Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Inaccessible justice

As of July 1st, some applications to the New South Wales Civil and Administrative Tribunal became more than twice as expensive. However, if you aren't elderly, disabled or unemployed you might not know this because this only applies to people in receipt of a pension.

The fee change was published and made law on the 1st of July, the same day it was to take effect. To our knowledge, this change came without consultation with the members (including the Tenants' Union) of various consultative committees set up to support the Tribunal. This is a very disappointing omission, as we might have been able to discuss the potential impact on access to justice, and the fairness of the decision in light of the funding arrangements of the Tribunal.

Prior to July, pensioners could seek a reduction in fees, down to $5 for the basic application. $5 had been the level for concession card holders for many years, and reflected a commitment to ensuring that vulnerable people could still access the justice system when they were mistreated.

Now the calculation is that concession fees will be 25% of whatever application the person is making. It will now cost a pensioner $12 to make a regular application. This may not sound like much if you are a wage earner, but it will begin to bite concession card holders hard enough that they may not apply to the Tribunal at all.

It also means the concession fee will continue to increase when other fees do. Consider how quickly pensions are rising compared to wages below, and consider the fairness of this proposition.

Changes in income types over the last 20 years
Tenants are the people most likely to apply as concession holders, and we already fund nearly a third of the entire expenditure of the Tribunal. More than $14 million a year is provided to the Tribunal from the interest earned on tenants bonds.

Most of the funding NCAT receives from tenants' money is actually already spent subsidising landlord applications, so vulnerable tenants being asked to pay more than twice as much for their application really does seem a bit much.

And since tenant applications at NCAT are already dwarfed by landlord applications, there is no good reason to tip that balance further towards landlords by discouraging tenant applications.

Finally, something to consider about how we encourage access to justice for some of our most vulnerable members of society. In both Victoria and the ACT, their Tribunals also recently updated their fee structures. The cost to concession card holders to make a tenancy application? $0.

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