Slump causes rush to Small Claims Tribunal

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 November, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 November, 2002, 12:00am

A growing number of people are flooding the Small Claims Tribunal as they try to recoup their losses in the face of continuing economic bleakness. Consumer watchdogs say recent successful cases that have drawn publicity are fuelling the scramble.

The total number of cases filed with the tribunal has increased by 56 per cent in four years - from 38,636 cases in 1997 to 60,312 cases last year.

The Consumer Council has advised people to make more use of the tribunal, with its low fees and simple procedures.

The council is happy with landmark judgments by the tribunal - which is run by the Judiciary - related to complaints against mobile phone fees and time-share holiday schemes.

Chan Wing-kai, the head of the council's complaints and advice division, believes consumers now want to fight for every dollar they feel they have been cheated out of.

The number of withdrawn claims has dropped from 243 to 12 between 1997 and last year.

With the increasing workload, the waiting time between filing of cases to the first hearing has increased from 38 to 40 days.

The tribunal has seen its fair share of unusual claims.

In January, Chu Ieu sought compensation from a hair salon, saying it failed to meet her request to make her look like actress Julia Roberts in the hit movie Pretty Woman, and instead cast her more in the mould of Osama bin Laden. She lost the case.

Ms Chu was claiming a total of $50,000 from the salon - comprising $8,000 that she claimed she spent fixing her hair and $42,000 in medical and other expenses she says she incurred after falling outside the Central salon on September 21 last year during a third perm attempt.

In June, an MBA student sought $46,231 compensation from the Open University, complaining that its 'lousy examination arrangements' made him fail his final paper.

The Consumer Council received 29,798 complaints last year and 16,442 in the first nine months of this year, with the council settling most cases, Mr Chan said. In cases in which no settlement could be reached through the council, he said complainants may be referred to the tribunal.

He said some people still did not understand the council's limitations: 'We can only act as a mediator, we have no authority to force any company to pay a particular sum or abolish any fee. If consumers are not happy with the settlement, the Small Claims Tribunal is definitely a good channel for them.'

Among the complaints handled by the council, claims against telecommunication products or services, including the Internet, mobile phone and long distance calls, topped the list. There were 4,000 complaints in this group in the first nine months of this year, taking up about a quarter of the total caseload.

The council helped a government lawyer, through the Legal Action Fund, to sue a mobile phone company for charging a monthly $10 tunnel licence fee not stated in the contract. The council now uses this case, which the complainant won, to press all mobile phone operators into reviewing their charging policies.

Mr Chan said the tribunal also made a landmark judgment in May regarding a time-sharing holiday scheme. The tribunal ordered a resort company to refund $35,500 to a couple after finding that sales staff had used unethical tactics in pressing customers to enter what was described as 'highly unfair' contracts.

The Consumer Council received 171 complaints against time-share holiday plans last year. More consumers filed cases to the council after the judgment, bringing the figure to 555 in the first nine months this year, involving $20 million.

Mr Chan cautioned that consumers would need to prove they signed such contracts under pressure.