The state government recently proposed a four-fold fee increase for the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT). The proposed increase will mean applications to VCAT’s Civil List rise from $38.80 to $160.40.
Loddon Campaspe CLC believes that Victoria needs a cost-effective, quick and simple forum in which consumer matters can be heard. Accordingly, we felt compelled to respond to this proposal as we believe it will impact disproportionally on our clients. Our submission to the Victorian Government is informed by our experience assisting vulnerable and disadvantaged clients and our analysis of the proposal’s assumptions and projected savings.
Loddon Campaspe CLC frequently assists clients with civil claims, domestic building disputes, motor car trader disputes and retirement village disputes. The majority of our clients’ claims are under $10,000. And most of our clients’ claims are less than $1,000.
We usually try to resolve matters by negotiation. But if that’s unsuccessful we assist our clients to prepare a VCAT application. In most cases, our clients represent themselves at VCAT. In some circumstances (e.g. where a client has particular disadvantage or vulnerability) we seek leave to appear on our client’s behalf. Sometimes we advise clients whose matters we consider have little legal merit to not pursue the matter.
Our submission to the Victorian Government argues that the proposed fee increase in the Small Claims, Domestic Building, Motor Car Traders and Retirement Villages Act list:
- is not justified on the basis of increased complexity of VCAT matters
- disproportionately favours efficiency over equity
- is inconsistent with VCAT’s purpose
- does not consider the wider economic context of consumer matters, and
- underestimates the dampening effect such an increase will have on applications
The government claims that VCAT now hears more complex matters. Hence the time and expertise required to deal with these matters should be reflected in the fees. We argue that the degree of complexity is overstated and note that the majority of our clients have minor and simple matters. Further, we claim that our clients should not be subsidising other applicants with long and protracted claims. Applicants with short, simple and low-value claims in VCAT already pay disproportionately more than applicants with larger, more complex claims.
The proposed fee increase will undermine VCAT’s aim to deliver a low-cost means of dispute resolution. Complainants are simply less likely to pursue VCAT claims for under $200 if the application fee is $160.40. In turn, businesses will learn to ignore complaints about items that cost less than $200 because there is a lower likelihood of the matter being taken to VCAT.
The earlier a matter is settled, the cheaper it is for all concerned, including tax-payers. Rather than increasing fees, we think it makes better financial sense to promote and support Consumer Affairs Victoria, Ombudsmen and Community Legal Centres (CLCs) who significantly reduce the number of matters brought before VCAT by facilitating early dispute resolution and discouraging applications without merit.
Consumer Affairs Victoria and CLCs also identify systemic consumer problems and bring these to the attention of regulatory bodies, Governments and media. Such identification prevents further consumer dissatisfaction, disputes and community harm.
We urge the government to collect better statistics on the value of small claims and the demographics of applicants, as our experience suggests that many of the matters heard in the Civil Claims list for less than $10,000 are for far less than that amount and are brought by people who are vulnerable or disadvantaged. That is, the proposed increase in fees will disproportionately affect applicants with the greatest need.
To read our complete submission, click here: Submission in relation to the Victorian Government’s Regulatory Impact Statement – Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (Fees) Regulations 2013. (February 2013).