A High Court Decision Just Set A Precedent For Tenants To Sue Landlords Over Unsafe Conditions

After almost eight years of legal battles, the High Court of Australia has ruled that a woman living in public housing in the Northern Territory can sue her landlord over distress caused by their failure to carry out repairs, setting a precedent for renters everywhere.

Content warning: Aboriginal readers are advised this piece names a deceased person.

The long-running legal battle concerned Indigenous woman Kwementyaye Young, who lived in the Aboriginal community of Santa Teresa (also known as Ltyentye Apurte), 85 kilometres south-east of Alice Springs, and the Northern Territory housing authority, NT Housing.

Young lived without a back door on her home for five years, and said snakes would regularly enter the property. In 2016, she — along with more than 70 households in the Santa Teresa community — launched a class action against NT Housing, over similar issues of disrepair, including unstable electricity and leaking sewage.

A previous ruling on the matter did not allow for tenants to sue NT Housing for the distress and psychological impact the lack of repairs caused.

However, on November 1, the High Court unanimously ruled NT Housing was liable for the impact the lack of repairs had on tenants.

Sadly, it came too late for Young, who passed away in earlier this year, but the decision has been hailed by renters’ advocates who say it’s a win not only for Santa Teresa residents, but for renters everywhere.

What does this decision mean for other renters?

Dan Kelly from Australian Lawyers for Remote Aboriginal Rights, who represented Young and other Santa Teresa residents, told the ABC the decision highlighted the “deplorable” state of housing conditions in remote indigenous communities. 

“The state of housing in the Northern Territory is a national disgrace,” he told the ABC. 

“What this [decision] shows is that that is unlawful, and the tenants suffering under those conditions are entitled to compensation.”

Mr Kelly told the ABC he was “deeply saddened” Ms Young and Mr Conway “like Eddie Mabo, did not live to see their fight deliver better outcomes for their community”.

Better Renting executive director Joel Dignam told PEDESTRIAN.TV he believes the High Court decision will give renters “more leverage” when trying to get landlords to address issues with their home. 

“We think this can give tenants more power when negotiating with agents,” he said. 

“What we hope to see is agents being more responsible when it comes to ensuring that properties they rent out meet a decent standard, and offering a rent reduction where they fail to do so.”

Better Renting executive director Joel Dignam. (Photo Credit: Better Renting)

Mr Dignam said it was “promising” that tenants will have more chances of getting compensation if they go to tribunal. 

However he said despite this win for tenants the legal system “really isn’t working for renters”.

“It’s far too easy and widespread for agents to misrepresent the law to renters, and most cases never make it to the Tribunal,” he explained. 

“Even if they do, compensation is often way too low either to fairly compensate the renter, or to be a meaningful deterrent for landlords. 

“Legal battles aren’t the answer…we want to see a different culture, a different housing market, and a different type of landlord. 

“Tenants shouldn’t have to go to the High Court just to affirm their right to a decent home.”

How did the Santa Teresa residents get here?

The decision comes after almost eight years of legal battles between Santa Teresa residents and NT Housing.

In 2016, 70 households from Santa Teresa launched legal proceedings against NT housing in the Northern Territory Civil and Administrative Tribunal (NCAT). 

They claimed NT Housing failed to conduct maintenance repairs leading to poor living conditions leading to issues including flooding, poor sanitation, and unstable electricity. 

Shortly after the NT Government counter-sued, claiming residents in the community had failed to maintain their homes and pay rent. 

NTCAT ruled in the favour of Santa Teresa residents in 2019

In September 2020, the NT Supreme Court found housing in Santa Teresa must be “humane and reasonably comfortable” not just “safe”.

The following month the NT Government appealed the decision.

Despite the High Court decision, the legal battle for residents isn’t over. The next step is the Court of Appeal, where they’ll fight for compensation.

“What it means is that when we go back to the Court of Appeal, we can argue that the many years that they were left living in these conditions and the psychological impacts that had on them, is worthy of compensation and the Northern Territory government should be held to account for that,” Kelly said.