VCAT not bound to refer matters to arbitration

On 17 October 2013 I posted a note about Subway Systems Australia Pty Ltd v Ireland [2013] VSC 550 which concerned a dispute between a franchisor and a franchisee. The franchise agreement contained an arbitration clause.  VCAT refused to refer the dispute to arbitration pursuant to s.8 of the Commercial Arbitration Act 2011 which provides that:

“A court before which an action is brought in a matter which is the subject of an arbitration agreement must, if a party so requests not later than when the submitting party’s first statement on the substance of the dispute, refer the parties to arbitration unless it finds that the agreement is null and void, inoperative or incapable of being performed.”

Justice Croft held that VCAT was not a “court” within the meaning of s.8 and therefore the dispute could be heard and determined in VCAT.

The decision is significant because many agreements, particularly franchising agreements, contain arbitration clauses. The effect of the judgment is that if a proceeding is commenced in VCAT concerning an agreement that contains an arbitration clause a party to that agreement cannot request the Tribunal to refer the matter to arbitration pursuant to s.8.  If the same proceeding were commenced in the Magistrates’ Court, the County Court or the Supreme Court, the Court could refer the proceeding to arbitration. According to Justice Croft this did not produce an absurdity because VCAT was intended to be a forum for speedy and inexpensive resolution of disputes.

Justice Croft noted that a party to a proceeding in VCAT could still apply under s.77 of the VCAT Act to have the matter referred to the arbitral tribunal on the basis that it was a more appropriate forum.

In the earlier post about Subway  the Commercial Arbitration Act 2011 was erroneously referred to as a Commonwealth Act; the reference should have been to a Victorian Act.

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