Wednesday, January 29, 2014

NCAT launched

Today the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal (NCAT) was formally launched by the NSW Attorney-General, the Hon Greg Smith SC, and the President of NCAT, Justice Robertson Wright.

NCAT has actually been up and running since 1 January, but today was the day the plaque at the registry was unveiled, the cake was cut and the speeches were made.

A common theme of the speeches was access to justice. The first purpose of NCAT, said the Attorney-General, was to improve access to justice by simplifying access to tribunal dispute resolution – there should be no confusion or uncertainty that you'd come to the right tribunal. The President noted the significance for an orderly, just society of the type of dispute NCAT could deal with – highlighting, in particular, disputes about decisions of the State Executive and its officers.

We're hopeful too about NCAT's potential for improving access to justice. And there's one way in particular that NCAT could make a big difference – if it were allowed to resolve disputes about social housing decisions.

These are decisions, for example, about whether a person is eligible for social housing; or what sort of property they might be offered; or whether they are entitled to a rent rebate, and how much; or whether a rent rebate will be cancelled or varied.

These decisions can be a very big deal for people – a rent rebate cancellation, applied retrospectively, can result in an instant debt of tens of thousands of dollars and a termination notice.

They are also decisions that are not dealt with under the Residential Tenancies Act 2010, and so cannot currently be deal with as tenancy disputes by NCAT's Consumer and Commercial Division – even though they may be the underlying problem in a tenancy dispute. So, for example, if a public housing tenant's rent rebate is cancelled, NCAT can hear Housing NSW's application for termination of the tenancy and payment of the arrears, but it cannot hear the tenant's objection to the rent rebate being cancelled in the first place.

Currently, social housing decisions can be reviewed by the social housing landlord that made the decision and, if the tenant is not satisfied with the review, by the NSW Housing Appeals Committee. The HAC has done some good work over the years, but it has significant shortcomings: it has no legislative basis; it cannot make binding orders (only recommendations); and its own decision-making is not always as rigorous or fair as it should.

The lack of appropriate review of social housing decisions is an access to justice problem – and NCAT should be made available to address it. 

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