The Irelands were Subway franchisees.

Their franchise agreement with Subway included an arbitration clause:

10. DISPUTE RESOLUTION. The parties want to settle all issues quickly, amicably, and in the most cost effective fashion. To accomplish these goals, the parties agree to the following provisions that will apply to resolve any dispute or claim arising out of or relating to this Agreement, or any other Franchise Agreement the parties have with each other (a ‘Dispute’):

c. The parties will arbitrate the Dispute if the mediation clause in Subparagraph 10.a. is not enforceable, or the parties do not settle the Dispute under the informal discussion and mediation procedures above, or the Dispute is one which this Agreement provides will be submitted directly to arbitration, except as provided in this Agreement. The arbitration will be held in accordance with the United Nations Commission on International Trade Regulations and Law (UNCITRAL) Arbitration Rules administered by an arbitration association, such as the American Arbitration Association or the Institute of Arbitrators or Mediators Australia, at a hearing to be held in Queensland. The arbitration will be conducted in English and decided by a single arbitrator unless the law of Australia requires three (3) arbitrators. Any court having jurisdiction may enter judgment on the arbitrator’s award. Except as provided in this Agreement, a party must commence and pursue informal discussions, mediation, and arbitration to resolve Disputes before commencing legal action.

The Irelands, however, commenced proceedings against Subway in the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) alleging breaches of the franchise agreement, negligence and misleading or deceptive conduct.

Subway applied to VCAT to have the proceeding referred to arbitration pursuant to clause 10. VCAT refused. The Supreme Court dismissed Subway’s appeal. The Court of Appeal, Maxwell P and Beach JA, Kyrou J dissenting, have allowed Subway’s further appeal and sent the matter to arbitration.

Section 8 of the Commercial Arbitration Act 2011 (Vic) provides:

8            Arbitration agreement and substantive claim before court (cf Model Law Art 8)

(1)  A court before which an action is brought in a matter which is the subject of an arbitration agreement must, if a party so requests not later than when submitting the party’s first statement on the substance of the dispute, refer the parties to arbitration unless it finds that the agreement is null and void, inoperative or incapable of being performed.

As the heading indicates, this provision is part of a national scheme to implement the UNCITRAL Model Law on commercial arbitration.

The “problem” was that reference to “court”. While it was not a defined term in the Act, there are any number of court rulings declaring in no uncertain terms that VCAT is not a court – it is an administrative tribunal.

Maxwell P and Beach JA standing back and looking at the big (international) picture, however, held that for the purposes of the Act – a law designed to promote commercial arbitration as a dispute resolution mechanism – VCAT qualifies as a “court”. Maxwell P and Beach JA took somewhat different routes to reach that conclusion but it is perhaps best encapsulated in Maxwell P’s observation:

The clear policy of the Act (and of the model law which it enacts) is that, when parties have agreed to have disputes between them determined by private arbitration, neither party is at liberty to litigate the matter in dispute through the adjudicative mechanisms of the State. For this statutory purpose, in this statutory context, the Tribunal is indistinguishable from those other adjudicative bodies of the State which bear the title ‘court’.

I don’t know if other States or Territories operate under regimes similar to VCAT in, er, parallel to the court system but, as Croft J noted at first instance, Parliament set up VCAT to provide a speedy and inexpensive, low cost, accessible, efficient means of dispute resolution and, apparently, it handles the vast bulk of legal disputes here. But not disputes between franchisors and franchisees (where there is an arbitration clause).

Subway Systems Australia Pty Ltd v Ireland [2014] VSCA 142