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High Court’s unsafe housing decision could trigger further tenant claims

By Naomi Neilson
03 November 2023 | 9 minute read
high court reb kpi9ih

A landmark High Court decision to hold landlords accountable for unsafe and unhealthy housing could make waves Australia-wide, with a compensation firm now investigating the potential for a class action over dilapidated rental homes.

The High Court on Wednesday (1 November) unanimously decided the Northern Territory government is liable for compensation to tenants of Ltyentye Apurte, or Santa Teresa, for the distress and disappointment caused by living in inhabitable rental properties.

The lead applicant was living without a back door for more than five years and over 70 other households complained of issues such as leaking sewage, unstable electricity and no air conditioning.

The Australian Lawyers for Remote Aboriginal Rights (ALRAR), which ran the case with support from Grata Fund, said this decision would have wide-ranging ramifications for tenants across the country who are being left to live in unhealthy, unsafe and uncomfortable housing.

ALRAR solicitor Dan Kelly added the judgment confirmed compensation arises from a breach of the tenancy agreement.

“The deplorable state of housing in remote communities, its impacts on health and wellbeing, should not be tolerated in a country as wealthy as Australia. As it stands, legal action is the only way remote communities can enforce their basic rights to habitable housing,” he said.

Partnering with ALRAR, Slater and Gordon announced in 2 November that it is now investigating a potential class action to seek improvements to public housing in remote communities and financial compensation for the affected Aboriginal tenants.

The class action would also investigate whether group members were entitled to make secondary claims under the Australian Consumer Law and the Racial Discrimination Act for offering a disadvantageous service on the basis of race.

ALRAR and Slater and Gordon visited the sites and observed public housing without working toilets, showers, cooking facilities or safe drinking water. They also reported broken windows, blocked pipes and countless repair requests that were allegedly being ignored.

Slater and Gordon class actions senior associate, Gemma Leigh-Dodds, said the visits confirmed tenants “have been living in substandard housing with issues such as water that does not pass regulatory guidelines, significant infrastructure issues, sewerage and security issues, and a lack of air conditioning”.

The proposed claim would seek damages for breaches of contract, including repayment of rent, the inconveniences suffered by tenants, any incurred expenses by tenants to fix problems in the house, and disappointment and distress caused by the housing issues.

“For too long Aboriginal people living in remote communities have been expected to put up and shut up in relation to their housing rights. We are proud to be working with ALRAR to contribute to a suite of public interest litigation demanding better housing justice for Aboriginal people,” Ms Leigh-Dodds said.

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