Small claims: VCAT’s Civil Claims List

An overview of legislation in Victoria that provides for speedy, low-cost resolution of small claims; how this fits in with Australian Consumer Law and the Fair Trading Act; what VCAT can do and how to make a claim.

Overview of legislation

For over 40 years now, Victoria has had a small claims jurisdiction for the speedy, low-cost resolution of small claims. Initially this was under the Small Claims Act 1973 (Vic) (“Small Claims Act”), then the Fair Trading Act 1999 (Vic) (“FTA”), and since 1 July 2012, under the Australian Consumer Law and Fair Trading Act 2012 (Vic) (“ACL&FTA”).

The ACL&FTA does two things: it gives VCAT power to resolve a “consumer and trader dispute” as the FTA did, and it provides that the Australian Consumer Law (“ACL”) applies as a law of Victoria. The ACL now contains many of the “consumer protection” provisions that were contained in the FTA – such as the prohibitions of “misleading and deceptive” and “unconscionable” conduct – and it creates a series of “consumer guarantees” about the quality of goods and services instead of expressing them as implied terms of a contract.

Because legislation does not operate retrospectively, the FTA will continue to be relevant to transactions entered into up to 30 June 2012, and so it is worthwhile summarising the changes to the legislation relating to small claims that took place over the years:

1 On 1 July 1998, VCAT commenced operation. The Small Claims Tribunal which had existed before then in effect became part of VCAT, and claims that would have gone before the Small Claims Tribunal are now heard in the Civil Claims List of VCAT and are known as “civil claims”. The procedure followed by VCAT is found in the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal Act 1998 (Vic) (“VCAT Act”) and in Rules and Practice Notes of VCAT.

2 On 1 September 1999, the FTA commenced operation. Until 30 June 2012 the FTA empowered VCAT to resolve a “consumer and trader dispute”. Since 1 July 2012, the same power, expressed in the same words, is provided by the ACL&FTA.

3 On 12 December 2001, the Fair Trading (Unconscionable Conduct) Act 2001 (Vic) commenced operation. This Act inserted new sections 8A and 8B into the FTA, which prohibit unconscionable conduct in business transactions (i.e. trader–trader disputes). Since 1 July 2012, the same concepts are contained the ACL.

4 The Fair Trading (Amendment) Act 2003 (Vic) (“FTAA”) came into operation on 9 October 2003. One of the purposes of the amendments was to increase consumer protection. It also repealed the Small Claims Act and gave VCAT a small claims jurisdiction where the amount involved does not exceed $10,000.

5 The Wrongs and Limitation of Actions Acts (Insurance Reform) Act 2003 (Vic) (“WLAAIRA”) commenced on 1 January 2004. The relevant provisions in certain cases require VCAT to apportion liability where there is more than one wrongdoer, and create threshold levels for a personal injury to be considered a “significant injury” and therefore compensable (see Negligence and injury, for more information about these changes).

6 From 1 June 2004, conditions and warranties previously found in the Goods Act 1958 (Vic) were transferred to the FTA to strengthen its role as the major consumer protection legislation in Victoria. Except in the case of supply of “recreational services”, implied warranties and conditions cannot be cancelled by the trader. “Recreational services” covers a broad range of physical, sporting and adventure tourism activities. These implied warranties continue to apply in transactions which occurred before 31 December 2010: from 1 January 2011 the ACL applies. The Goods Act itself was not repealed, and continues to be important in relation to traditional areas such as the rules about who bears the risk when goods are transported between seller and buyer.

7 Disputes between residents and managers of retirement villages that were previously required (prior to 5 April 2005) to be resolved by arbitration, now may be determined by VCAT (s 40 Retirement Villages Act 1986 (Vic)).

8 On 31 December 2007, the Owners Corporations Act 2006 (Vic) came into force. This Act renames “bodies corporate” created under the Subdivision Act 1988 (Vic) as “owners corporations” and provides that disputes may be brought before VCAT in the Owners Corporations List. Consumer Affairs Victoria has published the Guide to Owners Corporations, which is available for download from its website. Also see Owners corporations.

9 By an amendment to the FTA that came into force on 1 July 2010, made by the Fair Trading Amendment (Unfair Contract Terms) Act 2010 (Vic) (“FTAUCTA”), new laws about unfair terms in standard form consumer contracts were enacted, applying to standard form consumer contracts entered into, varied or renewed on or after 1 July 2010. The FTAUCTA was intended to be transitional and when the ACL became the law of Victoria on 1 January 2011, the ACL contained those laws.

