SINGAPORE: An inter-agency committee is conducting a “comprehensive review” of the Community Dispute Management Framework that helps to manage disputes between neighbours.
Authorities could, for instance, make it compulsory for parties to turn up for mediation and counselling.
Speaking in Parliament on Tuesday (Mar 2), Second Minister for Law Edwin Tong said the review will focus on resolving disputes up front, increasing the take-up of community mediation and improving the Community Disputes Resolution Tribunal (CDRT) process.
The committee comprises the Ministry of Law, Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth, Ministry of National Development and the Ministry of Home Affairs.
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Authorities have seen a rise in feedback on neighbourly nuisance in the past year, probably due to more staying home during the COVID-19 "circuit breaker" period, Mr Tong said during his ministry's Committee of Supply speech.
"First, we will look at how neighbourly disputes can be better managed and resolved upfront," he said.
"When the disagreements arise, we need to quickly identify and address the root cause of the issues. This helps to preserve the goodwill before it festers and progressively tapers down. And also in this context, community leaders can play a big role."
If informal resolution fails, parties can opt to go for community mediation or take the case to the CDRT.
Mr Tong said the committee is looking into measures to increase the take-up of community mediation, including raising awareness on the benefits of mediation.
Mr Tong added that community mediation is affordable and effective when parties approach it with open minds, pointing out that more than 80 per cent of cases mediated at the Community Mediation Centre reached an amicable settlement.
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"The challenge, however, is getting parties to mediation. Because mediation is largely voluntary, there are also many parties who refuse to turn up for mediation, and that can arise from any number of different reasons peculiar to the case," he said.
"This is not healthy for the neighbourly relationship in the longer term, and my ministry acknowledges that we can look at how we can improve the take-up rate of mediation, perhaps make it compulsory. And these are areas we are studying seriously."
The committee will consider suggestions by Members of Parliament on "compulsory mediation and counselling", he said, adding that it will also explore a suggestion of continuing to track a case even after it has been disposed of in the CDRT.
COMMUNITY DISPUTES RESOLUTION TRIBUNAL
As for the CDRT, Mr Tong said this should be a last resort, as these proceedings are not structured to help parties mend their relationship, and cannot supervise or monitor how parties behave after the end of the proceedings.
"There are limits to what the courts in the adjudicatory process can do. The courts are ultimately arbiters of who is legally right and who is legally wrong, and it is a binary zero-sum game," he said.
And while CDRT proceedings are "designed to be quick and straightforward", they are delicate and often challenging, the minister added.
Mr Tong said the committee will consider if legislation needs to be clarified to help parties that find it difficult to gather evidence to support their claim, and prevent proceedings from being "unreasonably and unnecessarily onerous".
"This is even though the CDRT is not itself bound strictly by the rules of evidence, and proceedings are judge-led," he said.
Mr Tong said the committee will also consider if the CDRT could make interim orders, especially in cases of severe and continuing nuisance.
It will also close gaps in addressing respondents who willfully refuse to comply with the CDRT’s order, and look at whether current measures are sufficient to protect communities from anti-social, nuisance behaviour.
"In one egregious case, the respondent started to create a different type of nuisance not covered by the CDRT order, presumably to spite the claimant after having gone through the process," he said.
"If a party does not comply with a CDRT order, the CDRT may issue a Special Direction."
Non-compliance with a Special Direction is a criminal offence, and can also result in a court order that excludes the offending party from his or her place of residence, Mr Tong said.
A total of 24 Special Directions have been issued for egregious cases as of the end of last year, with two Exclusion Orders issued, he said.
Since the CDRT started operations in 2015, 591 claims have been filed as of the end of last year, with more than one in five ordered to undergo mediation.
Mr Tong said the majority of cases are resolved within six months, while the remainder are resolved within 12 months and a handful of cases take longer than 12 months.
"Whilst we can introduce more and enhanced measures, ultimately at the end of the day, it is fundamental for neighbours to maintain a culture of open communication, mutual respect and understanding," he added.
"And to the extent possible, may I ask that Members also refer parties and encourage them to attend mediation, given that mediators are well-trained and the numbers at the Community Mediation Centre have proven successful at resolving these disputes."
