Changes to the Singapore Protection from Harassment Act: What you need to know
The Protection from Harassment Act (Cap 256A) ("POHA") protects all persons from harassment, stalking, cyber-bullying, and other anti-social and undesirable behaviours. An applicant under the POHA can obtain both criminal sanctions and civil remedies against the perpetrator (who may be an individual or an entity).
From 1 June 2021, a specialist court known as the Protection from Harassment Court ("PHC") was established to hear all criminal and civil matters under the POHA. A few key points of note are:
- Simplified proceedings: The PHC adopts a simplified process for certain types of applications, including applications for protection orders and false statement orders. Claims that can be made under the simplified track must involve only one claimant and no more than 5 respondents, be brought within 2 years from the date that the cause of action accrued and cannot be a claim for damages above S$20,000. Otherwise, claims must be filed using the standard proceedings.
- Faster and cheaper process: A claim under the simplified proceedings may be filed online under the Community Justice and Tribunals Systems at a lower cost (by comparison, the current process involves travelling to filing bureaus to file an originating summons with a supporting affidavit in-person). Hearings will conducted more quickly under the PHC which will target to conduct hearings for expedited protection orders within 48 – 72 hours of the application (with the target being reduced to 24 hours where there is a risk of violence or actual violence). The PHC will also aim to hear protection orders applications within four weeks of the application.
- Legal representation is optional but allowed: Unlike claims before the Employment Claims Tribunal, a claimant may engage a lawyer to represent him / her in Court but can also choose to proceed without a lawyer.
- Enhanced protection: If a respondent has already been convicted of any POHA or hurt-related offence against the victim, the requirement to show that a POHA provision has been contravened in respect of any new allegation, which is necessary before a protection order can be granted, will be “deemed satisfied”. Judges granting expedited protection orders will now be required to consider whether a criminal investigation is warranted, and if so, to refer cases to the police for investigation. Protection orders will be further extended to protect people related to the victim, as they may also be harassed by the same offender.
Whilst the POHA is not new, we expect there to be an increase in the number of claims being made by claimants against their alleged harassers with a newly established and empowered PHC which (i) provides for simplified proceedings that are cheaper and (ii) allows claimants to pursue their claims without legal representation.
The establishment of the PHC is similar to the establishment of the Employment Claims Tribunal (“ECT”) on 1 April 2019 which hears salary-related disputes as well as wrongful dismissal cases. In that case, we have indeed seen an uptick of claims being lodged by employees against employers who previously had no or very little record of employment-related litigation. In addition, we have also seen employees lodge claims with the ECT as a nuisance strategy or tactic against their employers as a means of bringing them to the table to negotiate increased settlement amounts – this has increased the pain factor and management time and resources for employers having to deal with such claims. Lastly, the threat of a criminal sanction (and the ability for the Court to refer cases to the police) should not be downplayed and could result in extremely serious ramifications for offenders.
We would be happy to have further discussions with you regarding the above, including any pre-emptive remediation actions that you or your company may want to take or review in dealing with workplace harassment issues, in particular in relation to your existing policies, practices and training/awareness modules.