10 By another amendment to the FTA that came into force on 1 January 2011, made by the Fair Trading Amendment (Australian Consumer Law) Act 2010 (Vic) (“FTAACLA”), the ACL was made a law of Victoria. The ACL is part of a Commonwealth statute, and has been adopted by all the states and territories as a law of their jurisdiction.

11 Commencing on 1 July 2012 the Australian Consumer Law and Fair Trading Act 2012 (Vic) replaced the Fair Trading Act 1999 (Cth). It provides that the ACL is a law of Victoria.

Consumer Affairs Victoria can advise anyone contemplating an application. The Civil Claims application form and the publication, Making an Application in the Civil Claims List (both available online and from the Registry of the Civil Claims List) are comprehensive and helpful (see alsoMaking a claim”).

The hearing is before a Member of VCAT assigned to the Civil Claims List.

VCAT sits in central Melbourne and in various suburban and country locations throughout Victoria.

Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) Civil Claims List:

55 King Street, Melbourne Vic 3000

Tel: 9628 9830; 1800 133 055

Email: vcat-civil@vcat.vic.gov.au

Web: www.vcat.vic.gov.au

Consumer and trader dispute

Disputes under the Australian Consumer Law and Fair Trading Act

Under the ACL&FTA, applications may be made to VCAT to hear and determine a “consumer and trader” dispute. Anyone contemplating such an application should seek advice first. Consumer Affairs Victoria and consumer advice services should be able to provide advice. SeeConsumer Affairs Victoria”.

The following are important features of the jurisdiction under the ACL&FTA.

An application to hear and determine a consumer and trader dispute:

must involve a purchaser (or possible purchaser) and a supplier (or possible supplier) of goods or services, and either one may initiate the application;

may involve a dispute in negligence, nuisance or trespass that relates to the supply or possible supply of goods or services;

may be brought by a consumer against the trader without monetary limit;

may be brought by a trader against a trader;

must be brought within six years; and

may relate to a personal injury that relates to the supply or possible supply of goods or services if the claim is no more than $10,000.

Even though the word “consumer” is in “consumer and trader dispute”, that expression does not only apply to “household purchases”. The definition refers to purchasers and suppliers, and so “business purchases” are also covered (e.g. a newsagent could bring a claim in VCAT against a supplier of stationery, even though the newsagent bought the stationery to resell it).

A claim based on “negligence” that does not relate to the supply (or possible supply) of goods or services – such as a motor vehicle collision – cannot be taken to VCAT. Similarly, a dispute between neighbours over their dividing fence, or a dispute between the partners in a partnership cannot be taken to VCAT.

Apart from the situation where a supplier sues a purchaser for less than $10,000, and the purchaser seeks to have the dispute heard in VCAT, there is no requirement in the ACL&FTA that an applicant pay any money demanded either to the respondent or into trust. However, a respondent may lodge an application by way of counter-claim against the applicant, and should quote the application number to ensure that both claims are listed together.

VCAT may make orders it considers fair and according to law, including:

for payment of money found to be owing by one party (including the applicant) to another party;

for damages, including exemplary damages;

for interest;

to declare a term of a contract void;

for the performance of a contract; and

varying a contract to avoid injustice.

VCAT may have regard to such matters as the intelligibility of the contract, the relative bargaining power of the parties, whether independent advice was obtained and whether unfair tactics were used.

Disputes under the ACL&FTA fall into two categories: small claims (s 183), which involve a consumer and trader dispute not exceeding $10,000, and all other disputes under the ACL&FTA. Where the claim under the ACL&FTA is a small claim, then VCAT will not permit legal representation unless all parties agree or VCAT is satisfied that there is good reason and that no party will be disadvantaged. If the dispute is a small claim, then VCAT cannot order “costs” to or against a party (except costs relating to a review), although if the applicant substantially succeeds in the case it can order the respondent to reimburse the filing fee and any hearing fees.

Australian Consumer Law

The changes in legislation are explained to prepare parties for the information they may be expected to provide and the expressions they may read or hear when seeking advice or making or responding to a claim. VCAT will require a party who is not legally represented to set out the circumstances giving rise to the claim rather than to set out legal arguments. Parties should focus on the facts concerning the agreement or dealings between the parties, the breach of obligation alleged and the loss claimed, with special attention to the relevant dates. A chronology is very helpful.

