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VCAT feeling fine

News

Cite as: April 2011 85(4) LIJ, p.31

Changes at Victoria's one-stop shop for dispute resolution are aimed at improving customer satisfaction.

VCAT is making good on a promise to ensure that 90 per cent of all reserved decisions are delivered within six weeks of the final hearing day.

In April 2010, 72 per cent of all reserved decisions in the planning division – which accounts for 80 per cent of all VCAT reserved decisions – were going beyond the six-week point.

By February this year that figure had dropped to 4 per cent.

VCAT president Justice Iain Ross said while the results were “very good” it was an area the tribunal needed to continually monitor.

“But we have dealt with the backlog and the timeliness of reserved decisions across the Tribunal has substantially improved over the last six months or so,” Justice Ross said.

The six-week timeline was introduced after a review of VCAT’s performance found many users were frustrated with the sometimes lengthy wait for reserved decisions to be handed down.

VCAT members are also now required to provide a monthly report setting out their reserved decisions.

Improving the timeliness of reserved decisions was an initiative contained in the Transforming VCAT package released last November. The package aimed to improve overall performance, accountability and service delivery at the Tribunal.

VCAT has also unveiled a streamlined complaints system in which members of the public can lodge grievances about VCAT members or their experiences at the tribunal. The “Members Competency Framework” also identifies key competencies and performance indicators for tribunal members. A pilot scheme planned for this year will require members to appraise each other’s performances, competency and hearing styles.

Another recent initiative was the release of the Tribunal’s first code of conduct – the Conduct Guide for VCAT Members.

The guide seeks to aid accountability and reinforce VCAT’s three core values of impartiality, independence and integrity.

Justice Ross said the initiatives were aimed at ensuring those who appeared at VCAT left with the belief they had a fair hearing.

“We want them to feel they had been able to put their case and that the members had understood their case,” Justice Ross said.

“They may not have won, but we want people to feel they have had a fair go.”

Justice Ross said the conduct guide should be viewed as part of a package of initiatives aimed at culture shift within the organisation, rather than an indication some VCAT members needed to be pulled into line.

“There has been no conduct guide, there has been no competency framework, no appraisal system or formal complaint mechanism at VCAT before. It is about accountability and setting expectations and improving performance going forward,” he said.

“It is part of a broader picture in improving performance.”

The conduct document sets out principles of appropriate conduct and professional behaviour to guide VCAT members in their professional duties and in their private conduct as it affects those duties.

These include respecting all parties and tribunal staff, acting impartially and independently and declaring any personal interests associated with a proceeding.

It also warns against using information for insider trading, improperly influencing people outside a VCAT hearing room and not accepting gifts that could compromise impartiality.

Justice Ross said most other legal organisations had conduct guides where appropriate and the VCAT version would be particularly helpful for the tribunal’s 180 sessional members. The guide applies to all members – full-time, part-time or sessional.

VCAT has promised to publish a yearly report card throughout the life of the three-year strategic plan. The next report card is due to be published in July this year.

VCAT was established over a decade ago as a way of centralising Victoria’s many separate tribunals, which were separated into a number of specialist lists.

Justice Ross said that it was hoped VCAT would become known as an alternative dispute resolution centre of excellence.

For further information, see www.vcat.vic.gov.au.

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