Lacrosse Apartments VCAT Decision – Combustible Cladding and Important Liability Issues for Building Consultants

On 28 February 2019 His Honour Judge Woodward delivered his judgement which is the first major decision in Australia regarding the liability of building industry entities involved in the design and construction of a building with combustible cladding.

The subject of the judgement was a fire which took place in November 2014 at the Lacrosse Apartments in Melbourne and extensively damaged the building.

The judgement runs to almost 230 pages and the proceedings had 211 applicants (including 208 individual apartment owners)(the Owners) and 8 respondents (being the builder, the building surveyor and his employer, the architects, the fire engineer, the superintendent under the building contract, the occupier of the unit in which the fire began and the resident who lit the cigarette which caused the fire (Mr Gubitta). Ultimately, the superintendent settled prior to the hearing, and neither the occupier of the unit or Mr Gubitta took part in the proceedings).

The Owners claim was against the builder for breach of statutory warranties under the Domestic Building Contracts Act 1995 (Vic) (DBCA) (such warranties are substantially replicated in other states and territories across Australia including in New South Wales and the ACT). The builder then joined the building consultants – being the architect, fire engineer and building surveyor – as respondents claiming that they were responsible for the specification of the highly combustible cladding and responsible for complying with the building regulations.

The Owners claimed that their loss was caused by the builders’ breaches of warranties under the DBCA because the combustible cladding used on the building was not fire-resistant and did not meet the performance requirements of the Building Code of Australia (BCA). The builder in turn argued the building consultants were liable pursuant to the terms and conditions of the contracts that were novated to them from the developer.

The builder argued that the building consultants should have alerted it to the presence of combustible cladding and prevented the use of the non-compliant combustible cladding.

None of the respondents had a direct contractual relationship with the Owners.

In the matter, the builder did not cavil with Owners’ claim for damages for the DBCA breaches under the principles for damages at common law for breach of contract. Indeed His Honour found that this was unsurprising as the Owners had an “unarguable” entitlement to the damages claimed.

The Tribunal accepted the Owner’s submission that the DBCA warranties were not qualified or limited to an obligation to use reasonable care and skill.

The Tribunal held that the consulting contracts were “pivotal in ascribing liability” in this case. It was held that the contracts were commercial arrangements between parties who were “without exception, sophisticated professionals with considerable experience in the building industry” .In considering whether the builder took reasonable care in selecting the combustible cladding, the Tribunal found that the level of qualifications and nature of responsibilities held by the building consultants led to a reasonable expectation that the fire engineer, the building surveyor and the architect (in that order) should have a “better grasp than building practitioners of fire risks and the application of the BCA to those risks”. Moreover, the builder was relieved of its obligation to exercise reasonable care due to its engagement of those building consultants during the construction of Lacrosse, each being “an important link in the chain of assurance and compliance with the BCA”. The Tribunal in fact placed the builder into a separate category to the building consultants, finding that for large and complex projects, “the builder sought to cover acknowledged shortcoming in its own expertise by engaging highly skilled professionals to direct and supervise its work.”

His Honour found that that the builder was liable to pay damages to the Owners but then found that the damages payable by the builder were to be reimbursed by the respondents as “concurrent wrongdoers” in the following proportions (interestingly no order was made against Mr Gubitta and the builder was not reimbursed the 3% damages that the builder was liable to pay to the Owners which was apportioned to Mr Gubitta):

Fire engineer: 39%

Building surveyor: 33%

Architects: 25%

Mr Gubitta: 3%

The Owners claimed at least $12,765,812.94 in damages and VCAT awarded the Owners damages in the sum of $5,748,233.28.

On 1 Aril 2019 VCAT ordered that just under $7,000,000.00 was to be paid by the builders to bring the building into compliance and for other various heads of loss claimed and interest. As with the primary judgement, the further amount is to be paid by the building consultants in the same proportion as the primary judgement.

As the first decision in Australia that has considered the roles and responsibilities of the builder and other building consultants regarding the use of combustible cladding on a residential building, this decision will impact a wide range of industry participants and their liability and professional indemnity insurer interests.

 

View full decision here.