Unfair contract terms

Victoria has had remedies for unfair terms in consumer contracts since 2003. For standard form consumer contracts entered into or renewed on or before 31 December 2010 the FTA applies. For such contracts entered into or renewed on or after 1 January 2011 the ACL applies. A contract is presumed to be a standard form contract unless proved otherwise. Most standard form contracts will be printed but need not be if the “take it or leave it” test applies. In determining whether a contract is a standard form contract, VCAT can consider:

whether the contract was prepared by one party ahead of negotiations (e.g. a printed contract that requires little more than the customer details);

which party held most or all of the bargaining power; and

whether the contract could be negotiated to take account of specific details of the customer or the transaction.

A term in a standard form contract may be unfair, and void, if it creates a significant imbalance in the rights and obligations of the consumer compared to those of the trader. The onus is on the trader to prove that the term is reasonably necessary to protect their legitimate interests. The term must be “transparent”, which includes being legible and in reasonably plain language.

Consumer guarantees

The FTA implied terms into consumer contracts that required goods and services to be of appropriate quality, and provided contractual remedies for defective goods or services. From 1 January 2011, the ACL provides for “consumer guarantees” of quality and other matters, enabling a consumer to seek remedies against a supplier or manufacturer for defective goods or services. Examples of consumer guarantees include:

fitness for particular purpose;

goods to be of “acceptable quality”;

services to be provided with “due care and skill”;

services to be provided within a reasonable time where the contract does not fix a time; and

manufacturer to ensure repair and spare parts are reasonably available.

Because the consumer guarantees are not created as terms of a contract between the parties, the consumer need not have purchased the goods or services. A consumer who received them as a gift could bring a claim in VCAT if the goods were not of acceptable quality.

Acceptable quality

The test from 1 January 2011 is whether goods are of “acceptable quality”, which is similar to the previous laws’ concept of “merchantable quality”. Goods will be of acceptable quality if they are as fit for all the purposes for which goods of that kind are commonly supplied; acceptable in appearance and finish; free from defects; safe; and durable as a reasonable consumer fully acquainted with the state and condition of the goods would regard as acceptable having regard to the nature of the goods; their price; any statements made about them on packaging or labels or by the supplier or manufacturer and “any other relevant circumstances”.

Because “acceptable quality” is seen in the context of the price and nature of the goods, the consumer guarantee does not require a second-hand product to be as good as new.

If goods are defective, the supplier must remedy the defect. Who gets to choose the remedy depends on how serious the defect is. If it not a major defect, the supplier can choose. If the defect is a major defect, the purchaser can choose. The purchaser can also recover consequential damages.

It is always wise to make a written request to the supplier before commencing a claim in VCAT.

Misleading and deceptive conduct and similar conduct

The ACL provides that, “A person must not, in trade or commerce, engage in conduct that is misleading or deceptive or is likely to mislead or deceive”. In other words, if a trader says something to a consumer that is untrue, and the consumer relies on that statement, the trader may be liable to compensate the consumer. The trader in this example would have contravened the ACL. This is different to a trader selling goods that are not of “acceptable quality”: in that case, the trader has not met the consumer guarantee, but the trader has not contravened the ACL.

The ACL also provides that a person who is “involved” in a contravention of the ACL can be liable to pay compensation. For example, if Car Dealer Pty Ltd misled a consumer about the odometer reading of a car, the car salesperson or the company’s director might have been “involved” in that misleading conduct. The consumer might have a claim against both the company and those individuals. This is a complex subject; obtain advice before doing this, to ensure that you have an arguable claim.

Disputes arising from purchase of a used car from a licensed motor car trader

Almost all claims in this area can be brought under the ACL&FTA. Only rarely will it be necessary to add a claim under the Motor Car Traders Act 1986 (Vic) (“MCT Act”).

Since 1 March 1997, the statutory warranty provided by section 54 of the MCT Act applies where the car:

a was manufactured not more than 10 years before the date it is sold; and

b has been driven for less than 160,000 kilometres.

The motor car trader warrants that if a defect appears before the end of the warranty period, the motor car trader will, at its own expense, arrange for the car to be taken to a place for repair and will repair or make good the defect so as to place the car in a reasonable condition, having regard to its age.

The warranty period extends until the car has been driven by the purchaser 5,000 kilometres, or for three months, whichever occurs first.

