Many people might be surprised to realise the range of functions now delivered by the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission to the state of Victoria. Our vision is a community where every person values, understands and respects human rights and equal opportunity. To achieve this we have statutory functions for research, education, reviews, interventions and reporting.
Since the introduction of the Equal Opportunity Act 1977, the Commission has also delivered conciliation and dispute resolution services. But many don’t realise our dispute resolution unit helps all Victorians every year by answering thousands of enquiries from individuals, community groups and organisations about our laws and by assisting parties resolve disputes in a fair, timely, flexible and respectful manner.
When I joined the Commission in 1994, it was about to go through many changes, not only in the commencement of the Equal Opportunity Act 1995, but a change of leadership and staff. It ran on a much smaller scale than it does now and complaints could take as long as 18 months or more to be finalised. Not only did the Commission manage enquiries and complaints under state jurisdiction, we also managed federal enquiries and complaints under contract from the then Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission.
Enquiries received from the public via telephone were recorded by hand on data sheets and transferred into enquiry log books and an antiquated database system.
It was very busy period and more than 300 complaint files, both state and federal, were in a backlog.
While the 1995 legislation brought changes to the complaint handling process, it was a very lengthy paper-based process. I commenced in the newly formed investigation team under the 1995 Act. The role of investigator was not to conciliate but to undertake a 60-70 day investigation of a complaint, which resulted in a report to Commission Members as to whether a matter should proceed to conciliation.
Respondents to a complaint were asked to provide a written response to the allegations with any “evidence” it had to support their view on the allegations. Complaints and response paper work could consist of some 20 pages or more. An investigator would analyse the information, seek further evidence, witness statements and provide an investigation report to the Commission Members outlining their analysis and relevant considerations, such as case law. The investigator would make a recommendation whether a matter should proceed to conciliation or be declined as lacking in substance, misconceived, vexatious or frivolous. Commission Members held weekly meetings to consider and sign off on recommendations made by the investigators.
When a matter was referred to conciliation, it would be re-allocated to the conciliation team, a process that may take more than 3 months. At times parties to a complaint did not have the opportunity to meet each other to explore resolution for six to nine months after the complaint was lodged.
If a matter was not resolved or declined by the Commission, the complainant could request the complaint be referred to the Equal Opportunity Board for hearing within 60 days of being notified of its closure. This resulted in another paper-based process of preparing complaint documentation for referral to the Board. If the complainant did not seek referral within 60 days, the Commission would dismiss the complaint, which prevented the complainant from pursuing it further.
Equal Opportunity Act 2010
The Equal Opportunity Act 2010 has provided for a fair, timely and flexible dispute resolution process without the requirement for parties to provide written responses or evidence. Conciliators now tailor dispute resolution to the needs of the parties. This may mean a face-to-face conciliation conference or an email exchange of proposals for settlement.
A highlight of my career at the Commission is the development and implementation of our case management system. The new system not only manages the enquiry and complaint process but also retrieves data to inform the work of the Commission and identify trends and areas of systemic discrimination.
In 2013-14 we handled 9157 enquiries and received 1053 complaints. We want to increase these figures because we know this is just the tip of the iceberg, with parts of our community experiencing discrimination, harassment and victimisation on a daily basis.
The Commission has changed immensely over the past 20 years. Units do not work in isolation from one another. Dispute resolution staff have input in our research, training, legal and communication functions. Overall the Commission has come a long way and I am privileged to have been part of this journey.