SINGAPORE: Small Claims Tribunals (SCTs), which hear small claims between consumers and suppliers, has been strengthened to support more cases through amendments to legislation which Parliament passed on Monday (July 9).
Among the changes are raising the default limit of claims from S$10,000 to S$20,000. In situations where both parties have agreed, the claim limit can be raised from S$20,000 to S$30,000. The same limit is applied to group claims or class action cases to prevent high-stake cases for respondents.
The higher limits are similar to those in the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada, and reflects inflation and the rising costs of living over the years, said the Ministry of Law (MinLaw).
Senior Minister of Law Edwin Tong said that currently, about 9,000 cases filed at State Courts are claims of between the current limit of S$10,000 and the new limit of S$30,000.
"But bear in mind that this range includes, from S$20,000 to S$30,000, cases which can only be brought to the SCT with consent. There are also, on top of that, subject matter limitations in terms of the kinds of cases that can be brought [to the SCT]. So we don't expect the 9,000 to surface in the SCT. There will be a portion of those and certainly that is the reason for this amendment - to drive more claims to the SCT as far as possible," said Mr Tong.
MP for Tampines GRC Desmond Choo said the increment is particularly helpful for freelancers or those in the gig economy who rely on the SCT as a main recourse to pursue unpaid services or address disputes.
"This is especially so as the monetary value of their services increase over time. I also suggest that MinLaw work with the tripartite partners to develop industry-specific claims mechanisms to help our freelancers. While the claims process has been simplified over the years, the process can be intimidating for many freelancers," Mr Choo added.
The time limit of filing an SCT claim has also been raised from a year to two years to give parties more time to negotiate and settle their disputes, and ensure they have sufficient time to file a claim.
HIRE-PURCHASE CLAIMS INCLUDED
Claims involving hire-purchase agreements such as motor vehicle sale contracts will be covered under the SCT.
MP for Tanjong Pagar GRC Joan Pereira said that the inclusion of disputes involving hire-purchase, which have been a popular mode of transactions, is good.
“Concerned family members have shared with me about how their elderly family members would get pressured into buying things. This particularly applies to hire-purchase items whereby they were usually misled by the low upfront costs, only to regret when they realise later that the full payable amount is in fact much higher,” Ms Pereira said.
With the extension of the limitation period of disputes, those consumers who are bound by a hire-purchase agreement, which typically runs beyond a year, will be able to tap on the SCT for disputes, she said.
MP for Jurong GRC Rahayu Mahzam and MP for Mountbatten SMC Lim Biow Chuan asked if MinLaw would consider including more claims types such as written personal loans, injury and property damage claims, and rental deposits in the future.
“Recently, when oBike announced that they are ceasing to operate in Singapore, many consumers wanted to submit their claims to SCT to ask for the refund of the rental deposits. However, Section 5 of the SCT Act does not provide for claims for refund of rental deposits. May I urge the Ministry to consider reviewing all common consumer claims and to expand the jurisdiction of the SCT to cover more common consumer disputes?,” Mr Lim said.
Mr Tong said that MinLaw will study and continue to review these new forms of transactions arising from new consumer behavior at a later stage.
"These claims for unreturned deposits ... do cause a degree of angst but they are also new types of claims ... and so whilst the claims do exists and they do need to be resolved, I think it'll be necessary to study them and the ecosystem in which they occur to determine the extent to which they are suitable for resolution by the SCT," he said.
JUDGE TO PRESIDE OVER CLAIMS
The Tribunal will adopt a judge-led approach, so that they can guide the parties to adduce the relevant evidence before the tribunal. “This will help to focus the attention of parties on key issues, and lead to cost and time savings for all,” Mr Tong said.
Tribunal magistrates will also be given powers and discretion to dismiss claims, and impose costs in certain situations.
MP for West Coast GRC Patrick Tay said that the SCT offers a user-friendly and community-oriented approach to claims between parties, and this must continue through its informal nature.
“Care must be taken to reduce the use of jargon and legalese and maintain the use of simplified procedures so that laypersons are not intimidated when presenting their cases at the SCTs,” Mr Tay said
Non-Constituency MP Dennis Tan said that claimants and respondents are handle their own claims and deal directly with tribunal magistrates without lawyers. Hence it is important that that “SCT and its staff and migrates will always be motivated to balance the imperative of efficiency with justice and public service”.
The changes come after a public consultation conducted by MinLaw from December last year to January this year.