What do Disputes Tribunals do?

Disputes Tribunals are the modern, improved version of a small claims court. They can hear cases on almost anything – from hire purchase contracts to cattle grazing, car repairs to fencing disputes and even the quality of ear piercing. But there are some limitations:

  • There must be a dispute which you have failed to resolve. Simply refusing to pay an overdue bill is not a dispute, as there is no argument that you owe the money. But if you're refusing to pay because you believe you have been overcharged, and you can't sort it out with the trader, you could use a tribunal.
  • Tribunals cannot hear disputes over employment, land sales, family matters or wills. Claims against bankrupts and liquidated companies are also excluded, as are disputes over rates, taxes, social welfare benefits and ACC payments.
  • There are limits on the value of the claim. If the dispute is over something worth up to $15,000, it can be heard automatically. If the value is between $15,000 and $20,000, both sides must agree for it to go to a tribunal. Over $20,000, and the tribunal has no jurisdiction. If you like, you can reduce a higher claim to make it fit within the limits.

When you lodge a claim, the court staff will check its eligibility and advise whether it can go before a tribunal.

Is it the same as a court?

Tribunals have more flexibility. No one is permitted to be represented by a lawyer and there are no judges. Each hearing is run by a referee, who will encourage the two sides to reach agreement before giving a binding decision.

Who are the referees?

Referees are chosen from the community, primarily for their maturity and life experience. Many have trained in dispute resolution and some have law degrees.

Who can I claim against?

You can claim against an individual – a neighbour who won't help repair a shared fence, perhaps, or someone who prangs your car and won't accept responsibility.

You can also claim against any kind of trader – a shop that sells you the wrong computer software, say, and won't take it back, or a travel agent who mishandles your holiday bookings, or a dentist who does a bad job.

You can claim against more than one party in a claim.

How long will it take?

The Disputes Tribunal aims to have all hearings heard within six weeks. Hearings are usually about an hour long.

Do I have to attend the hearing?

Your claim will be dismissed if you don't turn up.

But if a claim is being made against you, it may be heard in your absence. If the time set for the hearing makes it impossible for you or your witnesses to attend, contact the court staff promptly to request a new time.

If you live more than 100km from where the claim is being heard, you can apply to be heard by telephone and the tribunal will pay for the call.

Where are the tribunals?

If there's a District Court in your town, there's likely to be a Disputes Tribunal there as well. Ring the court staff to find out when it sits.

How do I lodge a claim?

You can phone the District Court to have a claim form sent out, pick one up from the court, or download one from the Disputes Tribunals' website. Fill it out and the court will do the rest.

You'll have to provide relevant details:

  • Your name, address and phone number, and the same information for the respondent and any other person or organisation who is involved.
  • Your insurance company details, if you have a policy that relates to the claim.
  • An outline of the dispute – what happened, who was involved and the damage done or loss incurred – and a description of how you tried to resolve it.

How much does it cost to file a claim?

Disputes Tribunal fees are staggered, based on the amount of money you're claiming for.

Amount disputed Fee
Under $2000 $45
$2000 to $4999 $90
$5000 to $20,000 $180

You can't claim this fee back even if you win.

How will I know if someone lodges a dispute against me?

You will receive a notice in the mail outlining the claim, and when and where it will be heard. You can lodge any counter claim, to be heard at the same time.

Who will be at the hearing?

Usually, just the referee and the parties will be present. If there are witnesses, the referee may ask them to wait outside until called. No other members of the public or media are present.

You can apply to bring a support person in with you, but they cannot speak. In some circumstances, you can also have someone represent you – for example, if you have a disability, or poor English that makes it difficult for you to communicate, or you are under 18. This person cannot be a lawyer.

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