High cost of car cases in VCAT putting justice out of reach

A Victorian couple has successfully used the Australian Consumer Law to claim $17,495 from Melbourne Street Cars after it sold her a faulty 2003 Nissan X Trail. But while the victory in the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) is a testament to the strength of Australia’s consumer protection laws, it also shows how costs can put justice beyond the reach of many low income Victorians.

In order to provide expert mechanical evidence, which supported the allegation that the car was faulty, Consumer Action Law Centre’s clients Mr and Ms Pojzac had to pay $800 for an initial report and $600 on each of the two occasions the mechanic appeared to give evidence.

‘Paying $2000 for expert evidence is beyond most low income Victorians. They simply don’t have the disposable income to pay for the evidence they’d need to win their case—especially since it comes on top of the VCAT filing fee,’ said Sarah Wilson of Consumer Action.

‘Low income Victorians are more likely to be stuck with a lemon because a cheap car is all they can afford. Sadly, their ability to hold the dealer to account may be limited by their inability to afford expert reports and testimony.’

‘Consumer Action has had clients who were unable to afford expert reports, and we’ve seen cases substantially lost because of a lack of expert reports. We’re concerned that consumers with a valid case may fail because they couldn’t afford an expert,’ said Ms Wilson.

Ms Wilson said the Victorian Government has an opportunity to support VCAT and ensure those with meritorious cases are not put off by the expense of preparing their case. ‘VCAT has traditionally been a low cost forum to resolve disputes—thousands of Victorians have found justice through VCAT. It must remain low cost, from the filing fees to providing evidence, so that all Victorians are able to assert their basic consumer rights.’

How many car complaints are there in Victoria?
While Consumer Action is unable to ascertain how many car complaints are made to VCAT each year, Consumer Affairs Victoria received 11,008 enquiries about new or used cars between 1 April 2012 and 31 March 2013, and automotive issues were the 4th most complained about product to Consumer Affairs Victoria in the last financial year.

Consumer Action has a range of self help kits on cars at: http://consumeraction.org.au/help-for-consumers/fact-sheets/fact-sheets-motor-vehicles/.