(Delivered in Parliament on 9 July 2018)
Mr Speaker, this bill proposes to introduce various important amendments to expand the jurisdiction of the Small Claims Tribunals as well as to enhance the powers of the Small Claims Tribunals to facilitate more efficient and effective resolution of cases. The Workers’ Party support the proposed amendments in this Bill.
Increase in jurisdictional limits
The Bill proposes to raise the default monetary limit of the Small Claims Tribunal to $20,000 and the upper limit to $30,000 with the consent of all parties to a dispute.
The Bill also proposed to expand the Small Claims Tribunal’s subject matter jurisdiction to include hire-purchase claims under the Consumer (Fair Trading) Act.
The raising of the monetary limits will allow more claims to have access to the Small Claims Tribunal. This is good for many people, particularly for the man in the street, who either may not afford the usual legal fees for the same claim to be tried in courts or may find the fees not worthwhile given the quantum of their claim. The raising of the monetary limits will allow people more options of bringing claims up to $20,000 or $30,000 to the Small Claims Tribunal, instead of filing such claims in the Magistrate Courts.
Together with new hire-purchase claims also under the Small Claims Tribunal, the increase in the monetary limitation may hopefully reduce the caseload in the Magistrate Courts and enhance the handling of cases in the Magistrate Courts.
I would like to ask the Minister:
(1) What is the projected increase in the caseload which the Government is expecting from the new jurisdictional limits?
(2) What, if any, is the expected increase in the number of tribunal magistrates to deal with any increase in the caseload and when will the capacity increase for tribunal magistrates as well as administrative staff be put in place?
Increase in time bar
The Bill also proposes to increase the time bar for claims under the Small Claims Tribunal from 1 to 2 years. I agree with the ministry’s rationale to align the time bar for claims under Consumer (Fair Trading) Act and also claims under other tribunals such as the Community Disputes Resolution Tribunals, as well as to allow more time for parties to explore methods to resolve their dispute before bringing the claim to the Small Claims Tribunal. I believe that the time bar of 1 year is too short anyway. Hence I welcome the extended time bar of 2 years.
New measures to facilitate speedy and effective resolution of cases
Mr Speaker, I also support the introduction of various new measures to facilitate the speedy and effective resolution of cases, measures to enhance the powers of the tribunal such as allowing and requiring the tribunal to adopt judge-like approach identifying relevant issues, ensuring relevant evidence is being adduced, making suitable orders, and even requiring parties to attend mediation as well as granting costs orders. I hope all these measures will serve to enhance the quality of justice at the Small Claims Tribunal. But I also hope that, in their attempt to process cases efficiently and effectively, the Small Claims Tribunal and its staff and magistrates will always be motivated to balance the imperative of efficiency with justice and public service. This is all the more so as, unlike in the State Court or the High Court, lawyers are not allowed to represent members of public using the Small Claims Tribunal. All claimants and respondents will handle their own claims and deal directly with both tribunal magistrates and staff.
Notwithstanding the relatively lower quantum of claims being decided at the Small Claims Tribunal, I hope that the Small Claims Tribunal will always ensure that both the quality of justice as well as service quality should always be maintained at a high level. I also hope that suitable training and guidance will always be given to all tribunal magistrates including those who have not had prior or adequate civil litigation experience.
May I also suggest that the administrators of the Small Claims Tribunal consider compiling and make available to the public its decisions or judgments, not unlike the current reported decisions for State and High Courts available on Lawnet. Making such decisions and judgments available to the public will encourage better and consistent decisions and judgments.
Justice must always be seen to be done in the eyes of all users of the Tribunals, whether they are claimants or respondents.
I hope that all tribunal magistrates will exercise empathy and patience when they deal with the claimants or respondents directly. I hope that the Small Claims Tribunal will always aim to ensure that all users of the Tribunal will go away feeling that they have been heard fairly and had a fair day in court.
Mr Speaker, I support the Bill.