And it is the same Court that decides the vast majority of all legal disputes in New Zealand.
The name of the Court is the Disputes Tribunal. Formerly known as the Small Claims Court, the Tribunal was set up as an efficient and cost effective way to decide disputes between individuals, companies and trusts up to the value of $15,000. I was privileged to be appointed as a Referee to the Disputes Tribunal for two years.
The role of a Referee is a cross between a Judge and a Mediator. The basic job is to identify legal issues and the assess the evidence presented by each party in order to be able to make a decision. However, there is much more than that to being an effective Referee.
Tribunal is what is known as a ‘lay’ Court. This means that lawyers are not allowed to represent anyone. Disputing parties appear in person, and present their arguments themselves. Part of a Referee’s role is to support parties with the Tribunal process. I found that I spent much of my time in a hearing educating parties such things as what kind of evidence they can bring and what the law means.
Referees can also assist parties to come to a settlement. This is where mediation skills come in. It is a happier, fairer result for both parties if they can agree to a solution that suits both their needs. Personally, I found the most satisfying part of being a Referee was when parties came up with their own mutually agreed resolution to a dispute.
The Tribunal is able to hear claims on a wide range of legal areas. There are Tribunal hearings in nearly every place that a court can be found. This means Referees need to be able to decide on everything from contractual disputes over silage making to consumer guarantee claims over wedding photos. No one day is ever the same, and I have found myself having to decide whether calves could have been born to the wrong bull, if a swimming pool surround was the right colour and who caused a collision on a dead straight road in the middle of a bright summer’s day.
Whilst the Tribunal is geared up for lay litigants, a hearing can still be a daunting prospect. Lawyers can assist anyone who is going to a Tribunal hearing to prepare for that hearing. This can include researching the law, writing your side of the story and helping prepare for the hearing itself. Parties can give submissions written by lawyers to the Tribunal. These submissions can be very helpful in understanding the issues, although a Referee is not bound to accept a lawyer’s point of view!
The Disputes Tribunal a highly effective place to have your dispute solved. The filing fees are low, and you usually get a hearing date between 4 and 6 weeks after you file your claim. There are limited options for appeal, which means that once a claim is decided, you can move on with some certainty from the dispute.
If you are looking for some assistance in preparing for a Disputes Tribunal hearing, please give Michelle Urquhart a call on 07 928 0786, or email her on firstname.lastname@example.org