The weakness of a party’s case in a retail tenancy dispute can be taken into account in determining whether or not it has “conducted” a “proceeding in a vexatious way” that would entitle the other party to a cost order under s.92(2) of the Retail Leases Act 2003 (Vic).
Part 10 of the Act contains the dispute resolution provisions. Except as provided in s.92(2) the Act requires each party to a retail tenancy dispute to bear its own costs of the proceeding. See: s.92(1). Costs may be awarded in a retail tenancy dispute under s.92(2) if:
“…the Tribunal is satisfied that it is fair to do so because;
(a) the party conducted the proceeding in a vexatious way that unnecessarily disadvantaged the other party to the proceeding; or
(b) the party refused to take part in or withdrew from mediation or other form of alternative dispute resolution under this Part.”
Judge Bowman in State of Victoria v Bradto Pty Ltd and Timbook Pty Ltd  VCAT 1813 referred to the distinction in s.92(2)(a) between a proceeding which is conducted in a vexatious way and the bringing or nature of the proceeding being vexatious. His Honour held that a proceeding is conducted in a vexatious manner “if it is conducted in a way productive of serious and unjustified trouble or harassment, or if there is conduct which is seriously and unfairly burdensome, prejudicial or damaging”.
In 24 Hour Fitness Pty Ltd v W & B Investment Group Pty Ltd  VSCA 216 the Court of Appeal considered an appeal from a decision by VCAT in which costs had been awarded on an indemnity basis pursuant to s.92(2)(a). The Tribunal’s decision was based in part on a finding that the applicant had commenced an action for damages in circumstances where the applicant, properly advised, should have known it had no chance of success and persisting in what should, on proper consideration, have been seen to be a hopeless case. The applicant contended that there was a difference between instituting a proceeding that was vexatious, or making a claim that fails, and the conduct of the proceeding which is vexatious. It argued that the Tribunal focused more on what were perceived to be the prospects of success than on the actual conduct of the proceeding.
The Court of Appeal rejected the applicant’s contentions holding that the Tribunal had considered the conduct of the proceeding in addition to the “hopelessness of the applicant’s claim” and that there was no error in also considering the hopelessness of the claim because “the strength of the applicant’s claim for damages was a relevant factor to take into account”.
At  the Court of Appeal said:
“It would be artificial to attempt to evaluate the manner in which the proceeding was conducted without having regard to the strength of that party’s case. In the present circumstances, it was relevant that the applicant pursued the damages claim, in circumstances where it was bound to fail.”
If it appears that a proceeding is hopeless the applicant should be notified at an early stage that the application is hopeless and should be withdrawn.