SINGAPORE — Consumers taking their disputes to the Small Claims Tribunals will be able to file for claim amounts of up to S$20,000, and the types of claims heard by the tribunals will also be expanded to include hire-purchase agreements.
The Small Claims Tribunals Act was amended on Monday (July 9) after a debate in Parliament, with the changes slated to come into effect at a later date.
Mr Edwin Tong, Senior Minister of State for Law, said that the higher claims limit from the S$10,000 now is to reflect inflation and the rising costs of living, and it will be comparable to those in other countries such as the United Kingdom and Australia.
While the majority of the Members of Parliament (MPs) welcomed revisions to the Bill, some said during the debate that the new threshold is still too low, because the costs of some items and services easily exceed the claims amount.
The last time the limit was changed was in 1997.
The Small Claims Tribunals, which are part of the State Courts, provide a quick and inexpensive way for consumers and suppliers to resolve transaction disputes.
Other MPs also called for newer forms of claims to be included, such as claims for refunds of rental deposits placed with shared-transport operators, as they highlighted the recent news that bike-sharing firm oBike suddenly stopped operations here without refunding users their deposits.
Mr Tong said that the move to expand the jurisdiction of the tribunals is to "strengthen access to justice by allowing the tribunals to hear more claims in a quicker and more cost-effective manner".
The latest changes came after a three-week public consultation which ran from Dec 21 last year to Jan 11 this year.
The default claims limit is now set at S$10,000, which can be increased to S$20,000 if all parties agree. This limit will be revised to S$20,000, which can be increased to S$30,000 with the consent of all parties.
Some MPs, including Mr Patrick Tay (West Coast GRC) and Desmond Choo (Tampines GRC), supported the revision, saying it will be a boon for claimants, and especially freelance workers who take their clients to task through the tribunals for non-payment of work done under their service contracts.
However, Ms Rahayu Mahzam (Jurong GRC) said there might be concerns that the new limit is "still too low". Litigation costs, for example, even for claims slightly above S$30,000, "can sometimes be quite high", she added.
Ms Joan Pereira (Tanjong Pagar GRC) would like to see a higher default limit of S$50,000 because in many claims involving home renovations, for instance, the bill often runs "much higher".
Mr Saktiandi Supaat, MP for Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC, and Nominated Member of Parliament K Thanaletchimi lauded the inclusion of hire-purchase claims, noting that retailers are increasingly allowing instalment payments, and such a norm should be taken into consideration.
To increase awareness, Mr Saktiandi suggested that a clause should be included in hire-purchase agreements to inform both sellers and buyers that they can turn to the Small Claims Tribunals should disputes arise.
COMMON CONSUMER CLAIMS
Mountbatten MP Lim Biow Chuan proposed that the Ministry of Law consider reviewing all common consumer claims and to expand the jurisdiction of the Small Claims Tribunals to cover more common consumer disputes.
Many people wanted to submit their claims to get a refund of the rental deposits with oBike, but the law does not provide for this, he said.
Mr Tong replied that the ministry will "continue to periodically review the claims limits and also the type of claims that should come before the tribunals, to ensure that they continue to remain relevant given societal changes".
Hire-purchase claims, for example, were included because it has become "more prevalent", he added.
In changing the law, the Government seeks to strike a balance between "enhancing access to justice and ensuring that the tribunals stay true to the purpose of providing effective and swift redress for small claims".
"If the tribunals' jurisdiction is expanded too far, they will have to deal with not just an increased caseload but also cases involving more complex legal issues," he said. "This is undesirable as cases involving more complex issues are best dealt with in the usual civil courts."
MORE TIME TO FILE A CLAIM
Other changes to the law included extending the period for how soon a claim must be filed from one year to two years.
This will give parties more time to negotiate and settle their disputes "amicably", while ensuring that they will have enough time to file a claim, Mr Tong said.
The Tribunals will also 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.
With the changes expected to increase the workload at the tribunals, Workers' Party's Non-constituency MP Dennis Tan asked for a projected rise in cases.
Mr Tong said that the tribunals received an average of more than 10,000 cases a year from 2015 to 2017, with the most common cases being claims relating to contracts for sales of goods and provisions of services, followed by claims arising from damage of property.
Giving a "ballpark indicator" on the projected growth in cases, Mr Tong said that about 9,000 cases filed at the State Courts are claims that range from the present limit of S$10,000 to 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 Small Claims Tribunals 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 tribunals)."
In short, he does not expect the tribunals to handle 9,000 cases, just "a portion" of them.
Mr Tong added that the tribunals are "prepared to deal with the increased workload", and will also regularly review that they remain an efficient and effective avenue for the resolutions of small claims.