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Legislative Assembly for the ACT: 1997 Week 12 Hansard (13 November) . . Page.. 4203..


Debate resumed from 4 September 1997, on motion by Mr Humphries:

That this Bill be agreed to in principle.

MR WOOD (9.05): The Small Claims Court plays a very important role in the ACT system of justice. This is a significant review that we consider tonight. If the Small Claims Court were not there, it is likely that many of its cases would simply not emerge, as the parties involved would not risk the considerable costs of legal representation or face the possibility of paying court costs if matters appeared in the Magistrates Court. Justice would not be as well served as it ought to be.

In these times when we look for ways of providing justice in appropriate but less costly ways, the court has worked very well indeed. Its particular benefits lie in its process. A hearing is not like an ordinary court case; rather, it is an inquiry. The rules of evidence do not apply and legal costs are not recoverable. Hence, it is a jurisdiction which is relatively user friendly to unrepresented parties. The Opposition will be supporting these amendments. They follow a long period of consultation and quite significant changes to the original proposals.

Now there will not be stand-alone legislation for small claims matters, as the situation is now or as was proposed by the tribunal in the exposure draft Bill. This Bill provides for the court to be in the legislative framework of the civil jurisdiction of the Magistrates Court. That seems a sound approach, and we will observe with interest how it works in practice.

The Bill proposes some expansion in the jurisdiction of the court to cover disputes about dividing fences and party walls and rental bonds. In the detail stage I will be proposing a further expansion of its jurisdiction - or perhaps "restoration" is a better word - by increasing from $5,000 to $10,000 the amount of money involved in cases that can be brought to the court. If the Small Claims Court is to hear consumer disputes, which is an important part of its work and an important access to justice role, then we must wonder at the reason for a monetary limit that excludes all but the most modest kitchen or bathroom renovation, excludes many relatively small-scale building disputes and excludes matters involving all but the cheapest motor vehicle or the smallest motor vehicle property claim. These are just a few examples.

The effect of this limit is not to send a claimant to the Magistrates Court but generally to require them to abandon that part of a claim which exceeds the monetary limit and to be undercompensated when they are successful. Justice is not well served. Those examples that I gave are the types of claims which self-represented consumers should be able to bring, and would bring, to a reasonably accessible and convenient forum. They may not do so if they have to incur substantial legal costs, whether their own or those of the other party, depending on the outcome. That is a likelihood if they are forced to the Magistrates Court.

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