A dispute over the airspace between two balconies in Queensland has provided the most comprehensive authority to date as to what is considered an ‘unreasonable refusal’ by owners corporations for the purposes of granting a common property right.
The High Court decision in Ainsworth v Albrecht  HCA 40 (Ainsworth) turned on the exercise of clause 10 of schedule 5 of the Body Corporation and Community Management Act 1997 (Qld) (BCCMA), namely, what should be taken into consideration when determining whether a motion to grant a common property right had been unreasonably refused. The High Court found that it is not whether the functions of the body corporate (in NSW the owners corporation) such as administering the common property, enforcing the community management statement and by-laws etc. – see section 94 of the BCCMA – were reasonable, but whether refusal by the individual lot owners who opposed the motion to grant a common property right were unreasonable. On the latter point, the High Court concluded that it is not unreasonable for a lot owner to refuse a motion if the motion could adversely affect their property rights. The High Court also noted that individual lot owners should not be held to the same standard of decision making as a company or corporation would.
Background and outcome
This case came about when Mr Albrecht requested the common property rights to the airspace between the two balconies of his lot so that he could connect them and create one large deck. At the body corporate meeting to determine the motion seven lot owners refused to pass the motion. Under the BCCMA, the motion required no dissents be recorded. Mr Albrecht applied for Adjudicator’s orders. The Adjudicator determined that the body corporate had breached its obligations under section 94(2) of the BCCMA to act reasonably in exercising its general functions when it refused to pass the motion. Mr Albrecht appealed to Queensland Civil and Administrative Tribunal (QCAT) who ruled that the Adjudicator had impermissibly substituted their own opinions for that of the body corporate, thus siding with the body corporate and refusing to make the by-law. Mr Albrecht appealed to the Supreme Court which upheld the Adjudicator’s decision. The body corporate appealed to the High Court who comprehensively rejected the Supreme Court’s conclusion, finding that the Adjudicator’s reliance on section 94(2) led them to ask the wrong questions and that was an error of law and an error which affected the Supreme Court as well. Mr Albrecht did not get the right to connect his two balconies.
What impact does this case have in NSW?
The NSW equivalent to clause 10 of schedule 5 of the BCCMA is found under section 149 of the Strata Schemes Management Act 2015 (NSW) (SSMA), which provides that the NSW Civil & Administrative Tribunal (NCAT) may order the change of a common property by-law if it is found that an owners corporation has unreasonably refused to make a common property rights by-law. In this regard, the NCAT must consider the interests of all the owners in their use and enjoyment of the common property as well as the rights and reasonable expectations of the owners. In NSW, decisions made by NCAT often cite Curragh Coal Sales Co Pty Ltd v Wilcox (1984) FCR 46 as authority that the word ‘unreasonable’ is to be given it’s every day definition as defined by the Macquarie dictionary, that is, ‘not reasonable, not endowed with reason, not guided by reason or good sense, not based on or in accordance with reason or sound judgement’. The decision in Ainsworth arguably provides clarity on the definition of unreasonable in that it applies to individual lot owners voting as part of the owners corporation, ie, it is not unreasonable for them to refuse a motion to grant a common property right if the grant would materially affect their property right. In regards to considering the interests of all owners in a scheme, Ainsworth also held that it is the Adjudicator’s role to do precisely that, give consideration to all the owners in the scheme, not to strike a reasonable balance between two interests.
What does this mean for owners corporations and owners?
For owners corporations, the decision in Ainsworth will arguably ensure that all lot owners interests are considered when granting a common property right which would confirm the owners corporations’ responsibility under the SSMA to manage the common property for the benefit of all owners. For individual lot owners, the case highlights the importance of having their votes regarding common property rights properly recorded.