Disputes Tribunals hear disputes over faulty goods or workmanship, pricing, fencing of boundaries, car accidents, and loss or damage to other property. We explain how the tribunal works, your rights at the hearing, and how to file a case.

The tribunals are cheap and easy to use, have few delays and no lawyers. There’s a referee to make sure you get a fair go, and who must try to resolve issues on the wider basis of natural justice.

How they work

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?

The Disputes Tribunal aims to resolve issues on the wider basis of natural justice.
The Disputes Tribunal aims to resolve issues on the wider basis of natural justice.

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 2 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 1 party in a claim.

How long will it take?
The Disputes Tribunal aims to have all hearings heard within 6 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:

  • 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.

Making a good claim

How should I prepare?
People often turn up for a hearing without being ready, and cases have to be dismissed or reconvened. There are several things you should do:

  • Collect the evidence. Bills and receipts, photographs, any official reports (such as the traffic crash report if there’s an accident), witness accounts – they’re all valuable. If the drycleaner ruined your best frock, bring it along.
  • Make sure any important witnesses can attend – if not, see if you can get a new date for the hearing or ask the court staff if it’s possible to attend by telephone.
  • Make notes for yourself on the problem and how you want it fixed. Isolate your central issues and arguments. It’s important to work out what you really want to say, so you can stay focused.
  • Put together a submission and send it to the District Court in advance of your hearing. This isn’t strictly necessary, but experienced referees say it’s definitely a good idea. Your submission should contain a summary of your case, with the key issues clearly stated, and copies of any key documents.
  • Practise your presentation with someone who can give you good advice.

What will happen at the hearing?
The referee will introduce everyone and explain the process. Each side will be given a chance to explain their point of view. The referee may question each side and invite them to question each other. It may become apparent that the sides can agree. If not, the referee will issue a decision and explain the reasons for it.

Do I need to know the law?
If you believe a piece of legislation is relevant, refer to it in your submission. The referee will determine whether it applies.

Do I need a good legal argument?
You don’t need to be an expert on the law to win your case. But it will certainly help if you present your view in a calm and collected manner, focusing on the central issues.

Listen to the other party and the referee, and be reasonable without compromising your legitimate rights.

“Justice or the law?”, below, explains more about how the Tribunal will decide your case.

Do I need expert witnesses?
That depends on the kind of case it is. If it involves, for example, a builder who did a bad job on your new deck, it will be useful to have a report from a building inspector. Try to find an impartial witness. We’ve heard of the Tribunal adjourning a hearing to allow for a second expert to prepare a report, because the first witness wasn’t objective enough.

The outcome

What sort of decisions can a referee make?
Referees can order that money be paid, property be delivered or work be carried out to remedy a problem. They can order that a person is not liable for a debt, or alter or cancel agreements. They can also dismiss a claim.

What if I don’t agree with the decision?
You have 28 days to appeal from the date of the referee’s decision. However, you may appeal only on the grounds the procedure was unfair and produced a prejudiced result.

A specific example of procedural unfairness is if the referee fails to have regard to any law that was brought to their attention at the hearing.

However, if the referee had regard to the law but the merits of the case meant that in the referee’s mind the law could be departed from, then you can’t appeal.

There is no other right of appeal – you cannot appeal because you disagree with the decision.

Appeals are heard by a District Court judge and court procedures apply.

What if I later find out some valuable new information?
If you discover new information that bears on the outcome and that you could not, with “reasonable diligence”, have known beforehand, you can apply for a rehearing. You usually have to do this within 28 days of the original decision, although sometimes a later application will be accepted.

The application will be considered by the referee who heard the original claim.

What if the decision is against me?
The decision is a court order – you must comply with it. Enforcement action can be taken against you if you do not abide by the decision.

What if the decision is for me?
You may still have difficulty in getting the money or the work done that was ordered.

If the other party doesn’t comply with the order, you can request enforcement by the courts. To do this, you must supply an up-to-date street address (not just a box number) and phone number for the other party.

What does enforcement action consist of?
There are 2 main approaches. An “order for examination” is a request for the other party to appear before a court registrar to see if and how they can pay. Both parties are required to be at this hearing. If the registrar decides payment should occur, it might be handled by instalment or deduction from income.

The next option is a “distress warrant”, which empowers a bailiff to visit the other party, either to gain payment or to seize assets.

It won’t cost you anything to apply to have the order enforced – that’s added to what the other party owes.

Case studies

Here are some real cases (real names are not used), with real results. But they’re not an infallible guide to what could happen, because every case is different. The outcome will depend on the circumstances, the parties involved, and the referee hearing the case.

Moving to Motueka

Jody and Richard Miller hired a moving company to transport their home contents from Wellington to Motueka. They agreed to a quoted price of $3100 for the whole job - packing, moving, unpacking, and taking away the packing materials afterwards.

But things went awry. The packing was poorly done, with some items damaged in transit. Labour to unpack the items was recruited from a local Motueka pub, and parts of the job were left unfinished. Several items were also found to be missing.

Although the goods were carried “at owners’ risk”, the Disputes Tribunal referee judged the moving company was liable for the damaged and missing items. He ordered them to pay Jody and Richard $1627 within 7 days.

Puppy power

Jim Collins paid $1000 to Auckland breeders for a purebred Rottweiler puppy. But, at 4 months old, the puppy began limping. Diagnosed with a genetic disease called osteochondritis, the dog needed surgery and was also likely to need ongoing treatment and veterinary visits.

The breeders refused to help with the treatment, saying that because the dog wasn’t taken to the vet within 2 days of purchase, it wasn’t their problem. Jim took them to the Disputes Tribunal.

Under the Consumer Guarantees Act, a dog (like other goods) must be of acceptable quality and comply with its description.

The referee determined that not only were the breeders liable for the reduction in value of the dog (from $1000 to $500) that resulted from the defect; they were also liable for the costs Jim would incur because of ongoing vet bills (called “foreseeable consequential loss”). The referee ordered the dog breeders to pay Jim $7449 within 7 days.

Now Jim is able to give his best friend the treatment he needs.

Totalled telly

Ari Kruger’s big-screen TV started having significant problems just 8 months after he paid $2999 to a Tauranga retailer for it. The problem wasn’t immediately diagnosed, but it progressively got worse and Ari finally contacted the retailer.

The 12-month manufacturer’s warranty had expired and the store simply said, “Not our problem.” A repairer inspected the TV and quoted over $3000 for the repair – more than the TV’s purchase price. That’s not on, thought Ari, and lodged a claim with the Disputes Tribunal.

Under the Consumer Guarantees Act, goods have to be of acceptable quality and durability. The referee had little doubt that a $2999 TV should last much longer than 12 months, ordering the store to pay Ari a full refund plus another $150 for the repairer’s inspection fee.

And what did the store get for dishonouring their legal obligations? A decidedly defective TV that they’d have to collect at their own cost.

Our view

  • From our undercover work on extended warranties, we know that many shops, including nationwide retail chains, are misleading customers about their rights. But we’ve also heard many stories about a retailer immediately sorting out the problem once a claim is lodged with the Disputes Tribunal.

  • More than 10 percent of claims never go to a hearing. Just the act of lodging a claim with the Disputes Tribunal could get you the result you want.

  • Disputes Tribunals provide accessible and uncomplicated justice – but successful claimants can still be left out-of-pocket. Claimants who get a decision in their favour should have their tribunal fee reimbursed to them by the party found to be at fault. We urge the government to change the Act, and make this possible.