There are other provisions, for example, relating to roadworthy certificates, defect notices, the definition of commercial vehicles, sales at public auction and odometer tampering. For further details, see Buying a car, and refer to the Motor Car Traders (Amendment) Act 1996 (Vic).

If section 54 does not apply to the sale, or if the defect arises after the statutory warranty has expired, the purchaser may still rely on the ACL. Depending on the facts, the purchaser might allege breach of contract by the supplier, misleading and deceptive conduct, or unconscionable conduct. The purchaser might also claim that the car did not meet the requirements of the consumer guarantees under the ACL.

The MCT Act provides in section 45 the remedy of cancellation of a contract for the purchase of a used car. This remedy is available in limited circumstances such as false odometer readings or false description.

A successful applicant should be aware of an amendment to the provisions of section 76 of the MCT Act, which enables a claim against the Motor Car Traders’ Guarantee Fund where a VCAT order is unpaid.

What can VCAT do?

VCAT has the power to make the following orders under the ACL&FTA:

order a party to pay money;

order a party to perform work to rectify a defect in goods or services;

order return of goods;

order payment of damages including exemplary damages;

order payment by way of restitution;

vary a term of a contract or rescind a contract;

order a contract to be performed;

declare a term of a contract void and order a refund of money paid;

order interest;

declare that a debt is, or is not, owing; and

order a party to do or refrain from doing something.

VCAT has power to include in an order a requirement that what is ordered to be done be done within a specific time.

Where the parties to a dispute reach a settlement, VCAT may make orders necessary to give effect to the settlement (s 93(1) VCAT Act). An applicant should always request that VCAT make this order. The terms of settlement may include a right to reinstate the claim if a promise to perform work is not complied with within an agreed time, or to be paid an agreed sum of money in those circumstances.

The power to declare that a debt is not owing is important. A person who is concerned that they will be sued in a court, and so face the risk of incurring significant costs, can seek this declaration in VCAT. VCAT is less likely to award costs, and its simpler procedures usually make less expensive than court proceedings.

Making a claim

To make a claim the applicant must first complete an application form. These forms can be downloaded from VCAT’s website at www.vcat.vic.gov.au (follow the links to “Application forms, brochures”), and are also available from the Registry to the Civil Claims List or, outside the metropolitan area, from the office of any Registrar of a Magistrates’ Court.

It is the duty of VCAT’s Registrar and of every Registrar of a Magistrates’ Court to give assistance in completing the application. Community legal centres, voluntary legal services and solicitors may also be of assistance in obtaining application forms and in filling them in.

The prescribed fees (as at 1 July 2015) are:

$59.80 for claims under $500;

$174.10 for claims of $500 and over but less than $10,000;

$575.30 for claims of $10,000 and over but less than $100,000;

$1,081.20 for claims of $100,000 and over but less than $1,000,000;

$2,086.20 for claims of over $1,000,000.

If payment of the fee would cause financial hardship, the Principal Registrar has the power to waive the fee.

To lodge the application, the applicant may either attend in person and pay the fee over the counter, complete and lodge an application form online with credit card details, or post the application with a money order, postal note, cheque or credit card details to: The Registrar, Civil Claims List. See VCAT’s contact details.

If the application is not complete or unclear or if the incorrect fee is paid, the Registrar will write to the applicant but not process the claim until the further information is provided or fee paid.

Company, business name or sole trader

If a VCAT order is to be enforceable, the parties must be correctly named. It is the responsibility of the applicant to do this.

If the respondent runs a business, care must be taken to state the correct name of the company or business, with the Australian Company Number (ACN) or Australian Business Name (ABN) respectively supplied.

Check with the contract, quote, invoice or receipt for the full name of the trader.

A trading entity may be:

a company (with a name ending in “Pty Ltd” or “Ltd” and a nine-digit Australian Company Number);

individual(s) or company(ies) trading under a registered business name; or

an individual or partnership of individuals (e.g. husband and wife) trading under their own names.

Evidence of the trader(s)’ name(s) and address in the form of the ACN or business name extract should be lodged with the application. A company search can be completed through the Australian Securities and Investment Commission (go to www.asic.gov.au or phone 9280 3500). Obtain a company search that shows the company’s “registered office”, because that is the address where the application form will be served.

If the respondent trades under a registered business name, a business name extract must also be supplied. If the trader is an individual, it is important that full and correct names are stated on the application. Abbreviations or incorrect spelling could result in an unenforceable order.

