The Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) is a popular less expensive forum for resolving various types of disputes, such as domestic building, retail leasing, consumer and trader, owners corporations, and residential tenancies disputes.
However, recent court decisions have highlighted some important limitations on VCAT’s jurisdiction which could mean that VCAT may not be able to hear your case and you may be forced to issue proceedings in a Court which can often be more formal and cost excessive.
VCAT has no jurisdiction to deal with matters involving federal legislation
One significant limitation on VCAT’s jurisdiction is that it cannot deal with matters involving an issue arising under federal legislation. Federal legislation is any law made by the Commonwealth Parliament, such as the Competition and Consumer Act 2010 (Cth) and the Insurance Contracts Act 1984 (Cth).
This limitation stems from the Constitution and the Judiciary Act 1903 (Cth), which together give exclusive jurisdiction over federal matters to federal courts or state courts invested with federal jurisdiction. VCAT is neither a federal court nor a state court invested with federal jurisdiction. Therefore, VCAT has no power to hear or determine matters involving federal issues.
This limitation was confirmed by the Court of Appeal in Thurin v Krongold Constructions (Aust) Pty Ltd  VSCA 226, which held that VCAT lacked jurisdiction to hear a domestic building dispute that involved an issue arising under the Australian Consumer Law (ACL), which is part of the Competition and Consumer Act 2010 (Cth). As a result of this decision, many cases involving federal legislation have been struck out by VCAT and referred to other courts.
This limitation has serious implications for parties involved in legal disputes that may involve federal issues. For example, if you have a consumer or trader dispute that involves an alleged breach of the Australian Consumer Law, you cannot bring your claim in VCAT. You will need to commence your proceeding in a court that has federal jurisdiction, such as the Federal Court or the Supreme Court of Victoria.
This could affect your choice of forum for various reasons, such as costs, procedures, remedies, and availability of legal representation. It could also affect your strategy and tactics in litigation, such as raising or avoiding federal issues as part of your claim or defence.
It is essential to identify any potential federal issues in your case and seek legal advice before commencing legal proceedings in VCAT or any other forum.
Limitation periods do not apply to certain statutory claims in VCAT
Another limitation on VCAT’s jurisdiction is that limitation periods do not apply to certain statutory claims in VCAT. A limitation period is the time within which you must commence legal proceedings to enforce your rights or seek a remedy. If you miss the limitation period, your claim may be dismissed as statute-barred. In Victoria, most civil claims have a six-year limitation period under the Limitations of Actions Act 1958 (Vic).
However, a recent decision by VCAT in Steedman v Greater Western Water Corporation  VCAT 128 held that limitation periods do not apply to statutory claims in VCAT. A statutory claim is a claim based on a specific Act of Parliament that gives VCAT the power to hear and decide that claim.
The reason why limitation periods do not apply to statutory claims in VCAT is that VCAT is not a ‘court of law’ for the purposes of the Limitations of Actions Act 1958 (Vic). Therefore, an ‘action’ under that Act does not include a proceeding in VCAT. This means that you can bring a statutory claim in VCAT even after the expiry of a six-year limitation period.
This decision has some advantages and disadvantages for parties involved in statutory claims. On one hand, it could provide an opportunity for historical claims that would otherwise be time-barred in court. On the other hand, it could create uncertainty and unfairness for parties who rely on limitation periods as a defence or as a means of finality.
It is important to note that this decision may be subject to legislative change or further judicial review. Therefore, you should seek legal advice before relying on this decision or commencing a statutory claim in VCAT.
VCAT’s jurisdictional limitations pose significant challenges for parties involved in legal disputes in Victoria.
Recent court decisions have shown that VCAT cannot deal with matters involving federal legislation, claims for contribution, or certain statutory claims that are subject to limitation periods. These limitations could affect your choice of forum, your strategy and tactics in litigation, and the cost and duration of your dispute. Therefore, it is essential to seek legal advice before commencing legal proceedings in any forum and to stay informed about any potential legislative changes or superior court decisions that may address these issues in the future. By doing so, you can ensure that your case is heard in the appropriate forum and that your rights and interests are protected at all times.