Renters, landlords in limbo after COVID crashes dispute tribunal

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Thousands of Victorian renters and landlords are in limbo and unable to get a tribunal hearing to sort out disputes, including over bonds, due to disruption from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Organisations that represent both renters and real estate agents say the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal is in immediate need of more funding and staff to address the delays, with the tribunal wrestling a mammoth task to move its antiquated system online.

Leah Calnan, president of the Real Estate Institute of Victoria. Credit:Wayne Taylor

The tribunal’s precarious situation was further exposed this week, with a coronavirus case in the building effectively closing the court to all but a handful of matters on Friday.

“[The tribunal] is under-resourced and needs immediate attention by the state government because it’s adversely affecting all participants – owners, tenants and property managers,” Real Estate Institute of Victoria president Leah Calnan said.

Figures from the Justice Department seen by The Age show the backlog at the tribunal has blown out to more than 130 per cent compared to the number of pending cases pre-pandemic.

While planning matters moved swiftly online, the residential tenancy list, which ordinarily hears about 50,000 cases a year involving renters, landlords and agents, has had a turnover rate hovering at about 60 per cent of its usual case load.

Though urgent cases involving critical repairs, family violence, extreme hardship, evictions and substantial rent arrears are prioritised, Tenants Victoria and the Real Estate Institute say disputes over bonds and compensation – of which there’s at least 10,000 in the system – take months to be dealt with, or in many cases, are not given a hearing date at all.

Tenants Victoria chief executive Jennifer Beveridge said the inability to access a bond can be crippling, particularly when a renter doesn’t have work.

“They need their money back in order to help them find somewhere else to live,” Ms Beveridge said.

Kelly Chan has been waiting for her dispute over her bond to be heard in VCAT for 10 months.Credit:Joe Armao

This was the case for Kelly Chan, a PhD student from Hong Kong who is studying in Melbourne.

Ms Chan gave her landlord notice that she could not afford her rent and needed to break her lease after her part-time job as a research assistant was made redundant last year.

Her landlord refused to release her $2200 bond then claimed thousands in compensation against her for the time it took to find another tenant.

“I understand they [the landlord] also suffers, but I really don’t have any money,” she said.

Ms Chan could only afford to move due to the kindness of her new housemate covering her share of the bond.

It has been 10 months since Ms Chan applied to VCAT, and the 38-year-old’s case is listed for a hearing next week.

Ms Calnan said all parties, from renters to landlords, were frustrated.

“There has been some consideration for cases where there’s been severe hardship or substantial rent arrears, but unfortunately, you go into the system and it’s a matter of waiting,” she said.

The caseload has also been difficult for the tribunal’s staff. About 10 per cent of the about 200 members resigned during the pandemic and weren’t replaced. Staff are also reporting far more calls from abusive and distressed Victorians desperate to have their cases heard.

“It’s evident that more funding is needed to build both the capacity of VCAT and the legal assistance sector,” Ms Beveridge said, adding a dispute resolution service for tenants and landlords should be re-introduced.

A VCAT spokesperson said the tribunal was amid of a redesign that will make it paperless, which will improve access.

A government spokesperson said more than $83 million in funding had been invested in VCAT over the past two years and two new facilities opened in Frankston and Bundoora this year.

“The sheer scale of the ongoing impact of COVID-19 and the high volume of cases VCAT deals with means that it will take some time for things to get back to normal.”

Liberal shadow attorney-general Ed O’Donohue said the delays were unacceptable and a direct result of an Andrews’ government failure to address a funding crisis that “sees VCAT utilising 1980s technology and systems”.

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