The ACL&FTA (s 192) enables a person to request VCAT to order the Director of Consumer Affairs to provide the full name and address of a supplier who is unregistered or unlicensed.

Likewise, it is important to state the trader’s correct address. Check to ensure that the address you have is still current and, if not, obtain the current address before lodging the application. Where you have problems obtaining the correct details of a trader, Consumer Affairs Victoria may be able to help.

If a company has gone out of business or is unlikely to pay its debts, and you believe that the company contravened the ACL, you may wish to name as a respondent an individual who you believe was “involved” in the contravention of the ACL. This is a complex subject and it would be wise to obtain advice before doing this, to ensure that you have an arguable claim.

Are all parties named?

Goods may be purchased from a retailer (who made specific recommendations about them) and manufactured by another business (which manufacturing may be defective). Before completing the application form, the applicant should carefully consider whether all persons and/or businesses who could be at fault have been named. For example, a defective tiling job could involve the builder, the tiler, the supplier of the tiles, the manufacturer or importer of the tiles or the supplier or manufacturer of the adhesive.

In most circumstances, VCAT is required to apportion liability between each “concurrent wrongdoer”. VCAT is required by the WLAAIRA (seeOverview of legislation”) to find what proportion of the loss or damage claimed was each respondent’s responsibility. For example, if a house is painted by a tradesperson using paint found to be defective (depending on the evidence), VCAT may apportion 60% responsibility against the painter and 40% against the manufacturer of the paint.

Cross-applications

Sometimes the reason a person or business has not paid an account is because they are not satisfied with the goods or services supplied, or believe they have been overcharged.

The consumer may lodge a Civil Claims application to claim compensation or to declare that they have been overcharged. The supplier of the goods or services would usually lodge an application for the price, identifying the application as a response or cross-application and providing a VCAT file number. Applications could be made the other way around, with the supplier getting in first to claim the price and the consumer then lodging the cross-application.

To avoid delay or an adjournment, cross-applications must be made as soon as possible after notice of the first application is received.

Notice of hearing or alternative dispute resolution

The Registrar will serve a copy of the application, as soon as practicable, on any person who it appears from the application has a sufficient interest in the resolution of the dispute to which the claim relates. The applicant must serve a complete copy of the application and any attachments. The Registrar must also arrange a time and place for VCAT to hear the matter, taking into account the convenience and location of the parties, the place where the contract arose and the venues at which VCAT sits in its Civil Claims List. Notice of that time and place will be given to all parties.

VCAT is committed to the use of alternative dispute resolution (ADR). It is important to carefully read any notice to attend VCAT. The notice will advise the nature of the proceeding, whether it is a hearing, directions hearing, compulsory conference or mediation. The consequences of non-attendance may be that an order in made in favour of the other party.

Preparation of a claim

It is important to prepare your case carefully and logically. Do not leave obtaining reports, quotations, witness statements, photos or the like to the last minute. Remember that what you complain about is likely to be contradicted by the other party; therefore, independent evidence may be crucial. Consider the possible reply that the defect can be repaired and need not be replaced, and ensure your evidence deals with this issue. If VCAT accepts that replacement is the appropriate remedy, it may order that the goods be returned to the respondent. If you believe that this would entail risk of damage or expense then ensure your claim includes the additional cost.

Two helpful documents that can be downloaded from the Civil Claims section of the VCAT website are “Preparing for a hearing in the Civil Claims List” and “At the hearing of an application in the Civil Claims List”.

If the matter settles before the hearing

It is still worthwhile seeing if the problem can be settled with the other party or parties after the claim has been lodged, since the respondent has received the notice of the claim and now has an indication that the applicant is serious about pursuing this matter. The respondent may not want to go to VCAT and may be prepared to agree to requests. If the matter is fully settled, the claim can be withdrawn; if an uncleared cheque is received or a promise to do work is made, the claim can be adjourned or struck out with a right of reinstatement.

When contacting the other party to discuss the possibility of settling, it is best to do so in writing to avoid misunderstandings. If you state that the discussion is “without prejudice”, it will mean that if a settlement offer is not agreed, the offers made and rejected will be kept secret from VCAT so that the Tribunal member is not influenced by them.

Hearings

Proceedings before VCAT are open to the public; but VCAT can order that a hearing, or part of it, be held in private (s 101 VCAT Act).

