Help, I have a difficult neighbour!

Help, I have a difficult neighbour!

‘Love thy neighbour’ is a pretty simple commandment to follow – it simply means respecting others in your neighbourhood and being considerate with one another. Nevertheless, there are always a few bad apples out there who will test your patience or worse, cause harm to you and your family.

What are the vital acts, rules and regulations that Malaysian homeowners must be aware of to ensure that they are both not flouting the law and that their own rights are being protected?

The relevant laws regulating disputes between neighbours are not found in a single statute. Instead, different laws apply, depending on the issue involved.

In relation to issues of damage of adjoining properties, encroachment and trespass of land, causing obstruction and nuisance to neighbours, the relevant laws are found in case laws which are essentially a body of case decisions made by the courts in the past.

The local authorities are empowered by the Local Government Act 1976 (Act 171) to deal with filthy or overcrowded houses and certain types of nuisances which include those arising from animals kept at a premise, overcrowding of buildings and accumulation or deposit which will likely become a breeding place for mosquitoes, flies or any vermin.

For stratified developments, there are statutory by-laws in the Strata Management (Maintenance & Management) Regulations 2015 which set out the do’s and don’ts when staying in the building. For example, owners are expected to maintain sanitary fittings, utility pipes and apparatus in good condition so as not to cause leakages to other parcels and not to cause nuisance or danger to any other proprietor/resident.

Pursuant to the statutory by-laws, owners are also prohibited from using their parcel contrary to the terms of use shown in the plan approved by the relevant authority. The management body of a stratified development may propose and pass additional bylaws during general meetings. Additional rules may include safety and security issues, the keeping of pets or guests’ freedom in utilizing limited common properties.

Sometimes, additional rules governing the enjoyment of property are also spelt out in the Deed of Mutual Covenants (DMC), also known as ‘House Rules’. The DMC is commonly signed together with the sale and purchase agreement (SPA) and it binds the developer/management body and purchaser(s). Therefore, strata residents are encouraged to at least have a basic understanding of the applicable by-laws and DMC.

What are the legal options/course of action and reliefs available for homeowners when it comes to neighbourly disputes? For instance, are there legal remedies against noisy neighbours?

For stratified developments, the management body (developer/ JMB/MC) is given the responsibility under the Strata Management Act (SMA) 2013 to enforce by-laws (including additional by-laws) which include prohibitions against nuisance. The law provides that the management body may, by a resolution at a general meeting, impose a collectively-agreed on penalty sum upon offenders. These fines shall be a debt due to the management body and upon payment shall be deposited into the maintenance account.

In the event of a by-law breach by a proprietor, he shall at his own costs immediately remedy or make good the breach to the management body’s satisfaction. The costs incurred by the management body in carrying out any repairs caused by the breach shall also become a debt due to the management body.

In the event a management body fails, neglects or refuses to enforce a by-law, an owner is entitled to file a claim to the Strata Management Tribunal (SMT) which has the power under the SMA 2013 to hear and determine this issue.

In respect of nuisance which falls under the purview of Act 171, a complaint may be lodged with the respective local authorities. The local authorities are given enforcement powers such as the power to issue a notice requiring abatement of nuisances to the relevant persons.

If the demand stated in the notice is not complied with, the Magistrate Court may issue an abatement order, a closing order or both.

For non-stratified developments or for disputes that fall out of the by-law realm (for strata developments), the matter will be dealt with in the court of law. This is provided that there is no hope said dispute can be settled amicably between the opposing parties.

The usual remedies asked for in court include permanent injunction to restrain the neighbour at fault from continuing the wrongdoings and also a court order for monetary compensation to make good of the damage suffered. When the wrongdoings are serious and need to be put to a halt immediately, the aggrieved party may apply to the court for an interlocutory injunction, which is a temporary order restraining the wrongdoings pending the disposal of the suit.

How can we all be better neighbours and avoid disputes altogether? What are your tips for fostering better neighbourly relationships?

Proper and constant communication between neighbours is the key to avoid disputes. Whenever issues arise between neighbours, a gentle and non-confrontational approach should be adopted to communicate the problem. Neighbours should also practise empathy and be sensitive towards the needs of others. 

One of the ways to foster better neighbourly relationships is for residents to take part or organize community activities such as open house/gatherings, gotong-royong and community patrol programmes.

It is understandable that many have busy and demanding lives but we should all strive to take some time out to socialise with our community. To quote a famous prose, “No man is an island” – a strong and friendly community can watch out for one another and help improve neighbourhood security as well.

So be proactive today; you will be surprised by how much good cheer and the odd small talk can make a difference!