What is a dispute?

The main function of civil law is to provide a means for resolving disputes

A dispute is a disagreement between two or more parties. Disputes can arise over many issues, however the most common forms of dispute concern money, property, employment, accidents, marriage breakups and family separations. Many disputes may require some form of legal action to resolve. The primary purpose of civil law is to resolve these disputes and, in a simple sense, to decide who is ‘right’ and who is ‘wrong’. The aim of civil law and its processes is to protect the rights of individuals, to correct wrongs, to ensure that agreements are honoured and to provide damages or compensation to aggrieved parties. Examples of the most common types of civil disputes include:

Disputes between neighbours. Disputes between neighbours occur regularly, in fact they are one of the most common types of civil disputes. Neighbours can disagree about a number of issues, including property boundaries, parking, responsibility for building or maintaining fencing, overhanging trees, invasive vegetation, unsecured leaf litter or rubbish, barking or dangerous dogs, loud noises or offensive smells. The basis of these complaints are often minor, however it is important that disputes between neighbours are resolved quickly and amicably. Unresolved disputes between neighbours have the potential to deteriorate or escalate, making life unbearable for both parties.

Disputes between families. The most common family disputes focus on issues like marital separation, divorce and custody, maintenance and access to children. These disputes are dealt with by family law, which is a specialist area of civil law. However families may also dispute other issues, such as the ownership of property or the content of wills. In 2010, the family of deceased trucking millionaire Allan Scott – including his two daughters and eight grandchildren – challenged the contents of Scott’s will, seeking larger amounts than they had been bequeathed.

Disputes between consumers and retailers. Another common type of civil dispute involves complaints about goods or services supplied by a retailer and purchased by a consumer. Purchased goods may be broken, faulty, inadequate or otherwise unsatisfactory. In 2010 a Queensland couple demanded $1500 from the Australian Football League, after they were denied undercover seating at a match and were subsequently drenched by rain.

Disputes between employees and employers. These disputes may relate to infringements of an employee’s rights in the workplace, such as salary, safety, working conditions, equitable treatment, racial discrimination or sexual harassment. In 2010 a Pakistani student was awarded almost $120,000 in back-pay and compensation, after he was paid just $1.26 an hour for security work at the Australian Open and other events.

Disputes about tenancy. Another common type of dispute that relates to the leasing or rental of property. Most tenancy disputes are about occupancy, evictions, recovery of unpaid rents or bonds, or costs for damage to property. In 2010 a Victorian tribunal found a man had been unfairly evicted from public housing, following the death of his mother.

Disputes about accidents. These disputes focus on events such as motor vehicle accidents, workplace injuries and other mishaps. The parties concerned may be in dispute about the causes of the accident, who was negligent or at fault and who is liable to pay repairs, expenses or compensation. In 2010 a horse trainer who was left paraplegic after being crushed by a trapped horse was awarded $300,000, after a court found his employer had failed to provide him with a safe workplace.

Clear, calm and thorough communication between all parties will allow most disputes to be settled privately – in fact the majority of disputes are settled without any form of legal action. However when this is not possible, or when communication breaks down, there are many legal avenues to resolve disputes.

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