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May 2013 Valuation Tribunal update

Following extensive consultations focused on the Valuation Tribunal Users' Group (of which J P Scrafton is a member), the President of the Valuation Tribunal for England has announced that there will be sweeping changes to this Practice Statement, which covers the disclosure and exchange of information in rating appeals.

While the text of the draft new Statement has yet to appear, and while that draft itself will need to be discussed with the Users' Group (and doubtless with others) before it is promulgated, it is clear that the practice of many valuation officers of refusing to disclose any rental or other relevant evidential information, will have to cease. Likewise, the practice of those valuation officers who, having refused to disclose information, then appear before a Tribunal, submitting that they have no case to answer, and then expecting to produce their own comparables and to cross-examine the ratepayer, will also have to cease. The President has pointed out, with considerable emphasis, that it is a well-established principle of English law that all public officials are accountable, that they must be prepared to justify their actions, in writing (and before a judicial body, if required), and that, if they fail to do so, then their actions under challenged will be susceptible of being struck down or varied.

This principle applies even in cases involving national security (although hearings may be in camera) and the only agency which seems to seek to exempt itself from this requirement, is the Valuation Office Agency. Such an approach cannot be permitted to stand: the President has taken informal advice from two leading Silks in the field (which advice has been disclosed to members of the Users' Group) and he has stated, in terms, that he is willing to be challenged on the point by way of judicial review, should the Agency choose to do so.

Before everyone starts to view the Agency as unmitigated "baddies" there are a couple of important points to be made in their defence. First, their budget has been cut, repeatedly, and cumulatively, by successive governments. A plea by a Treasury Sub-Committee of the House of Commons, carrying out a quinquennial review of the Agency over a decade ago, asked for some, at least of these cuts, to be reversed, but the Treasury has refused. Resources have been stretched to paper-thinness (although of course the Agency would deny this), and with downsizing and (as some would say) downskilling, they simply cannot offer the service to the public which they used to offer. This problem has been exacerbated, in the 2010 Lists, by the practice of certain agants in lodging appeals on a "blanket" basis, and using many of these as a "fishing expedition" in order to extract information from the Agency. inevitably, the Agency had to react by putting up the proverbial shutters.

There is also the position of the Valuation Tribunal Service to consider. Since the creation of the national Tribunal, numbers of ofices have closed, the staff has thinned, and the IT has had to cope with the blizzard of paperwork created by the new procedures. The load, there, has been considerably increased - and of course, with the advent of the Council Tax Reduction jurisdiction, with its unknown number of likely appeals (including those which fall to be struck out immediately because of want of jurisdiction) that system is starting to creak, as well. As the judges who are being "lent" to do these CTR appeals must sit with a VTE Chairman, there will be more sitting days to arrange, with no greater resources, which in turn means that there will be fewer sitting days available for rating appeals than at present, and that Tribunals will now, habitually, be made up of but two members, rather than the present three.

All in all, even with the present large numbers of withdrawals of rating appeals, and the present large numbers of strikeouts for want of prosecution, something has got to be done to make the system work more efficiently, and forcing the Valuation Office Agency to disgorge more information to ratepayers not engaging in a trawl for information, generally, but enabling more informed negotiation to take place between valuers and more cases to be settled (or withdrawn) in the manner which was the general practice before 2010.

Peter Scrafton FIRRV FCIArb MRSA (Hon) Solicitor (Non-Practising) and Accredited Mediator is a legal and valuation consultant and member of the IRRV Council.

©J.P. Scrafton, 2013

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