Is VCAT a court?

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 [2014] 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.

When a Calderbank offer is likely to be a hundred-to-one outsider

At the track, bets are customarily not paid until the winning jockeys and their saddles have weighed in and the stewards have declared ‘correct weight’.

Similarly, in commercial litigation (never entirely dissimilar to gambling) the financial outcome of the courtroom contest is often unclear until the final costs orders are made.

But in retail tenancies cases at VCAT successful punters rarely even glimpse the stewards’ scales. This is because of the near-prohibition on costs orders contained in s 92 of the Retail Leases Act 2003 .

The latest illustration of this problem for successful litigants, and boon for unsuccessful litigants, is Complete Pets Pty Ltd v Coles Group Property Developments Pty Ltd [2012] VCAT 361.

A tenant, its guarantor and two investors together sued a landlord. The landlord cross-claimed. The landlord offered in a Calderbank letter and, later, in an open offer, that all claims be settled on the basis that each party walk away from the litigation and bear its own costs.

The tenant’s camp did not bite. They fought on with disastrous consequences. They were awarded zilch. The landlord won $342,901.

The landlord then sought its costs.

The landlord argued firstly that the guarantor and investors had brought their claims under the Fair Trading Act and accordingly were not caught by the savage restriction on costs orders contained in the Retail Leases Act.

Senior Member Riegler was unmoved, stating (at para 16): –

I am of the view that it is of no consequence that the relief is being sought under the Fair Trading Act 1999 …… The critical question is not what relief is being sought but rather whether the parties are parties to a proceeding before the Tribunal under Part 10 of the Retail Leases Act.

He concluded that the parties were involved in such a proceeding and, as a consequence, the landlord could not obtain a costs order against any of the tenant, guarantor or the investors unless it could show that one of the exceptions to s 92 of the Retail Leases Act applied. This required the landlord to satisfy VCAT that its opponents had conducted the proceeding either in a vexatious way that unnecessarily disadvantaged the landlord, or after failing to participate in alternative dispute resolution.

The landlord relied on its spurned settlement offers to make precisely those alternative submissions. It argued that as the ‘walk away’ offers it had made were clearly more favourable to the litigation’s losers than the end result vexatious conduct and/or the failure to participate in alternative dispute resolution should be inferred.

Again Senior Member Riegler was not persuaded. He said –

  • a litigant merely putting its opponent to its proof is not of itself vexatious;
  • neither is a litigant’s failure to accept an advantageous offer of settlement; and
  • the reference in the Retail Leases Act to alternative dispute resolution does not extend to settlement offers.

Conclusion

Is a party with a strong case wasting its time and money making a Calderbank offer (or similar) in VCAT’s Retail Tenancies List?

Probably.

Of course, not every punter who backs himself to pick the four winners necessary for a quadrella comes away disappointed – just the overwhelming majority.

In a retailing leasing dispute your client’s odds of getting a costs order are probably similar. Your punter might do much better taking a form guide to Flemington than a Calderbank offer to a costs application in the Retail Tenancies List.