Cambridge Edition

It’s too hard to resolve minor money disputes

- Money Matters

A nearly twodecades-old idea has been dusted off in a bid to give people a fair, fast, cost-effective way of dealing with money disputes.

It’s been an open secret that the rule of law is weak when it comes to financial disputes since a 2004 Law Commission report suggested the establishm­ent of a ‘‘community court’’.

Simply put, money disputes are civil law matters, where when one person, or company, wrongs another, that other has to sue them to get justice.

But the cost of that justice

(the money cost, the emotional cost, the time cost) is just too high, except for the smallest of disputes, a report published by the Rules Committee of the higher courts.

Some lawyers told the committee that any case involving a claim of less than $500,000 was not economic to be litigated by the average person.

Others put the figure lower, at $200,000 but, regardless, the cost is just too high for the average person and, by definition, just

under half of us are less than average, so it’s even less achievable.

In such a world, there is a risk that economic abuse by the powerful of the weak can be carried out with impunity, the Rules Committee report says. This threatens to undermine the rule of law.

The 2004 Law Commission report suggested a new community court be establishe­d to sort out civil disputes the higher courts were unfit to deal with.

Fast forward on to 2022, and instead, the Rules Committee suggests the Government move to allow the Disputes Tribunal to hear financial disputes up to a monetary value of $100,000.

This is a community court by another name, and it’s a good idea, as it will make it easier for the average person to hold someone who has wronged them to account.

Currently, the Disputes Tribunal, which is a lawyer-free zone, can hear cases involving up to $30,000. It handles these cases quickly, cheaply, and well, the report says.

Without lawyers, hearings feel a lot less adversaria­l, than do our higher courts, but the tribunal is not perfect.

It lacks transparen­cy, publishes few cases so people taking claims to it have an idea how it works and how to present their cases, and winning does not mean you get paid, as the tribunal can’t make people pay, only order them to.

But these are issues that can be fixed, and it’s a wonderful mechanism for fighting back against lower-level rip-offs and shonk by the likes of tradies and retailers.

However, while access to justice researcher Bridgette ToyCronin, director of the Otago Centre for Law and Society, says lifting the tribunal’s cap to $100,000 was a good move, it wouldn’t help many people.

She was involved in a study of unmet legal needs analysing calls for help to the Citizens Advice Bureau.

It estimated CAB received 84,000 legal problem inquiries each year ranging from trying to keep a roof over their heads to a squabble over a fence, to being treated poorly by a business.

These were often lowerincom­e people, people who spoke English as a second language, or people who had a less-thanaverag­e education. To many, the court system felt alienating, intimidati­ng, eurocentri­c and bureaucrat­ic.

These are people for whom even filing in a form to start a case at the tribunal is a hurdle that’s too high.

If they deserve civil justice, something far more radical than lifting the Disputes Tribunal case cap is needed.

Exactly what that might look like, is something that needs to be discussed, but it has to involve actually setting aside enough taxpayer money to adequately fund community law centres, and advocates, to help people who need help to take cases.

The Rules Committee report said the Disputes Tribunal was ‘‘currently considerin­g a change to its current te reo Māori name to better reflect the tribunal’s role in restoring balance and resolving disputes.’’

A nice thought, but I couldn’t find even its current te reo Māori name on the tribunal’s website.

That seems to say a lot about how far we have to go.


Got a question for Rob Stock or an issue you want him to tackle? Contact him by going online to Neighbourl­y and typing the name of our newspaper into the search bar. Click our name and select Contact from the menu bar and ‘‘message our reporter’’ from the drop-down menu.

 ?? ?? Justice comes at too high a price, and that has to change, a new report says.
Justice comes at too high a price, and that has to change, a new report says.
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