Representation

In small claims (up to $100,000), a party to the proceedings usually presents their own case; it is rare for an individual to be represented by another. A company can be represented by one of its officers.

It is uncommon for legal representation to be allowed. A barrister or solicitor will not be allowed to represent a party unless:

1 all the parties to the proceeding agree or VCAT so directs; and

2 VCAT is satisfied that the parties, other than the party who applied for the appearance of a lawyer, shall not be unfairly disadvantaged (sch 1 cl 4D(1) VCAT Act).

An applicant who needs someone to represent them should provide a written authorisation.

Costs in small claims

Where the dispute is not a small claim, costs may be awarded at the discretion of VCAT (s 109 VCAT Act). The provisions relating to a small claim provide that no order for costs can be made (sch 1 cl 4I VCAT Act) (except for applications under s 120 VCAT Act for a review of a case decided in a party’s absence).

Where an applicant succeeds in a claim, VCAT can order that the other party reimburse the applicant for the filing fee on the application and any other fees.

Procedure at the hearing

If you are an applicant making a claim in VCAT, you should follow the procedures given below on the day of the hearing of your claim. Note that the VCAT website contains a guide called “Preparing for a hearing in the Civil Claims List” and “At the hearing of an application in the Civil Claims List”.


NOTE

Alternative Dispute Resolution processes, such as compulsory conferences and mediation, are available to assist in settlement of disputes (see ss 83–93, sch 1 cl 4H VCAT Act). Parties can contact the Registrar of the Civil Claims List for more advice.


As soon as you arrive, go to the office and let the reception desk or bench clerk know that you have arrived. Ask which room your matter will be heard in. If you wish, you can sit at the back of the room where your matter will be heard, to get an idea of what happens during similar hearings.

The matter will be heard by a Member of the Tribunal, who should be addressed as “Sir” or “Madam”. The Member sits at the front of the room behind a desk. You will sit at a separate desk, with the respondent and any interested party at your left.

The first thing a Member may do is offer the parties an opportunity to discuss settlement of the matter. Parties are encouraged to do so, but are not required or ordered to do so.

If the matter is settled, ask the Member to make an order according to the terms of the settlement.

If the matter is not settled, the Member will proceed to hear the case. You will be asked to present your side of the story. Written notes made before the hearing may assist you to do this. Take with you all the written documentation you have. Reports and quotation(s) will often be important parts of the evidence. Take photos of the goods which have broken, or the wall that has cracked, if it will help the Member understand what you are talking about. Where needed to explain a claim, a video can be part of your evidence (contact VCAT beforehand to arrange for audiovisual equipment, or bring a laptop). If you have any witnesses, make sure they come to the hearing with you.

It is best if you give your evidence first and then ask your witnesses to give their evidence. All oral evidence given at the hearing may be on oath or affirmation.

The Member will ask questions of you and your witnesses. The respondent is also able to ask questions.

If your witnesses cannot attend on the day, they can make a statutory declaration before a qualified witness, stating what they know about the matter. You can then hand this to the Member. Be aware that evidence given in person to the Tribunal, with the opportunity to ask questions, is likely to be given more weight. The Member might decide that the hearing has to be adjourned so that the witness can attend in person.

After you have presented your side, the respondent gets the chance to respond to your claim. You will be given a chance to ask the respondent questions about the things they or their witnesses say.

Some issues “speak for themselves” but some cases require expert evidence. An expert is a person who is qualified to give an opinion about a relevant issue. In a case about building work or building products, an expert might be a civil engineer, an architect or a building consultant. Practice Note 2, which can be found on the VCAT website, sets out the requirements for expert evidence. It is designed to stop unqualified people giving their uninformed opinions, and to make sure that the expert’s role is to assist the tribunal make a fair decision, rather than being a “gun for hire”. Usually experts are required to put their opinion in a written report, and attend the hearing to explain their views.

Care in the preparation of the case should ensure that evidence is not repeated. VCAT may not permit additional evidence on a matter if it considers that the matter has already been fully covered (s 102(2) VCAT Act).

After both sides have put their case, the Member will decide the matter in accordance with the relevant law and make an order.

What if a party doesn’t appear?

If a party does not appear at a hearing, the tribunal will resolve the issue in dispute on the evidence produced. The VCAT order is lawful and as effectual as if the party had appeared and was fully heard.

