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AN ARTICLE by Peter Scrafton FIRRV, FCIArb, MRSA(Hon) Solicitor (Non-Practising)

June 2010.

I am delighted to learn from your Editor that a carefully-anonymised response to my piece on the potential conflict of interest of VOA has come in and is to appear in this edition of “Valuer”. Neither have I seen it, nor have I been told who wrote it – but that bothers me not: the object of this column is to seek to provoke discussion on a variety of topics – so the more, the merrier.

My text, this time, is: ”What price Justice?”; and I pose the question in the context of the proposals to increase Lands Chamber fees and to make Valuation Tribunal hearings vastly more complex, and expensive than previously, by the imposition of a number of new Practice Directions the effect of which, it is said, will make the forum too expensive for perhaps the majority of ratepayers to contemplate.

The Ministry of Justice trumpets that it is improving access to justice for everyone. Based on the words of the Victorian judge that “Justice, like the doors of the Ritz Hotel, is open to all”, such access was perfected over 150 years ago. The learned judge, however, added, by implication, the words: “……if you can afford it!”

So what is the truth of the matter? Ministers rail against lawyers’ profiteering, while systematically reducing the scope and payment for Legal Aid, to the extent that even the Audit Commission has found that many lawyers offering Legal Aid services can no longer make a profit from such work, at all. So all legal help has to be paid for, privately. Litigants may appear in person; but companies are usually required to be legally represented; so legal and valuers’ fees together can become a prohibitive burden. But now, enter the Ministry, demanding that Lands Chamber fees be increased by a factor of up to four. Is this as a result of inflation? I think not. Revenue-raising, more probably. The number of rating appeals to the Lands Chamber has plummeted, in recent years. Sometimes, having a cornered market is not good for the promotion of growth of work. If these fee proposals are accepted, the rating jurisdiction will atrophy and there will be more disgruntled ratepayers out there, where the VO has not got it “right first time”.

But what of Valuation Tribunals? This is probably one of those instances when the Welsh thank their stars that they have a degree of Home Rule. Their ratepayers are exempt from the torrent of Practice Directions now emerging from Black Lion House. One should ever be wary of the “ But we’ve always done it this way” school: but there is also the “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach which perhaps offers a wise qualification.

Valuation Tribunals are altering beyond recognition, and not altogether for the worse. Chairmen should really not address a VO by his Christian name, in open Tribunal; and there is something to be said for ending the old practice of settling the bulk of cases in the pub over copious stoups of mead, hours before the Tribunal is due to sit.

Going, however, is the informality and approachability of the local tribunal, run locally by local people for local people, where the individual could have his proverbial day in court, offer his evidence and challenge the Valuation Office. Instead of having to defend his assessment, with the burden of proof being placed upon him, he is only going to have to overcome the arguments of the ratepayer – and that ratepayer is going to have to negotiate and comply with all of the Practice Directions, giving the VO time to prepare a case without disclosing his own hand. That hardly seems like justice – and, of course, the ratepayer is going to have to pay for having all of the compliance work done. The VO, of course, will eventually have to comply, as he will be required to do, in relation to each case listed for hearing.

Though without question the VTE proposals are well-intentioned, and many of the pre-trial procedural reforms have much to commend them, and may save time and cost, the system for hearings seems to be about to become more cumbersome and expensive. I recall that “Black Lion” is an old name for syphilis which, we read, starts off with a few buboes, then goes underground, before ending in madness.


Peter Scrafton

©J.P. Scrafton, 2010

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