Residential Tenancies Tribunal Member Mr Graham Cochrane
RESIDENTIAL TENANCIES TRIBUNAL MEMBER Mr GRAHAM COCHRANE
Mr J. H. TURNER (Myall Lakes) [10.07]: I raise matters pertaining to the procedure and demeanour of Mr Cochrane, a member of the Residential Tenancies Tribunal, and I thank the
Minister for being present to hear my concerns. I was aware of these matters before taking on the shadow ministry of fair trading. The Minister has written to me pointing out that the parties have certain rights in the Supreme Court and I do not want to canvass those rights. The matters are procedural and concern two of my constituents in one instance and a different constituent from another area in the second instance. In the first instance my constituent, the landlord of certain premises, appeared before Mr Cochrane in the Taree area. I am told that the hearing took five minutes and that the landlord was not given a chance to speak at the hearing.
The presiding officer apparently told the landlord that he was in a hurry to catch an aeroplane and could give only five minutes for the hearing. He allegedly said also that as the landlord had received $15,200 in rent, the damage to the roller door, which was the cause of action and was a contentious issue, was wear and tear and that the tenant should pay only $80. I shall not go into the merits of the case about whether the damage was legitimate; the complaint relates to the demeanour of Mr Cochrane and the procedure he took in dealing with the matter. The landlord was upset about the cavalier manner in which the matter was dealt with and appealed to have the matter varied under section 110. The tribunal refused to do that and obviously gave advice as to the landlord's rights in the Supreme Court.
The solicitors acting for the landlord then requested a copy of the reasons for the decision, which were received from Mr Cochrane on 29 February 1996. In the view of the lawyers involved, those reasons were clearly flawed. The lawyers said in particular that Mrs Burley, a representative from the agent's office, did not appear for the landlord, and could not have spoken because she is not a licensed agent. The concluding paragraph of Mr Cochrane's report referred to photographs taken of the premises after vacant possession, whereas the opening portion of the report referred to photographs of the premises taken prior to the tenant going into possession. No photographs of the premises were tendered at the hearing. In another matter, of which I had the carriage from the start, the landlord complained of certain matters before Mr Cochrane. It took some time to obtain the reasons for the member's decision. I will not mention the names of the parties because of the possibility of future legal action. In the last paragraph of the report Mr Cochrane said:
My constituents tell me that they found that comment demeaning. The Act clearly states that it is not possible for the lease to be varied in the manner in which it was varied. I submitted the member's reasons to the chairperson of the Residential Tenancies Tribunal. Some time later six pages of comprehensive further reasons from Mr Cochrane arrived, which appear to be more of a justification than further reasons. The third occasion on which Mr Cochrane's name came before me was in relation to a matter on the central coast in which the landlord's agent appeared on behalf of the landlord requesting an urgent hearing because of a real concern that the house would be damaged.
The landlord's agent was the only person required to take an oath at the hearing. He outlined the problems with the tenant and advised Mr Cochrane that he had reason to believe that substantial damage might occur to the house. I believe the agent had arranged for the Department of Housing to provide emergency accommodation for the tenant so that the tenant would not be disadvantaged. Mr Cochrane refused to hear the matter as an urgent matter and did not make orders for the tenant to vacate to separate premises. That night - and again I will not refer to the parties because legal proceedings are on foot - the house was trashed, not necessarily by the tenant, causing $15,200 worth of damage.
Mr SPEAKER: Order! Before the Minister replies, I want to draw the attention of the House to a ruling by previous Speaker Rozzoli, who stated:
If the parties require any further elaboration then all of the exhibits will have to be returned to the tribunal. Quite frankly, I do not understand the request for written reasons as the entire process of hearing was conducted slowly, every part of the process explained and the reasons for decision given clearly to the parties . . .
Although the honourable member is a shadow minister, his remarks have been made in his capacity as a private member dealing with matters concerning his constituents rather than non-constituents. The member has given reasons for not naming those people, and the Chair accepts what has been said in that regard. As a general rule I will uphold Speaker Rozzoli's rulings relating to contributions during private members' statements by shadow ministers. In this case the member has made his comments within the guidelines and the Minister may reply.
Mr J. H. TURNER: May I indicate that I prefaced my comments by saying that this arose before I joined the shadow ministry.
Mr SPEAKER: Order! The member is completely in order. I thought this to be an appropriate time to make a statement in relation to that ruling.
Mrs LO PO' (Penrith - Minister for Fair Trading, and Minister for Women) [10.12]: The tribunals for which I have portfolio responsibility are akin to courts and they operate at arms-length from the Minister, as they did under the former Government. I have listened to the honourable member for Myall Lakes. I admit that there are landlords from hell and I recognise that there are also tenants from hell. The honourable member is really asking me to pull the referee of a tribunal into line, but I do not have that capacity, because the tribunal is at arms-length. But I take at face value
the honourable member's concerns and will raise them with the chairperson of the Residential Tenancies Tribunal. I will provide her with a copy of today's Hansard so that we can go through it piece by piece and obtain a response for the honourable member.
I should like to put on record that there are tribunals in my portfolio over which I as Minister have no control, which is as it should be. It means that in times of coalition government people who are in favour with the government are given an inside track, and at present people in favour with the Labor Party are given an inside track. There is mutual agreement that Ministers should not exercise political power over tribunals or courts. But in the limited capacity that I have I will take up the issues that the honourable member has raised and obtain for him an intelligent response.
The type of matter raised in a member's capacity as a shadow minister would generally be outside the spirit of a private member's statement.