If an issue in dispute is determined in the absence of a party, that party may make an application for review to VCAT within 14 days after the party receives notice of the order. An application for review must be made by way of statutory declaration stating the reason for non-attendance. All parties are invited to the hearing of the review. The notice of hearing will state whether the Tribunal will only hear and determine the application for review at that time or whether it will hear and determine the original claim afresh if the review is granted. If the hearing is for review only and the review is granted, the claim will be reheard at a later date. A party is not entitled to seek more than one review without leave of VCAT (r 6.10(1) Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal Rules 1998 (Vic) (“VCAT Rules”)). The party who applies for the review may have costs awarded against it, even in a small claim.

If it appears to the Member that there was sufficient reason for the party’s absence an order may be made that the claim be re-heard (s 120 VCAT Act).

Further information relating to re-hearings can be obtained from the Civil Claims List Registry and from VCAT Rules.

Appeals

A settlement or order made by VCAT is usually final and binding on all parties, and there is no appeal from the order other than on a question of law (s 148 VCAT Act). For example, if VCAT acted outside its jurisdiction or denied a party natural justice, it would raise a question of law. Whether an order gives rise to an appellable question of law is a technical issue and it would be wise to seek legal advice promptly if you are considering an appeal. Appeals are made to the Supreme Court, which can award costs in relation to the appeal even if it arises from a small claim.

VCAT is required, if requested to do so by any person affected by a decision made or about to be made by it, to give that person a statement of the reasons for its decision. If the claim is not a small claim a party may request written reasons within 14 days (s 117(2) VCAT Act). However, if the claim is a small claim written reasons must be requested before or at the time the decision is made. If you plan to ask for a written decision, a request at the outset of the hearing would be courteous.

Ensuring that orders of VCAT are carried out

Orders for the payment of money

If VCAT makes an order requiring the payment of money by a party that was not present or represented at the hearing, VCAT must cause a copy of that order to be given or sent to that party (s 116 VCAT Act).

Where VCAT has made an order requiring money to be paid to a person and the money has not been paid, that person can enforce VCAT’s order in the Magistrates’ Court. This is done by filing with the Registrar of the Magistrates’ Court the following documents:

1 a certified copy of the order of VCAT; and

2 a sworn affidavit stating:

athat the applicant is the person to whom payment is to be made under the order; and

bthe amount of money that has not been paid.

When filing these documents, the applicant must choose the Magistrates’ Court in the area where they live or the Magistrates’ Court in the area where the party required to pay the money lives or has a place of business. Once these documents have been filed, the Court makes an order in the same terms as VCAT’s order, and the Court’s order may be enforced accordingly. (SeeEnforcement of court orders” in Are you in debt?)

If a trader against whom an order has been made is required to hold a licence (e.g. a motor car trader, or a travel agent), Consumer Affairs Victoria may be approached for advice regarding enforcement.

Orders that do not require payment

Whether or not VCAT orders the payment of money, it can order that work be done to rectify defects in goods or services or order that goods be returned. This type of order (a non-monetary order) can be enforced by filing the following documents in the Supreme Court (s 122 VCAT Act):

1 a certified copy of the order of VCAT;

2 a sworn affidavit as to non-compliance; and

3 a certificate from a judge or the Principal Registrar of VCAT that the order is appropriate for filing in the Supreme Court.

Another way to ensure that non-monetary orders are carried out is for VCAT to adjourn the proceedings to an administrative mention, or to strike out the case with a right of reinstatement. Either of these orders allows the party in whose favour the order operates to bring the case back if the order is not complied with. Both advising the tribunal of progress at an administrative mention, or applying to reinstate a proceeding that has been struck out, is done by writing to the Registrar and sending a copy to the other party. The Registrar then notifies the parties of any new hearing date. At that hearing, VCAT decides whether the order has been complied with and, if not, can make any order that it has the power to make, including the payment of money.

Correcting orders

An order of VCAT can be amended if it contains:

1 a clerical mistake; or

2 an error, arising from any accidental slip or omission; or

3 a material miscalculation of figures, or any material mistake in the description of any person, thing, or matter referred to in the order.

The power to correct an order is limited. Correcting an order should not be confused with an appeal. VCAT has no general power to reconsider cases. If, for example, an applicant named the wrong person as respondent, and obtained an order against that person, the applicant could not have the order corrected. The applicant would have to begin a new proceeding against the proper respondent. A party seeking a correcting amending order should obtain advice from the Civil Claims List Registry or refer to VCAT Rules.