Did you know that the ACT Civil and Administrative Tribunal (ACAT) has just turned ten years old? This is a significant milestone for a body that is referred to by its President Graeme Neate as ‘Australia’s most super super tribunal’.
While most of us try to stay away from disputes, they are part of life in a community. And while disputes may be inevitable, good processes to resolve them are not. Here in the ACT, ACAT aims to help people resolve disputes, and provide access to justice outside the formal courts. A key aim of this tribunal is to act in a way that is less formal, less expensive and faster than the formal court system.
Many Canberrans have had contact with ACAT over the years. It’s the place you go to if you are dealing with a small civil claim or have a fair-trading dispute. If you have a problem as a tenant or landlord that can’t get resolved privately, you often end up at ACAT. If you are struggling with a utility bill or have a complaint about your energy company, ACAT may be able to help you. If you have a loved one who is struggling due to cognitive problems or dealing with an acute mental health episode that is placing them at risk, you may need to come to ACAT. Planning and development disputes and concerns about administrative decisions of ACT government agencies can be looked at by ACAT. Also, complaints about the conduct of professionals such as doctors and lawyers are matters that may end up at ACAT.
In fact, ACAT administers almost 150 pieces of legislation. Some areas – such as mental health, residential tenancy and utilities – are dealt with on a very regular basis. Other areas of review are rarely dealt with. That is one of the reasons it’s referred to as a ‘super tribunal’. It manages more types of disputes under legislation than any other similar tribunal in Australia. In fact, when this undertaking of combining the multitude of local tribunals commenced in the mid-2000s, it was much more ambitious than what had been done anywhere else.
ACAT draws on expert advice across the Canberra community for its work. In addition to permanent members and staff, a group of around 50 sessional members sit on the particular tribunal matter. These people bring their specific expertise to assist people to work through issues and resolve them. Some of them are still practising in their field. Others have retired from these roles and now bring their expertise to the ACT. They include lawyers, mediators, psychiatrists, community advocates, architects and surveyors.
Like any other organisation, however, ACAT still presents its constraints.
Engaging with ACAT can still be daunting and confusing for people. While ACAT strives to be informal, with conferencing regularly used, it is a court-like environment. The tribunal must always operate within the guidance provided by the legislation it is operating under. It still needs to work in line with legal principles. It can also take longer than people would like due to the need to grapple with complex legal issues.
Bringing matters to ACAT can still be expensive for cases where parties need to engage legal professionals. Particular challenges arise when one party has access to resources to engage lawyers and other parties cannot.
It can still be disappointing for those who end up on a ‘losing side’. The reality is that sometimes ACAT does need to adjudicate between different perspectives and versions of events.
Coming together at the 10-year celebration, the impact and importance of bodies such as these was clear. While there may be critiques around particular matters, I think that the community should celebrate the fact that we have a body like ACAT. And it is an organisation always interested in evolving and improving.
What are ways you think we can improve dispute resolution bodies in the ACT?
Rebecca is a community member of ACAT, working in areas including mental health, energy and water hardship and guardianship and financial management. These are here views and not a formal view of the Tribunal.