 

Tribunal Decision Regarding The Executive Committee Code Of Conduct In The ACT

Leonard & Anor v Michie & Ors (Unit Titles) [2019] ACAT 14 is a recent decision by ACAT which was determined on 31 January 2019.

It is of interest to strata managers given it is the only decision of any jurisdiction in the ACT which considers allegations of breaches of the executive committee Code of Conduct.

In short, the applicants made over a dozen allegations of breaches of the Code of Conduct by the executive committee members of the Owners – Units Plan No 1636 and Senior Tribunal Member Orr QC considered each allegation in turn and determined whether a breach had occurred or not.

Ultimately, the Senior Member found that there were no breaches of the Code of Conduct by any of the executive committee members but a number of observations were made which are helpful in understanding the Code of Conduct.

Firstly, at paragraphs 29 and 30, in response to the applicants request that executive committee members be removed, or banned from standing for re-election, the Senior Member observes that “the provisions in the Act in relation to the orders the Tribunal can make (section 129) can extend to some claims in relation to the Code. These on their face may allow proceedings for an order requiring an executive member to do something required by the Code, or refrain from doing something in breach of the Code (section 129(1)(a) of the Unit Titles Management Act), particularly in light of the clear statutory obligation to comply with the Code in section 46. It may allow for breaches of the Code to be taken into account in proceedings concerning motions and decisions, especially of the executive committee (section 129(1)(f) and (g)). It may allow for declarations that an executive committee member has breached the Code (section 129(2)). But the respondents argued that the Tribunal could not make orders removing and banning them from holding the position of executive committee member for breach of the Code, or anything else. I think this is correct.”

The Senior Member then approaches each of the various allegations of a breach of the Code of Conduct on the basis that “the tribunal may order an executive member to do something required by the Code, or refrain from doing something in breach of the Code, allow for breaches of the Code to be taken into account in proceedings concerning motions and decisions, and allow for declarations that an executive committee member has breached the Code” (as opposed to such breaches resulting in the removal of an executive committee member or banning them from standing for re-election).

Generally, the Tribunal’s analysis of the various allegations do not involve a lengthy consideration of the Code of Conduct but rather a statement of the facts and a simple statement that the facts do not constitute a breach of the Code of Conduct.

However, at paragraph 184 the Senior Member does observe that “I do not think there is any obligation under the Code of Conduct on executive members to communicate at any other time and in any other manner with another member of the committee. I do not think that generally blocking emails, declining to walk around the complex, being unhelpful, ignoring email requests, turning away, deliberately ignoring well-meant greeting, leaving notes and speaking ill of the applicants in personal conversations to others amount to a breach of the Code of Conduct”.

This decision is helpful to strata managers as it can be provided to disenfranchised lot owners who wish to address the particular conduct of an executive committee member in their owners corporation. Finally, it appears that a breach of the Code of Conduct requires much more than trivial matters to have occurred.

View full decision here.

Case note: Statutory provisions prevails over rules in regards to special privilege rights

In The Owners – Units Plan 68 v Haughey (Unit Titles) [2016] ACAT 131 the respondent installed a hot water system on the back wall of his unit which was common property where it remained for nearly five years. Ultimately, a question arose as to whether the respondent had permission to place the hot water system on common property and whether a special privilege right was required.

Senior Member Robinson reviewed the judgment of Douglas J of the Queensland Court of Appeal in Katsikalis v Body Corporate for “The Centre” [2009] QCA 77 and concluded that the reasoning in that judgment applied equally to ACT legislation and should be applied. That is, where there is to be a disposal or alienation of the common property, then it is necessary that that be done by a clear and unopposed process that is consistent with the legislative scheme. The granting of a special privilege would have required an unopposed resolution of the owners corporation following appropriate notification but this requirement was not met.

The respondent argued that he had obtained permission for the installation under rule 4(1)(a) which only required a special resolution on a motion that could be brought from the floor.

Senior Member Robinson rejected this argument on two grounds. Firstly, the relevant section of the ACT legislation was a statutory provision and as such it prevailed over any inconsistent article or rule (see Unit Titles (Management) Act 2011 (ACT) s 128(4)(a)). Secondly, rule 4 did not remove or ameliorate the requirement for a special privilege in any case. Adopting the reasoning of Douglas J, rule 4(1)(a) cannot be read independently of the ACT provision. A resolution under a rule could not grant a special privilege or otherwise authorise the exclusive use of the common property.

