FEARS OF a jump in unrepresented litigants are on the rise in the nation’s west because of a controversial plan to prevent lawyers from appearing in civil disputes worth under $7,500.
Pursuant to a restructure of WA’s court system, the State Government will soon roll the Small Claims Tribunal (SCT) into the jurisdiction of the Magistrates Court. At present the tribunal hears cases involving amounts less than $3,000 via mediation without legal representation.
Under the new system, which has raised the ire of the Law Society of WA, the representation threshold will skyrocket 250 per cent to $7,500. The Government believes the changes will make the court process speedier and less expensive, thus boosting access to justice in the long run.
Society president Elizabeth Heenan last week fired off a submission rejecting the idea to Attorney-General Jim McGinty.
She later told Lawyers Weekly that instead of improving access to justice, the proposal would have the reverse effect. The delicate balance of power between individuals and well-resourced corporations would most probably undergo a dangerous shift if more claimants appeared unrepresented, she predicted.
“A number of the small claims come from motor vehicle cases where the other party is an insurer that may not be represented by a lawyer, but rather an experienced and extremely well versed agent in the field of disputes,” Heenan said. “Then there’s the wider problem of having unrepresented litigants appearing before the courts and slowing the process because they do not understand the rules.”
Heenan added the society’s views had the backing of WA’s judicial community. Although the guild rejected the proposal, Heenan said its submission included a “common ground” recommendation that would prevent the Court making costs orders if lawyers were allowed to appear.