Legal

Freelancer’s Guide to Suing for Payment in Small Claims Tribunals

Learn whether you are eligible to sue for payment in the Small Claims Tribunals, and the process for doing so.

Balance scales of justice

As a freelancer, having clients who don’t pay your bill is probably one of your worst nightmares.

You’ve tried asking nicely. You’ve sent about a million emails to chase for payment. You’ve also called their office so many times that you know their number by heart.

But despite all that, that !@#$%^ client still REFUSES TO PAY UP!!

If this is you, your next step may be to invoke the power of the law by suing your client for payment in the Small Claims Tribunals (SCT).

With court filing fees starting from just $10 and potentially fast resolution of cases, suing your client in the SCT may help you get the payment you’re owed in an efficient and economical manner.

In this article, we’ll look at:

Before You Sue: Background Info on the Small Claims Tribunals

What are the Small Claims Tribunals?

The SCT is a court under the State Courts of Singapore.

It provides an avenue for people to resolve disputes over small claims (more on what is a “small claim” in the next section on eligibility to sue) quickly and more affordably.

Parties in SCT proceedings also cannot be represented by lawyers, which will help keep your costs of suing in the SCT down. That said, you can still consult a lawyer on whether you should file your claim in the SCT before actually doing so.

Are you eligible to sue in the Small Claims Tribunals?

The SCT only hears certain types of claims, such as claims over:

  • Contracts for the provision of services
  • Contracts for the sale of goods
  • Residential lease agreements of up to 2 years

As a freelancer, you’re likely to have a contract (even if there wasn’t a written agreement) to provide services to your client in exchange for payment, so you’re good on that count.

Next, check that:

  • You are suing for $20,000 or less. If the amount you’re owed is more than $20,000 but not more than $30,000, you can also sue in the SCT if your client agrees to resolve the dispute in the SCT.
  • Also, it must have been max 2 years since your dispute started. The SCT only hears claims that are filed within 2 years of the start of the dispute. This could be the date that your client first missed your payment deadline, for example.

If you fulfil these requirements, woohoo! You’ll be able to sue in the SCT.

There are 3 main stages to suing for payment at the SCT. These are:

  1. Filing your claim: This is where you first register your claim with the SCT to kickstart the claims process.
  2. Consultation: This is a meeting between you and your client in court to try and settle the dispute between yourselves.
  3. Hearing: This is a court hearing where both parties will present their cases to a judge and have the judge decide on the matter.

Read on for more details on each stage.

Process of Suing in the Small Claims Tribunals

Stage 1: Filing your claim

Procedure

First, access the Community Justice and Tribunals System (CJTS) online portal and start a claim in the SCT.

You will be asked to complete a Pre-Filing Assessment. This assessment checks whether you’re eligible to file a claim at the SCT, and tells you the documents you may need for the lawsuit.

For example, you will be asked for the Nature of Dispute. Since your dispute is over how your client hasn’t paid you for your services, select “Contract for Provision of Services“, followed by “Non-Payment”.

How to select "Non-Payment" for "Contract for Provision of Services" as the Nature of Dispute for the Small Claims Tribunals Pre-Filing Assessment

If your client is a corporate entity (e.g. a company), you will need to buy its business profile to confirm that your client is “live” and not defunct. You can buy the business profile via the BizFile+ website.

After completing the Pre-Filing Assessment, you will be given a pre-filing assessment ID. Use this ID to file your claim within 7 days using either your SingPass or CorpPass account.

Filing fees

The fees for filing a claim at the SCT are:

Claim amountFee for consumersFee for non-consumers
Up to $5,000$10$50
Between $5,000 and $10,000$20$100
More than $10,000 and up to $30,0001% of claim amount3% of claim amount

Stage 2: Consultation

After filing your claim, you will receive a date to attend court with your client for a Consultation.

You will need to bring:

  • Your identification documents
  • Originals of all supporting documents, such as your contract with the client and the client’s business profile

During the Consultation, a registrar (i.e. a court official who can hear certain court matters) will:

  • Check if the SCT can hear your claim
  • Give you and your client an opportunity to settle the claim amicably

If you and your client cannot settle the claim, the registrar will decide how the matter should move forward from there.

For example, the registrar may order further Consultations. The registrar may also set a Hearing date for your claim to be heard in court.

Read more about attending a Consultation at this State Courts webpage.

