The Small Claims Tribunal (SCT) is part of the State Courts in Singapore. It resolves lower-value disputes between consumers and suppliers, faster and more cost-effectively than going to court.
The State Courts’ Community Justice and Tribunals System (CJTS) runs the SCT.
The types of disputes that can be heard in Small Claims Tribunals
Regardless of the claim value, which has a limit, the SCT can only hear certain types of disputes. These include:
- Damage to property.
- Provision of services.
- Sale of goods.
- Cancellation of contracts under the Consumer Fair Trading (Cancellation of Contracts) Regulations 2009.
- Refund of motor vehicle deposits under the Consumer Fair Trading (Motor Vehicle Dealer Deposits) Regulations 2009.
- Tenancy disputes for residential property with a lease not exceeding two years.
- Opt-out under the Consumer Fair Trading (Opt-Out) Regulations 2009.
- Contracts to buy or sell foreign currency with a licensed money-changer.
Claimants who are unsure whether their case falls within the remit of the SCT can carry out a pre-filing assessment.
How to lodge a claim at the Small Claims Tribunal?
A person who wants to make a claim via the SCT service and believes the nature of the dispute and its value are within the SCT parameters will file their documents online.
Online filing is done through the Community Justice and Tribunals System (CJTS) portal. The person filing becomes known as ‘the claimant’, and the person against whom the claim is made is called ‘the respondent’.
The respondent will have the right to file a counterclaim against the claimant if they don’t agree with the claim, or contest the claimant is the one who is at fault.
There is a fee to file a claim, which depends on the claim value up to a maximum amount of S$5,000.
The first part of the process is a consultation with a registrar; this is to confirm that the SCT does have jurisdiction over the claim. The claim may be invalid because of its value, or the length of time taken to bring the action, which means it is time-barred.
If the SCT does not have jurisdiction, the registrar will issue a discontinuance order. This formally ends the proceedings in the SCT. A discontinuance order doesn’t mean the claimant cannot pursue the matter, but they will need to find a different route, such as private mediation, or the civil courts.
If a settlement is reached during the registrar’s consultation, the court will issue a consent order that records this agreement and makes it legally binding on both parties.
If the registrar rules that the SCT has jurisdiction, but a settlement cannot be achieved, the case moves forward to a hearing.
If the parties cannot agree during the consultation, then the court may direct them to appear at a hearing before a tribunal magistrate, sometimes also referred to as a referee.
The hearing is like a court appearance, so both parties must compile relevant documentation such as invoices, receipts, and written communications such as emails, plus any other evidence to support their respective positions.
The claimant and defendant represent themselves and state their side of the story; professional legal representation is not allowed, although witnesses can be called.
The tribunal magistrate will consider the claim (and counterclaim if relevant) and then decide to either uphold or reject the claim, which is usually confirmed by issuing an order.
Different types of order
In a money order, the tribunal magistrate orders that one party pay the other a defined sum by a specific deadline.
A work order states that one party shall carry out specific work for the other and will detail the purpose and the manner with a deadline. This type of order is used where the dispute concerns inadequate or defective services.
Order for vacant possession
A vacant possession order will state that the tenant must vacate the rented premises identified in the order and return all keys and documents to the landlord by the deadline indicated in the order.
The legal impact of orders
An order made by the SCT is final, so there is no right of appeal, and it is also binding, so the parties must comply with its terms.
If the order is a money order and one party fails to make payment of the amount by the specified date, the other party can start enforcement proceedings against them. At this point, the person who has failed to pay is called a judgement debtor, and the party taking out the proceedings is a judgement creditor.
The options open to the judgement creditor include a writ of seizure and sale where a court bailiff enters the judgement debtor’s premises and may take moveable property to the value of the amount owed. The judgement debtor is allowed seven further days to make the payment, after which the judgement creditor is legally entitled to sell the items to recover the money owed.
An alternative is garnishee proceedings, where the court can order the judgement debtor’s bank to pay the judgement creditor from the judgement debtor’s bank account.
Enforcement proceedings fall outside the remit of the SCT and belong in the civil courts, so they can take time, and legal costs will be involved.
What claims cannot be heard in the SCT?
Irrespective of the value of the claim, the SCT cannot hear disputes regarding the following:
- Claims to do with employment
- Stocks and shares
- Hire-purchase disputes
- Foreign exchange
- Legal fees
- Motor vehicle
Options other than the SCT
There are alternatives to the SCT for parties with a claim. One option is to lodge a complaint with CASE – Consumers Association of Singapore – which handles consumer-to-business and tourist-to-business disputes.
The other route is to seek mediation services at the Singapore Mediation Centre (SMC). SMC offers a suite of alternative dispute resolution services. Mediation is voluntary, so the respondent must agree to the claimant’s request to attend mediation.
Mediation can be helpful if the parties want or must preserve a relationship after the dispute.
Final thoughts on the process of making a claim at the SCT
The process of making a claim via the SCT is relatively straightforward. However, many people still find the whole procedure daunting and confusing.
Even though legal representation is not allowed at the hearings, some people take professional advice so they can understand whether their claim is eligible for the SCT. A lawyer can also advise on other options which may be preferable, even if the claim is within the SCT’s jurisdiction.
A lawyer can offer guidance on how to present the claim effectively. Also how to prepare for the consultation, or the hearing, and set out the legal options open to that person once an order has been made by the court, either against or in their favour.
Taking legal advice is not forbidden. Only having professional representation at the consultation and/or hearings is prohibited. If a party chooses to consult a lawyer, they will be liable for these costs. The SCT will not make a costs order against the respondent even if the claimant is successful. You may deem the relative cost of that guidance worth the investment in relation to your case.
Frequently asked questions
What are the most common types of disputes that end up in the Small Claims Tribunal?
The most common types of claims are disputes over goods or services plus tenancy agreements not exceeding two years.
Are lawyers allowed to represent claimants or defendants in small claims matters?
Legal representation is not allowed in the SCT. This is to keep costs down and to theoretically avoid complicating what should be simple matters to resolve.
Is there a maximum amount or value of a claim in the SCT?
Claims in the SCT cannot exceed S$20,000 in value, but the tribunal can hear claims or counterclaims of up to S$30,000 in value if both parties agree and file a Memorandum of Consent.
How long can you wait before submitting a claim to the SCT?
There is a limitation period of two years, so if more than twenty-four months have elapsed since the cause of action, effectively the occurrence of the dispute leading to the claim, then the SCT will not be able to hear it.
Sometimes, the date of the claim is arguable because it may not be clear-cut.
What happens if one of the parties to the claim does not appear at the consultation or the hearing?
A party who is absent from either the consultation and/or the hearing runs the risk of the court making a default order which is an order in default of their appearance.
If the claimant doesn’t appear, the court has the right to dismiss the claim. If the respondent is absent, the court can issue a default order in favour of the claimant.