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VSBC sees unprecedented demand for help from Victorian SMEs

The Victorian Small Business Commission (VSBC) received a record number of requests for help in resolving disputes from small businesses in Victoria last year, the bulk of which were from small business renters and landlords affected by COVID-19 and trade restrictions.

“Over 19,000 inquiries were made to the Victorian Small Business Commission (VSBC) in 2020–21, overwhelmingly from small business tenants and their landlords, VSBC said in a statement.

“There was an 85 per cent hike in applications for help to resolve a dispute compared with the previous year, with a staggering 5,175 received.”

Additionally, the vast majority were for the purpose of resolving rent relief issues under the Victorian Government’s Commercial Tenancy Relief Scheme. This included situations in which a tenant had stopped paying rent or a landlord had refused to negotiate. 

Retail lease disagreements over who should pay for outgoings or repairs and maintenance were another reason for contention. Victorians frequently requested help to solve general small business problems, such as unpaid supplier invoices or the failure to provide goods and services.

More than a third of all cases were settled quickly, typically over the phone. Where this was not possible, the VSBC referred the case to mediation, where a neutral mediator assisted the parties in reaching an agreement. 

When it came to renting relief disputes, all mediation expenses were waived — even if the tenant wasn’t eligible for the Commercial Tenancy Relief Scheme. 

In reaction to extremely stressful circumstances, Commissioner Lynda McAlary-Smith said the VSBC considerably increased efforts to address small business needs.

“There has never been a greater need for small business people to understand their rights and obligations and to know how to get support if they need it — be it guidance on rent relief in their language or help in looking after their mental wellbeing,” Commissioner McAlary-Smith said.

Call for rural mediators to help SMEs 

The VSBC announced last week that regional and rural mediators with experience resolving commercial conflicts could apply to join their state-wide mediation panel. The VSBC’s role is to bring parties in a dispute together with an independent mediator to explore creative alternatives for resolving the matter without needing to go to court. 

Over 5,000 Victorians requested help in resolving a dispute last financial year, almost double the number in 2019–20. During the COVID-19 pandemic, 3,704 cases of rent relief issues were filed, with 8% of those from regional Victoria.

Apart from these, there were also requests for help in resolving conflicts from other sectors, such as farm debt, retail leasing, and small business matters, such as unpaid bills or substandard goods.

About VSBC 

The Victorian Small Business Commissioner (VSBC) promotes business fairness through four key functions: information and education, evaluation of government practices, investigation of small business complaints, and dispute settlement.

Dispute resolution services are available at a reduced charge to assist in the resolution of business-to-business and business-to-government conflicts. The VSBC may be able to help with a wide range of concerns, including:

  • payment and contract (including unfair contract terms)
  • retail leasing
  •  farm debt
  • franchising
  •  forestry and owner drivers
  • disputes with Government

For more details, visit: https://www.vsbc.vic.gov.au

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Yajush Gupta

Yajush Gupta

Yajush is a journalist at Dynamic Business. He previously worked with Reuters as a business correspondent and holds a postgrad degree in print journalism.

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