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Introduction to the Disputes Tribunal

An unfortunate fact of life is that people occasionally end up in dispute with one another.  Sometimes these can be big, and other times it can be over small amounts or issues.  When the latter happens, it is not always economical to engage a lawyer to help resolve the issues and often people are left feeling like there is no remedy.  The Disputes Tribunal is aimed at providing access to justice and assisting people in these situations.  

The Disputes Tribunal

The Disputes Tribunal (“the Tribunal”) is a forum for hearing and determining disputes without requiring the assistance of lawyers.  The responsibility of preparing and attending a hearing will fall on the parties themselves.  The focus of the Tribunal is on practical dispute resolution and not technical legal analysis. 

The Tribunal can hear most claims in relation to contract or tort, provided it is in relation to the destruction, damage or recovery of property.  The upper limit of any claim that can be heard by the Tribunal is $15,000 (or $20,000 by agreement between the parties), although there is currently a proposal to increase this agreed upper limit to $30,000.  

Lodging a claim

In order to lodge a claim in the Tribunal, you must file an application with a filing fee (the amount of which depends on the amount of your claim) at your local District Court.  Alternatively, claims can be filled out and submitted online and you can even apply online for a rehearing.   Once you begin a claim online it must be completed; you cannot save your progress and return to the application later.

To avoid delays, it is important that your claim is filled out correctly.  Commonly, parties fail to correctly identify the parties involved or interested in the proceeding.  For example, claims may refer to an employee or director of a company rather than the company itself that was party to a contract.   Parties may also fail to include an important element of their claim in the claim form, causing the element that was not included to be deemed outside the jurisdiction of the Tribunal and therefore unable to be resolved at that particular hearing.

Defending a claim

When a claim is lodged against you, you will receive a notice informing you of what the claim is about and when it will be heard.  It is in your best interest to consider whether you settle the claim, attend and defend the hearing or lodge any counterclaims.   If you choose to lodge a counterclaim, both claims are typically heard at the same time.

Preparing evidence

Careful preparation of the evidence in support of your claim or defence is important to successfully bringing or defending a claim in the Tribunal.  Having accurate and relevant evidence will strengthen your case.  It is useful to create a timeline of events relating to the claim.  It is very important to include evidence to support the value or issue of what you are claiming (for example, quotes, invoices, receipts or bank statements and photographs).  It is also good practice to provide copies of all the evidence you intend to present at the hearing to the other party and to the referee before the hearing begins.

What to do before the hearing

After you have lodged a claim, or a claim has been lodged against you, a hearing will typically be scheduled within six weeks.  We set out below some points which you might consider in preparing for the hearing:

  • Make sure that you have read the notice of hearing (check the time, date and location of the hearing).  If you do not turn up, it is likely that the hearing will still proceed with the risk of an order being made in your absence.
  • If the hearing date is not suitable, contact the Tribunal as soon as possible to ask if a new date can be allocated.  You are more likely to obtain a new date for the hearing if you have strong grounds for not being able to attend on the original date.
  • Organise a support person to attend the hearing to help you sort through your evidence or remind you of important points.
  • The Tribunal aims to settle the claim by agreement between the parties during the hearing, so consider the basis on which you would settle and be prepared to negotiate.  With any Tribunal hearing there is a chance that the referee will not make an order in your favour.  When considering whether or not to settle, you should consider the strengths and weaknesses of your position and what you would accept to resolve the dispute.

It is important to notify the Tribunal if settlement occurs at any stage, particularly prior to hearing. 

The hearing process

The hearing will begin with the referee outlining the procedure and rules for the hearing.  Both parties will then present their evidence during which the referee will ask questions about the evidence being presented.

Following this, any witnesses giving evidence at the hearing for the claim or defence will be called into the room separately.  After a witness has presented their evidence, the other party will have the opportunity to ask the witness questions.

The referee will then explain to both parties the relevant law and issues that need to be determined to resolve the dispute.  If you do not understand the law or the issues that the referee outlines, let the referee know.

When the issues have been worked through and both parties have a better understanding of their position, the referee will often ask whether the parties are willing to settle the dispute on their own terms.  Depending on the circumstances settlement may be the best option, so be aware of the strengths or weaknesses of your position throughout the hearing and how that may affect your decision to settle. 

At the conclusion of the hearing and if settlement is not reached, the referee will not immediately issue a decision but will instead take time to further consider the evidence that has been presented by both of the parties.  The referee’s order and reasoning will be sent to the parties approximately two weeks after the date of the hearing.

What you can do

The Tribunal is an accessible dispute resolution option for the general public.  While lawyers are typically not able to appear in the Tribunal, our Dispute Resolution Team is able to assist with the preparation of claims or review of submissions for the process.

If you would like further information please contact Daniel Shore on 07 958 7477.

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