(Question Without Notice, 20 March 2014, Legislative Assembly, NSW Parliament)
My question is directed to the Attorney General. Will he give strata owners' and owners' corporations the right to legal representation without the need for them to seek leave in Civil and Administrative Tribunal hearings to ensure that owners will be able to protect their home investment effectively? Given that strata cases are often complex, the expected rewrite of strata laws will need legal interpretation, and approximately half of Sydney homes will be strataed by 2020.
Mr David Elliott: What is the question? It is too long.
The SPEAKER: Order! I rule on whether a question is in order.
Mr GREG SMITH: I thank the member for Sydney for his surprise question and for his interest in these matters. The Civil and Administrative Tribunal of New South Wales is known as NCAT. There is also a QCAT, a VCAT, and a SACAT, but New South Wales is the top cat, and our close friends refer to us as TC. The Civil and Administrative Tribunal of New South Wales commenced operations on 1 January this year. It is just over 12 months since the Government announced the establishment of the tribunal—something that the previous Labor Government could not achieve in 16 years—and it now exercises the functions of more than 20 former tribunals, including the Administrative Decisions Tribunal, the Consumer, Trader and Tenancy Tribunal and the Guardianship Tribunal.
The SPEAKER: Order! Opposition members are no longer funny.
Mr Nathan Rees: We'll decide that.
The SPEAKER: Order! I will decide that. When the member for Toongabbie is no longer funny, he will be ejected from the House. The member for Toongabbie will come to order. I saw naughty boys like him many times during my teaching career.
Mr GREG SMITH: Many New South Wales citizens will rely on the Civil and Administrative Tribunal to provide them with fast and accessible justice. The tribunal's consumer and commercial division alone will hear up to 70,000 matters each year. The Government has designed the tribunal to ensure that the services it provides to the community are as informal and as efficient as possible. The Civil and Administrative Tribunal is not a court; it does not conduct proceedings in the traditional adversarial manner. The tribunal is a multidisciplinary, informal and inquisitorial forum that will resolve a wide variety of disputes and other matters.
The consumer and commercial division alone has a broad jurisdiction. It will hear disputes about home building, strata, tenancy, social housing and motor vehicles, to name a just few. Most disputes that come before the tribunal's consumer and commercial division do not involve complex legal questions. They involve everyday disputes between people over matters such as unpaid rent, unauthorised repairs, excessive noise or the quality of goods and services. To resolve those disputes, it will not always be necessary for people to be represented by a lawyer. In many situations, lay advocates or agents also have the expertise to help parties achieve a fair and just outcome. Agents often have a great deal of experience in resolving disputes and offer their services at a cheaper rate. For example, it is common for real estate agents to appear on behalf of landlords. Similarly, park managers regularly appear on behalf of residential park owners. It is also common for strata managing agents to appear on behalf of owners' corporations.
While not all managing agents may wish to appear before the tribunal, many do so. Agents are well placed to assist the tribunal and often have specialist knowledge of particular subject areas. For example, strata managing agents are trained in the requirements of the Strata Schemes Management Act. Many have a great deal of experience in helping strata schemes to resolve internal disputes. An example is a void in a block of home units that is common property where people erected storerooms and even bedrooms. They strike trouble when they try to sell. Permitting parties to be represented by agents or by lay advocates will help to ensure that people do not incur unnecessary legal costs in order to resolve straightforward disputes. Parties may also be able to represent themselves in simple matters, and many do. I know of a man who had a dispute with a plumber. I thought he had won the dispute, except the plumber did not pay up—he had other problems. [Extension of time granted.]
The Government understands that some consumer and commercial disputes can involve complex legal issues, including disputes under the Home Building Act 1989, the Community Land Management Act 1989 and the Strata Schemes Management Act 1996. That is why the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal legislation provides the tribunal with the ability to grant a person leave to be represented by a lawyer, where appropriate. The member for Heffron would probably do well in that jurisdiction. The NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal has issued formal guidance to its members on when to grant leave for a person to be represented by a lawyer. This includes where a matter is likely to involve complex issues of fact or law where a party would be at a disadvantage if he or she was not represented and where the other party is represented. Applications for leave may be made orally or in writing at any stage of the proceedings and no fee is charged.
The Government will continue to monitor how these provisions are operating and will make adjustments as required. The Government believes that all matters that come before the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal should be resolved in a manner that is proportionate to the complexity of the matter in dispute. There is an obligation on the tribunal and all parties to promote the just, quick and cheap resolution of a matter. The suggestion of the member that full legal representation should be provided is not consistent with that policy, allowing parties to be represented by an advocate or agent or to present their own case in straightforward matters. The tribunal is an effective way to ensure that disputes are resolved quickly. [Time expired.]