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How to take a claim to the Disputes Tribunal in New Zealand

What is the Disputes Tribunal?

The New Zealand Disputes Tribunal provides a means of settling a claim or dispute in a way that is considerably faster and cheaper than the standard court system. It was formerly called the "Small Claims Tribunal".

The Tribunal is less formal than the standard courts. The parties present their own cases at Tribunal hearings, with no lawyers being permitted to attend. Each case is heard before a "referee", rather than a judge.

There is a limit on the size of claims that the Tribunal can hear.

What kinds of disputes can the Tribunal hear?

Among other things, the Disputes Tribunal can be used:

  • to enforce your rights under the CONSUMER GUARANTEES ACT against suppliers of defective goods or inadequate services (see related article How to exercise your rights under the Consumer Guarantees Act)
  • to resolve a dispute with your neighbour - for example, a fencing dispute
  • to recover a disputed debt
  • to claim for damage to your property

The Tribunal does not have jurisdiction to deal with debts that are not disputed - in other words, it cannot be used as a debt collection agency. It also cannot deal with disputes about wills or land, nor with family-law issues such as matrimonial property and custody of children.

There is a limitation period for bringing a claim to the Tribunal: you cannot bring a claim concerning events that happened more than six years ago.

How do I begin a claim in the Tribunal?

The Disputes Tribunal can be contacted at your local District Court. You will need to fill in a Claim Form giving the relevant details, including the amount of the claim and what you want the Tribunal to do about it. The Tribunal staff can assist you with filling out your Claim Form.

There is a fee for taking a claim to the Tribunal, which varies according to the size of your claim.

If the Tribunal accepts that it has jurisdiction to hear your claim, it will send you and the other party a Notice of Hearing, which tells you the time and the place for the hearing of your case. The hearing will usually be held within six weeks of you filing your claim.

Preparing for the hearing

Although you might decide to consult a lawyer to help you prepare for the hearing, no lawyers are allowed to appear at the hearing itself – you will present your own case. Before the hearing you should therefore make notes of what you want to say, and bring these notes with you to the hearing.

You are also entitled to make a written submission to the referee, by writing down all the details of the dispute and why the referee should find in your favour. You should ask the Tribunal staff at the District Court to attach this submission to your file before the hearing.

You should bring with you to the hearing any documents that can back up your position, such as any contract you had with the other party, any warranties, any receipts or invoices, any relevant letters that were later exchanged between you, and any photographs or diagrams that demonstrate your claim.

If the claim concerns defective goods and the item is small enough to carry with you, bring it with you to the hearing to show the referee.

If you wish to bring witnesses with you to the hearing, inform the Tribunal staff in advance.

What happens at the hearing?

At the start of the hearing the referee will explain what will happen at the hearing. You will present your case first, telling what happened and presenting any evidence that you have. Any witnesses that you bring will then be heard. Your witnesses can be asked questions, both by the other party and by the referee.

Then the other party presents his or her case, including any witnesses. You will be able to question those witnesses.

After the two sides have been heard, the referee attempts first to mediate between you to see if some agreement can be reached. If no agreement is reached, or if the referee does not believe that an agreement is fair, the referee will make a decision.

In making a decision, the referee can consider any relevant legal rules, but is not bound by those rules.

Can I appeal the referee's decision?

If you are unhappy with the outcome of the Tribunal hearing there are some limited circumstances in which you can appeal to the District Court or apply for a rehearing in the Tribunal.

You can appeal to the District Court if the referee conducted the proceedings in a way that was unfair to you and this prejudicially affected the result of the proceedings. You must file a Notice of Appeal at the District Court within 28 days of the Tribunal decision.

You can apply to the Tribunal for a rehearing of your claim if either of the following two grounds apply:

  • You, or a significant witness for your side, were unable to attend the hearing for good reason, such as ill-health or the Notice of Hearing being sent to the wrong address.
  • The referee approved an agreed settlement at the hearing, and subsequently you discover relevant facts that couldn't have been obtained before the hearing and that would have affected the outcome.
Cautionary notes
  • The Disputes Tribunal may not have jurisdiction to deal with a claim. For example, if you wish to recover a debt but the debtor does not deny that you are owed the money, there is no "dispute" to be dealt with.
  • The Disputes Tribunal provides a forum for resolving disputes without the formality of the standard courts and with no judges or lawyers being present. However, you may wish to consult a lawyer to determine whether the Tribunal is the appropriate way to deal with the claim. If you do decide to take your claim to the Tribunal, a lawyer can advise you as to how best to present your case to the referee.

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