Stage 3: Hearing

During the Hearing, you will present your case to a judge known as the Referee.

The Hearing can occur as early as within 24 hours of the Consultation, so try to have your case fully prepared as early as you can!

Your case will include:

  • Your arguments for why you should be paid
  • Supporting evidence for your arguments (such evidence can be from yourself and/or any witnesses you have)

You will also need to bring the documents that you brought to the Consultation. In other words:

  • Your identification documents
  • Originals of all supporting documents, such as your contract with the client and the client’s business profile

Your client will also present their own case on why they shouldn’t need to pay the amount you’re claiming for.

For example, they may argue that you did a poor job, and so they’re not willing to make full payment (or make any payment at all).

After listening to both parties’ cases, the Referee will decide whether to grant you a court order for your client to pay you, and how much.

This order will be known as a “Money Order” or an “Order to Pay Money”.

Depending on how convincing your and your client’s cases are, any Money Order you get may or may not be for the entire sum of payment you’re claiming for. Manage your expectations accordingly.

Read more about attending an SCT Hearing at this State Courts webpage.

What if your client doesn’t show up in court?

If your client refuses to attend court (whether for the Consultation or the Hearing), the court may make an order of default judgment against it.

Getting this order effectively means that you “win” the case because your client doesn’t want to show up in court to fight against it.

As a result, you may immediately get a Money Order that you can use to claim payment from your client.

Next Steps after Receiving the Claim Outcome

At the end of the Hearing, there are two possible outcomes:

  1. Your claim is successful, and you get a Money Order for your client to pay you
  2. Your claim is not successful, and you don’t get a Money Order

What to do if you successfully get a Money Order

If your claim succeeds and you’ve been granted a Money Order, congrats!…

…but don’t start celebrating just yet.

In simple terms, the Money Order is just a piece of paper that says that you’re entitled to claim a certain amount of money from your client.

To actually get this money, you’ll have to enforce the Money Order against your client.

Here’s how you can do so:

1. Send a letter of demand

First, send your client a letter of demand to demand payment of the sum stated in the Money Order.

Your letter of demand should also include a deadline for payment. If your client misses the deadline payment, try either of the following options:

2(a). Applying for a writ of seizure and sale

If your client has physical assets that are worth something when sold, you may apply for a writ of seizure and sale.

This order allows a court officer, known as the court bailiff, to enter the client’s premises and seize their property.

Then, if the client doesn’t pay the amount owed to you within 7 days, you may apply to auction off the client’s property and use the sale proceeds to settle the debt.

You may apply for a writ of seizure and sale at a CrimsonLogic Service Bureau. Alternatively, you can hire a lawyer to take care of the application for you.

Take note that getting a writ of seizure and sale does not guarantee you will be successful in obtaining the full Money Order sum from your client. Consider carefully before deciding whether to proceed with your application!

Refer to this State Courts webpage for more information on the procedure and fees for applying for a writ of seizure and sale.

2(b). Applying for a garnishee order

If you happen to know that someone owes your client money, you may apply for a garnishee order. This order allows you to get that third-party to pay you instead of your client.

For example, let’s say:

  • You’ve received a Money Order for Client A to pay you $9,000 for services you’ve provided for XYZ Project.
  • Also, you know that Client A’s own client for XYZ Project, i.e. MNC Company, owes Client A money for this project.

You can then apply for a garnishee order to get MNC Company to pay $9,000 to you directly, instead of to Client A.

To get the garnishee order, you should have documentary proof to back up your claim that a third-party owes your client money.

Visit the Community Justice Centre at level 1 of the State Courts to find out more about applying for a garnishee order. You can also hire a lawyer to assist with your application.

Finding out what assets your client has: Examination of Judgment Debtor

In order to decide how to best enforce the Money Order against your client (through e.g. a writ of seizure and sale or a garnishee order), you need to know which of your client’s assets can be used for settling the debt.

For example, you are unlikely to get a garnishee order if you can’t prove your claim that a third-party owes you money.

To extract such information and/or proof from your client, you may apply for an Examination of Judgment Debtor.

This is a type of court proceedings where you will get to ask your client questions on the assets that they have, and obtain supporting proof for their responses.

Then with such info, you can start planning your strategy on enforcing the Money Order. Talk about knowledge being power!

Read more about applying for an Examination of Judgment Debtor on this State Courts webpage.

