Advisors of the National House Buyers Association (HBA) and Datuk Chang Kim Loong, the Hon. Sec-Gen of HBA, a voluntary non-government and not-for-profit organisation.

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