On the phone: NCAT hearings during COVID-19

On the phone: NCAT hearings during COVID-19

7 August 2020

By Cath Dickinson

With the onset of the Coronavirus pandemic, the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal announced that all hearings will now be held by phone. It’s a significant change for property managers and one with practical impacts. We spoke to Sandra McGee to find out the good and the bad aspects of this new way of operation.

Sandra McGee, Property Management Manager at Starr Partners Merrylands and member of the REINSW Property Management Chapter Committee, said that the feedback from her team about NCAT phone hearings has been largely positive.

“One of the biggest complaints property managers have always had about NCAT hearings relates to wasted time,” she said. “There’s the time it takes to travel to the venue, followed by a lot of sitting around outside the hearing room and waiting to be called.

“When you add it all up, there can sometimes be hours of downtime that could be better spent on other value-adding activities.

“Now, with phone hearings, you’re given a firm hearing time. This means you’re not waiting around and wondering when your matter is going to be heard. There are also time limits in place for each hearing, which ensures things don’t drag on.

“In particular, for relatively simple matters, such as rental arrears, the phone hearings work well and decisions are made quickly.”

However, Sandra explained that a lot more work has to be done upfront when it comes to phone hearings.

“Before, you would simply lodge an application with NCAT and then take the residential tenancy agreement, inspection reports, photos, et cetera along with you to the hearing,” she said. “You could simply give them to the tenant on the day and negotiate a settlement, or present it all to the Tribunal Member and argue your case.

“Now, all your documentation needs to be prepared well ahead of time, because there’s a lot more back and forth ahead of the phone hearing.

“For example, if you lodge an application with NCAT, you have 14 days to hand your documentation over to the tenant. The tenant then has 14 days to reply to you, followed by another seven days for you to reply back to the tenant. Then you have to also make sure the documentation goes to the Tribunal Member as well.

“So, with phone hearings, there’s a lot more preliminary work and back and forth before you actually get to the hearing stage.

“It also means that there’s a longer period of time between lodging an application and the actual phone hearing date. We’re finding that our hearing dates are up to eight weeks from the time of application, whereas it used to be only three weeks.”

While there is additional time now being spent preparing ahead of the hearing, Sandra said that this is more than offset by the time saved not having to travel to a hearing venue.

Even though phone hearings came about because of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, Sandra believes they are here to stay.

“Now that phone hearings have been shown to work, why wouldn’t NCAT continue on with them,” she asked. “Venue costs have always been a big issue for NCAT and we saw this when hearings were significantly cut back in Parramatta. Phone hearings surely go some way to easing this burden, while also providing convenience and ease of access for all parties.

“I can also see that phone hearings are of particular benefit in regional areas. Why have a Tribunal Member travelling hours by car on a regional circuit, only visiting towns every four to six weeks, when phone hearings can save time and money, and allow for more timely resolution of applications.”

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