PROTECTION FROM HARASSMENT ACT
Mr Tong also gave an update on the Protection from Harassment Act (POHA), with 853 applications for Protection Orders (PO) filed as of the end of last year.
"This includes applications by victims of sexual and workplace harassment, online harassment, as well as harassment by neighbours," he said.
"Data based on types of harassment are currently not available, but the State Courts are looking into enhancing the case management system to capture and track such data."
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Of the 853 PO applications filed, 135 cases were sent for mediation. A total of 366 Expedited Protection Orders were granted, meaning the Courts granted interim relief in more than four in 10 applications.
A total of 348 POs were granted, of which more than half were granted with the consent of both parties. "This suggests that a good number of cases were resolved amicably," Mr Tong said.
The remaining applications were either withdrawn, dismissed, struck off or are pending resolution.
Over the years, Mr Tong said the Government has strengthened protections available under POHA by creating new offences like doxxing and introducing new remedies for victims of online falsehoods.
As of the end of last year, 29 cases of doxxing have been filed in the State Courts.
The dedicated Protection from Harassment Courts will also begin operations this year, Mr Tong said, noting that it will simplify procedures and expedite timelines for certain types of applications.
"We will continue to monitor the effectiveness of the 2019 amendments, and provide a more holistic assessment after the POHA Court has been in operation for some time," he added.
DIGITALISING LEGAL PROCESSES
Mr Tong also touched on the digitalisation of legal processes, saying the pandemic has accelerated the shift towards non-traditional modes of court hearings where both litigants and counsel may not be present before the judge in the same physical location.
These include conducting hearings through video-link or based on documents filed by parties - measures that have been "positively received" by court users and members of the Bar, Mr Tong said.
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"We will build on these successes and facilitate the technological transformation of our court system, and expand the existing scope of non-traditional modes of hearing," he added.
"This will of course be subject to appropriate safeguards to ensure that the propriety, integrity and fairness of the hearing, which are ultimately of paramount consideration, will be upheld.
"These changes will help the courts to improve the efficiency and accessibility of court processes, and also lower the cost of dispute-resolution for litigants."
Mr Tong acknowledged challenges faced by law practices, especially smaller firms, in having to invest time and effort to identify, curate and integrate technology into their workflows.
Therefore, the Ministry of Law is planning to develop an integrated Legal Tech Platform that unifies law firms’ existing technology tools, Mr Tong said.
The platform will be designed specifically to facilitate legal workflows from end-to-end, enabling law practitioners and lawyers to work anytime and anywhere, he said.
"It will have a single unified user interface for lawyers to access the functionalities, such as case and document management, as part of the existing tools," he added.
"It will also allow lawyers and clients to collaborate easily on legal matters via a one-stop-shop platform as far as technically feasible."
This platform will allow them to share documents and jointly work on such documents on this platform, and aggregate client communications from platforms such as Microsoft Teams and Slack.
"The platform will aim to supplement and support existing legal technology adopted by firms," he added.
"We aim to make lawyers ultimately comfortable with using the existing tools and at the same time going onto the platform and adopting these new legal solutions."
HELPING LAW STUDENTS AND FRESH GRADUATES
As for law students and fresh graduates, Mr Tong said the Law Ministry will continue to work with institutions to finetune curriculums and ensure that law students are well-equipped to meet changing demands in the legal practice.
"This will also include changes to the practice training regime, which MinLaw has accepted in principle, and which it will be working with stakeholders to implement in 2023," he said.
The changes include completing one year of practice training with a firm instead of the current six months, after passing the Singapore Bar examinations.
MP Hany Soh (PAP-Marsiling-Yew Tee) then asked if the ministry could consider expanding the list of places where law graduates can serve their training contracts, including the Law Society's pro bono services where manpower is needed.
"We certainly encourage lawyers to take part in pro bono services and offer their services, and anything we can do to promote that area, we will consider," Mr Tong responded.
"Having said that, a training contract is for the purposes of ensuring that the trainee lawyer comes through to the market, is able to serve and practise in the market.
"So it may not be feasible to just serve a training contract in the Law Society's pro bono office. But that can be certainly one factor and one aspect of practice that they can look into."