Big time justice for small amounts

Case notes from the Disputes Tribunal after a gap of three years have shed light on justice sought and received through the lowest "court" in the land.

Justice minister Judith Collins sent a rocket the tribunal's way last week, saying she would pass laws requiring it to publish the majority of cases it ruled on.

Collins was frustrated that the tribunal, a cheap lawyer-free zone, was not giving the public the kind of open justice they needed, or access to case histories needed to prepare themselves.

That appears to have prompted the tribunal, which can hear disputes of up to $15,000 (or $20,000 if both parties agree), to finally publish cases of interest from 2011, 2012 and 2013.

The cases, which do not reveal the identities of the parties, show successful types of claims, including consumers using the tribunal to hold poorly performing businesses to account and firms to get customers to pay.

In the year to the end of June, the tribunal heard 16,300 claims and Collins is pushing laws through that will raise the limit to 30,000.

Though the publication of the cases may encourage others to use the tribunal, there are limitations on the kinds of disputes it can hear. Broadly speaking, it can hear cases where there has been negligence or failure to deliver on a promised contract for goods or a service, or damage to property.

2013 cases: Collision costs: You can claim repair costs if a negligent driver damages your car, though beware. In one 2013 case a driver claiming costs was found to be at fault, and had to pay. In another case, a man who had an epileptic blackout while driving and crashed into a parked car had to pay the repair costs, as a prudent person with epilepsy would not have driven.

Word not their bond: The applicants boarded at the respondents' home, and when they left asked for their bond back. When it was refused, they went to the tribunal, but the applicants had no records and could not prove there had ever been a bond.

Computer unfit for sale: A man bought a computer that failed four times in the first eight weeks. The tribunal ordered he should get his money back, as under the Consumer Guarantees Act faulty goods can be rejected if the seller cannot repair them.

Fishy business: Removal men cracked a fish tank when transporting it, but the applicant contracted to have it moved at the "owner's risk", which meant under the Carriage of Goods Act 1979 no claim could be made.

Flood of misery: An insurance adviser told a business client both his properties were insured, but after a flood, it turned out only one was. The adviser failed to exercise reasonable care and skill under the Consumer Guarantees Act and had to pay the business $14,654.82.

Lamb slaughter: A farm had contracted a business to administer drench capsules to approximately 4200 lambs.

They were administered wrongly and 135 died. The business was liable for its employees' actions and had to pay $9580.20 in compensation.

Wrong valuation: A motel owner refused to pay for a valuation when it wasn't high enough for his liking. The tribunal found the valuer had done his report properly and ordered the motel owner to pay his $862.50 fee.

Trade Me warning: A couple bought a second-hand washing machine on Trade Me. It broke down after a month. The tribunal ruled it was fit under the Sale of Goods Act when they bought it as it was then working.

Light not fantastic: A couple bought a glass sculpture at a well-lit gallery, but when it was sent to their home it didn't look nearly as good. They were told they couldn't return it just because it wasn't as aesthetically pleasing as it had been in the gallery.

2012 cases: Stolen trailer: A man left his trailer with a business to get it a warrant of fitness (WOF). The business parked the trailer outside overnight in an area not monitored by security camera. It was stolen and the man wanted the business to repay him the trailer's value. The tribunal found the business had failed to take reasonable care and was liable for the full cost of the trailer.

Sour grapes: A business sought damages from a company contracted by a winemakers association, which judged its anti-rot spray may affect the flavour of the wine. The tribunal ruled its jurisdiction was limited to claims in respect of any damage or injury to physical property, not alleged harm to pure economic interests, such as loss of a sale.

Overpay repaid: An employer overpaid an employee $380.98 in his final pay, but the employee would not pay it back. The tribunal ordered repayment, saying the Wage Protection Act states employers can recover over-payments.

Dodgy advice: A couple were awarded $15,000 against the offerer of a dodgy reverse equity mortgage scheme through which the homeowners mortgaged their home, and invested the money in a lower-tier finance company. They were left out of pocket by more than $15,000 as a result of the scheme not delivering on its promise of being self-funded.

When animals go bad: When a court ordered reparations of only $1500 to pay for vets bills after a roaming dog attacked another, the owner of the hurt dog was awarded $1490.52 for the balance of the vet's bills by the tribunal. Several cases involved cars damaged by roaming livestock.

Trade Me warning II: A person selling a car on Trade Me found the buyer unable to pay. They listed the car again and sold it at a lower price. The buyer who couldn't pay had to make up the difference of $700.

Tow bad: A car owner who had dinner at a restaurant left his car there after the plaza it was parked in closed for the night. The car was towed but, because there was no signage, it could not be shown that the owner had consented to, or willingly assumed, the risk of the car being towed. The towing company had to pay back $250.

2011 cases: Nothing for an eye: A woman suffered chemical burns to her eyes at a beauty salon and claimed for the pain and suffering. Personal injury can't be claimed for here in NZ though ACC would cover the costs of treating the injury.

Trade Me warning III: A man bought a chainsaw on Trade Me. He returned it after it wouldn't start. It was repaired but came back damaged. The tribunal held the chainsaw was not of merchantable quality under the Sale of Goods Act 1908 and the trader who sold it had to refund the purchase price.

Sunday Star Times