Settling contract disputes a challenging task for appointed assessors

Among the more than 200 assessors from the legal, accountancy, financial and other industry sectors appointed by the Law Ministry are (from left) lawyer Michelle Lee, lawyer Nur Rauda Mohamed Said and auditor Chong Yit Jen. P HOTOS: MINISTRY OF LAW

Assessors appointed by the Ministry of Law seek to make determinations that ensure a fair and equitable outcome for all parties in a contract dispute.

But this is no easy task.

Three professionals with legal and auditing backgrounds, who volunteered to be assessors to help resolve disputes, highlighted the challenges they faced in e-mail interviews with The Straits Times.

They are among more than 200 assessors from the legal, accountancy, financial and other industry sectors that have been appointed by the Ministry of Law to settle disputes arising from the application of the Covid-19 (Temporary Measures) Act.

For example, in the case of a private-hire driver who was unable to make his monthly car instalments to the hire-purchase company after the outbreak started, auditor Chong Yit Jen had to ascertain whether the driver's inability to pay was due to Covid-19 and not due to his own personal financial issues.

Ms Chong, a senior manager of assurance at Ernst & Young, said she looked at the driver's instalment payment history and his earnings as a private-hire driver before and after Covid-19 broke out.

"The challenge is to find a right balance and a middle point for both parties; the decision should not affect either party adversely," she said.

In another case involving a deposit for a tour that was cancelled, disputes lawyer Michelle Lee from Dentons Rodyk & Davidson said both parties had differing ideas.

"While the travel agency offered to convert the deposit to travel credits for future bookings, the customer requested a full refund, citing concerns such as possible insolvency of the travel agency in the near future," said Ms Lee.

"We explored alternative solutions such as refunding a portion of the deposit... We also imposed conditions to make it easier for the consumer to utilise the travel credits (for example, a longer period for redemption and for changes to destination or passengers to be at no extra cost)."

But parties may not always be pleased with the outcome of the assessor's determination in these disputes.

Ms Nur Rauda Mohamed Said, who is now a transaction counsel at Perpetual (Asia) but was a corporate lawyer when she volunteered to be an assessor, handled disputes involving event-related contracts including wedding banquet deposits where venue providers were not willing to refund any of the deposit or were willing to refund only a small amount.

She noted that some common challenges faced by individuals in these cases include auspicious dates which they may not be able to secure after Covid-19 restrictions are lifted, while businesses, which are suffering from a drop in revenue, may struggle to make cash refunds.

"We try to consider both sides of the story, but it is important for Singaporeans to empathise also. Covid-19 has hit everybody hard," she added.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 17, 2020, with the headline Settling contract disputes a challenging task for appointed assessors. Subscribe