Is the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal a court?
According to the Court of Appeal decision this week in Subway Systems Australia v Ireland and Ireland  VSCA 142 the answer depends upon the context of the question.
The case was a bunfight about a sandwich-making franchise. The franchise documents included both retail tenancy provisions and an arbitration agreement.
Relying on the retail tenancy aspect, the franchisee commenced a claim in VCAT. But the franchisor then sought a stay relying on the arbitration agreement.
The franchisor’s stay bid failed in VCAT and again on appeal to a single judge of the Supreme Court (Croft J) but was third time lucky in the Court of Appeal.
It all turned on whether VCAT was a “court” for the purposes of s 8(1) of the Commercial Arbitration Act. That section provides;
A court before which an action is brought in a matter which is the subject of an arbitration agreement must, if a party so requests not later than when submitting the party’s first statement on the substance of the dispute, refer the parties to arbitration unless it finds that the agreement is null and void, inoperative or incapable of being performed.
Generally VCAT should not be considered a court. Here (from para 96) is part of Kyrou AJA’s explanation:
In my opinion, VCAT could not be characterised as a court under the common law because it is not bound by the rules of evidence; it cannot enforce its own decisions; some of its members are not legally qualified; it can be required to apply a statement of government policy and it can be required to provide advisory opinions. Further, VCAT and its predecessor … were expressly established to be inexpensive, informal and speedy administrative tribunals rather than courts.
Later, Kyrou AJA observed that this common law position is reflected in the Civil Procedure Act 2010, the Interpretation of Legislation Act 1984 and the Constitution Act 1975. His dissenting judgment favoured a consistent approach. “As VCAT has generally not been regarded as a court, if Parliament had intended that it be treated as a court for the purposes of the [Commercial Arbitration] Act, it could easily have said so.”
The majority, Maxwell P and Beach JA disagreed. In separate judgments they concluded that, at least for the purposes of the Commercial Arbitration Act 2011 (Vic), VCAT is a court even if it is considered to be a tribunal (cf court) for other purposes.
In separate judgments each canvassed the policy objectives associated with the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law’s Model Law on International Commercial Arbitration on which Victoria’s Commercial Arbitration Act is very closely based.
The lesson? Arbitration clauses in private agreements can trump clear statutory conferrals of jurisdiction on VCAT.