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Thursday, 26 March 1942

Senator KEANE (Victoria) (Minister for Trade and Customs) . - I had a hand in drafting the regulation under discussion, and I know that the subregulation to which particular reference has been made by Senator Spicer has been the subject of a great deal of controversy amongst various sections of the community. Representations have been made to the Government, through the Attorney-General, by the law institutes of nearly every State in which the regulation is operative. It is obvious that the Government had some purpose in inserting the provision which has been criticized so strongly by Senator Spicer. Sub-regulation 8 of the regulation states -

The agent shall not, without the consent of all parties or persons affected, or, unless the Attorney-General has intervened by counsel, be a barrister or solicitor, or a clerk of a barrister or solicitor.

That shows that the barrier to employing legal aid can be overcome by obtaining the consent of all parties. I remind the honorable senator that the procedure in the Fair Rents Court in Victoria, with which he is an fait, is businesslike and offers the litigant a practical method of dealing with his claim. I still fail to see why legal advice should be needed either by the landlord or the applicant. A working man renting a house in Melbourne may complain because his rent has been raised by 6s. a week. He can go to the nearest clerk of courts and lay a complaint, which will be listed with others and heard by a magistrate in the Fair Rents Court. The complainant will be able to explain his financial position to the magistrate and state for what period he has rented the house, what rental he has been paying, the amount of his weekly earnings, and the extent of the repairs that have been effected to the property. The owner will then be able to state his case. He need not employ an agent to do so. Surely any man can do a simple thing like that? The magistrate, having heard the arguments, may then proceed to the house and inspect it. He may give his decision in the backyard of the property, or in his own chambers. There is no doubt that, by this costless procedure, poor people who arc afflicted by high rentals are able to obtain certain and quick justice.

Senator Allan MacDonald - It is not as easy as all that. What have the tenant's earnings to do with the rent of the house?

Senator KEANE - They have a considerable bearing on the rental. The rent is based on the capital cost of the building, plus the ordinary rate charges and the cost of any renovations carried out by the owner. If the honorable gentleman had been a member of the Joint Committee on Social Security, as I was for a period, he would have learned that many grave injustices are being perpetrated in every State. Many of these injustices have been curtailed by these regulations. The National Security (Fair Rent) Regulations, which operated in Victoria, Queensland and Tasmania prior to the promulgation of this regulation, permitted parties to proceedings taken under it to be represented by barristers or solicitors. There is no evidence that this opportunity was availed of to any great degree. In fact, a feature of the operation of the regulations in Victoria was that parties usually conducted their own cases. The proceedings were very informal. Parties who could not afford legal representation were made to feel that their cases were not prejudiced by their inability to pay for assistance. Tenants engaged legal assistance more often than landlords. I consider that a person's economic position should not be a barrier to fair treatment, and wealthy members of the community should not have an advantage over others. Whilst there has been a certain amount of agitation for the granting of the right to secure legal representation before these tribunals, no cases have been brought to the notice of the Government in which either a landlord or a tenant has suffered as the result of not having legal assistance. Many poor and uneducated personsrun the risk of not doing their cases justice when they are opposed by trained advocates. The existing regulation is not a barrier to legal representation, provided that all parties are in agreement on the subject. I took an active part in the drafting of this part of regulation 25. 3 was a member of the Social Security Committee when it took evidence in Melbourne, on the 4th August, 1941, from Mr. W. O. Burt, a barrister and solicitor, who is a member of the Housing Commission of Victoria. Mr. Burt said in evidence that the then existing Fair Rents Court procedure was not operating fairly to applicants for relief. He stated -

The main objections to existing legislation are -

(1)   The tenant is obliged to absent himself from his work on at least two days - one day to instruct his lawyer or the person to represent him and one day to attend court. This means in some cases a total loss of £2.

(2)   The tenant is obliged (if he is able to procure one) to employ a valuer whose fee amounts to about £3 3s.

(3)   The tennant is further obliged to pay the valuer £11s. for his attendance at court and a further £2 2s. to £3 3s. for a solicitor to represent him. As the landlord always employs a lawyer, the tenant cannot safely dispense with one.

It willbe seen, therefore, that the tenant may face a total outlay of about £10 with the further risk of losing his case and having to pay a great deal more. In other words, a tenant must risk a total of up to £20 to obtain the doubtful saving of a few shillings per week.

An unfortunate tenant in a poor financial position could not undertake a liability of that nature, for the doubtful chance of obtaining a reduction of his rent. This provision has worked well in Victoria, and I have received no complaints as to its operation in other States. It applies only in cases where the rentals do not exceed £4 a week. In the case of higher rentals there might be some justification for the engagement of lawyers in the event of disputes. I am somewhat biased against the employment of legal men in the hearing of these disputes. My experience of them in arbitration court proceedings leads me to say that, whilst they are sometimes helpful in the marshalling of evidence, a practical layman is quite capable of conducting a case. I appreciate the clear manner in which Senator Spicer has presented his arguments, and I shall look into them. I shall obtain the report from the officers whose duty it is to administer the law in this matter, and I shall communicate with the honorable senator later. My present view is that the regulation should not be altered.

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