ROCCO VITALONE BUILDING COMPLAINTS
The Hon. J. F. RYAN
[2.05 a.m.]: I wish to express my complete and total frustration with the operations of the Fair Trading Tribunal in dealing with complaints about disreputable builders. Nearly 12 months ago I wrote to the building investigation unit of the Department of Fair Trading and informed it that I had been approached by more than 20 people who had complaints about a home building company called Vital Homes, which is operated by a licensed builder, Rocco Vitalone.
I supplied over 100 pages of written submissions relating to these complaints and I warned the department to prepare for a number of serious complaints relating to the same builder. I warned the department so it could ensure the matter was handled by its most experienced staff and resolved quickly.
I have visited and inspected a number of the homes that were the subject of complaints, and I have no doubt that Mr Vitalone is a thoroughly unscrupulous builder. Mr Vitalone is the subject of numerous complaints from consumers, some of which are before the Fair Trading Tribunal. Other complaints are before the Department of Fair Trading, which is requesting that he show cause as to why he should be allowed to keep his building licence. Most builders never face a fair trading complaint; Mr Vitalone has dozens.
All year my constituents have faced delays and ruthless legal manipulations aimed at wearing them down, until they have neither the emotional strength nor the financial resources to pursue their complaints any longer. Despite all the complaints, the substantial documentation, and hours and hours of hearing before the Fair Trading Tribunal and the tying up of endless public resources, virtually nothing has happened. The Minister told me in July that the Department of Fair Trading would complete preparing its case against Mr Vitalone and would start legal action to revoke his building licence by the end of August. It is now December and action has not started.
Apparently there is a substantial case against Mr Vitalone for charging inflated prices for site works. Individual consumers who have gone to the Fair Trading Tribunal have fared no better. The Fair Trading Tribunal is supposed to be a place where consumers and builders get what many might understand as "Judge Judy" type justice. The hearings are supposed to be inexpensive, non-legalistic, prompt and targeted at a quick settlement. The people Mr Vitalone has exploited have achieved anything but this type of resolution. Even those consumers who have been successful in the tribunal are still fighting with him to get their money.
Let me outline a couple of examples. Last December Mr and Mrs Ibrahim of Campbelltown lodged a complaint against Mr Vitalone for failing to complete numerous items on their home that had been specified in the building contract. For example, among other things, he used weatherboard cladding instead of bricks, he substituted cheap white door handles in place of the more expensive brass doorknobs they had paid for, he installed hinged opening doors on wardrobes in place of sliding doors, and he failed to install a concrete landing at the rear of the property that is clearly shown on the plan.
The complaint was lodged in December last year. It was finally heard in May and the decision was reserved. It was five months before the tribunal issued a written decision. Mr Vitalone was ordered to pay his customers $3,250 within 21 days. Of course, Mr Vitalone did not pay. Now the owner has been forced to take the matter to the Local Court. Sheriffs were dispatched to Mr Vitalone’s home on 11 November to take goods to the value of the debt.
Mr Vitalone claimed to know nothing about the judgment. Fair Trading quickly confirmed it had made a mistake and had no record of sending Mr Vitalone written details of the order by mail. The Sheriff was ordered to delay action for 10 days. Two weeks later the homeowners received notice that Mr Vitalone is applying to the Local Court for a stay of the order on the basis that he might appeal against the tribunal’s decision. The homeowners have been legally vindicated but they have nothing to show for it.
I know of at least two other homeowners who early this year brought action against Mr Vitalone in the Fair Trading Tribunal. Apparently, they were advised by staff of Fair Trading to name Mr Vitalone’s insurance company, Home Owners Warranty, as the second respondent. By involving an insurance company, what should have been short and informal hearings have been turned into a complex legal minefield. One of the complainants was required to ensure that more than 27 witnesses attended a hearing. His solicitor has been put to hours of work in preparing complex documentation.
In an effort to simplify the hearings, the member presiding over their matter advised them to discontinue their action against Home Owners Warranty. Recently they found out that by discontinuing they may face the expense of the legal costs of Home Owners Warranty, even if they are successful against the builder. Because the hearings have become so much more complex, the date for the hearings has been set well into next year. The system is not working. If it is not possible to slow up an obviously shonky builder like Rocco Vitalone, the system should be scrapped or substantially changed so that it works in future.