What to do if you are unsuccessful in getting a Money Order

If you’re not granted a Money Order after the Hearing, sorry about that.

Your next steps after this depend on why your claim was unsuccessful. If you’re keen to pursue your claim further, consider hiring a lawyer to help you assess what to do next.

In the meantime, if you’re thinking of appealing the Referee’s decision, do note that appeals are accepted only if:

  • It involves a question of law (i.e. a question over how a particular law is applied or interpreted); or
  • The claim is outside the scope of claims that the SCT can hear (see the section on eligibility to sue in the SCT above).

If you intend to appeal, you must seek the District Court’s permission to do so within 14 days of receiving the Referee’s order.

Are there Alternatives to Suing in the Small Claims Tribunals?

If you’re unable or unwilling to sue in the SCT, here are some options open to you:

Mediating your dispute

Unlike bringing your case to court where a judge decides on the outcome of the dispute (i.e. who is right, who is wrong, or who should pay whom), parties in a mediation decide on the outcome of their dispute for themselves.

They do this with the assistance of a neutral third-party known as the mediator, who facilitates the discussions and helps the parties reach workable solutions to their dispute.

As a result of this process, you have greater control over how the dispute should be resolved instead of letting someone else decide for you.

Read more about the Singapore Mediation Centre’s mediation services on their website.

Suing in the “regular” courts

If you are suing for an amount that is higher than the SCT claim limit, you will have to bring your claim in the “regular” courts, i.e. the Magistrates’ Court, District Court or High Court.

Given that you will be suing for a relatively large sum of money, you may find it worthwhile to hire a lawyer to represent you in the lawsuit.

The lawyer will also be able to help you navigate these courts’ court procedures, which are more complex than the procedure for suing in the SCT.

You should also expect to pay more in court filing fees. For example, the cost of just filing a writ of summons to begin a lawsuit in the Magistrates’ Court starts from $100.

Final Thoughts

If a freelance client owes you money, suing for payment in the SCT is a potentially affordable and effective legal option that you can take.

But before you do so, first check that you’re eligible to sue in the SCT – especially the requirements on claim amount and time period for suing.

If you are unable or unwilling to sue in the SCT, other options such as mediation or suing in the “regular” courts may be appropriate for you.

Also, consider whether it’s worth spending the time and money to sue to recover the amount you’re owed. Don’t forget that even if the Referee rules in your favour, you’ll still need to take further action to get your client to actually cough up.

Ultimately, if you are unsure on your next steps, or need help with suing in the SCT, you may want to seek legal advice.

Good luck with getting your payment back!

Have you ever sued for payment in the Small Claims Tribunals? How was your experience? Leave a comment!

Tan Siew Ann
Fuelled by a long-standing interest in media, Siew Ann ventured into digital marketing while in law school and has not looked back since. Being inspired by the struggles that she and others have faced while freelancing in Singapore, Siew Ann started lancerX to help freelancers turn their craft into sustainable and meaningful full-time businesses.

8 Comments

  1. Is there any freelancers who can provide low cost but professional and good legal service? Please recommend and email to me for small claims.

    1. Hi Ang, do you mean freelancers who can help you file a claim in the Small Claims Tribunals? I think you’re looking for a lawyer rather than a “freelancer” per se. Parties who want to file claims in the Small Claims Tribunals have to represent themselves though, they can’t engage lawyers to help them with this. I hope this helps nevertheless! I’ll be emailing this reply to you too 🙂

  2. Is $785 worth going to small claims over? And also my clients are individuals not companies. Everything is documented very well though. Like to hear your thoughts.

    1. I’m sorry for the late reply! This is a decision you’ll have to make for yourself. How strong do you think your case is? And do you think they’ll have the means (and willingness) to pay you if you win? Don’t forget that going to court costs time and money (even though Small Claims’ filing fees are lower). Hope this helps 🙂

  3. Hi, what happens if the respondent did not appear in the small claims even though we are very sure that he has received the letter of attendance? What can the small claims do to the respondent? Will he go to jail? Thanks

    1. Hi, if the respondent doesn’t appear in court, the court can make a default order in your favour i.e. you “win” the case. But that’s not the end of the story – you still have to enforce the order against the respondent to get what you are owed. I hope this helps 🙂

  4. Hi, are you allowed to bring your laptop to small claims court? especially if you have video evidence to show, and if you need to prove that the Landlord is picking the most expensive furnitures to replace with?

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