In conclusion, the installation of the hot water system on the complex wall amounted to an appropriation of the common property for the personal use of the respondent. Two steps, which did not occur, were required to be completed for this to happen:

  • the words and nature of the motion for an unopposed resolution to grant the special privilege at the general meeting had to be notified to all members – and these words needed to clearly state that the hot water system was to be placed on the wall; and
  • at that general meeting there had to be the express act of an unopposed resolution of the owners to grant the special privilege over the common property.

Consequently, the respondent did not have authorisation to install the hot water system on the complex wall.

Case note: What is “unreasonable” to refuse?

In Floro v Owners – Units Plan No 630 (Unit Titles) [2017] ACAT 4  the applicant, Ms Floro, sought a review of a decision of the respondent owners corporation to decline to grant owners within the complex a ‘special privilege’ to erect support poles for a carport on an area of common property adjoining their units.

The resolution was opposed by one of the twenty six members of the owners corporation (the Objector) but given the requirement for unanimous approval, the opposition of one person was sufficient to ensure that the resolution was not successful. Neither the Objector nor the owners corporation participated in the ACAT proceedings.

In summary, the proposal allowed the owners of several units to put up practical and useful carports. The proposal appeared to have a minimal impact on the common property and was consistent with other current uses of the common property. No person, including the Objector, pointed to any evidence that the proposal could have any effect on any person’s material enjoyment of their property, or even of the common property. Indeed, no basis for an objection to the motion was advanced at all.

When assessing the unreasonableness of the objection to the motion, Senior Member Robinson turned to the recent High Court decision in Ainsworth v Albrecht [2016] HCA 40 which considered the concept of unreasonableness as it appears in the Queensland Body Corporate and Community Management Act 1997 (QLD). This Queensland decision concerned a similar application but was brought under the Queensland Body Corporate and Community Management Act 1997. ACAT held that while the Queensland Act is different to the ACT legislation in some respects, the concept of reasonableness was sufficiently common that the reasoning of the High Court should be applied by ACAT.

In Ainsworth, the High Court provided some guidance on the concept of unreasonableness in the context of reviews of decisions of owners corporations. The majority held that the unreasonableness of opposition to a proposal can only be determined by considering the circumstances of the proposal and its likely impact on the opponents’ property interests. However, consideration of whether a person is acting unreasonably in protecting their property interest does not require that they act with altruism or sympathy for the interests of the proponent. Lot owners are entitled to take steps in their own self-interest to protect their property interests. In the Queensland case, it was sufficient that the objectors had a reasonable apprehension that the proposal would adversely affect their property rights and consequently opposition could not be said to be unreasonable.

The High Court in Ainsworth held that the first step in considering whether the opposition was unreasonable is identification of a ground of opposition and the second step is an enquiry into whether that ground is a rational basis for opposition.

In this ACAT case, the difficulty was defining the interest to be protected given neither the owners corporation nor the Objector had articulated it. Consequently, while ACAT could theorise the basis upon which an objection might be made, there was no evidence that any of those rationales was the basis for the objection in this case and consequently ACAT held that an objection to a resolution, without any basis, was unreasonable.

Why Does The ACT Have Leasehold Title?

The reason the ACT is virtually unique in Australia arises from the idea that as a city develops, the value of land increases. Such was the concern that landholders and particularly land speculators (who had done nothing to create the increase in value) would benefit, a social experiment arose. That experiment enabled the increase in value to be given to the whole community (i.e. the government), as it was through their collective efforts that the increase in value had arisen. This was seen as a way of Australia being able to build its new capital city without spending taxpayers’ money

This idea came from an American social philosopher, Henry George, whose views were in vogue in the late 1800s. George took the view that land/resource rents should be used for the public rather than taxes on labour. He was particularly critical of how railway companies made vast fortunes on the land speculation surrounding the construction of railways.

Edmund Barton the first Prime Minister of Australia) took the view that as the land in the ACT became more valuable over time due to the development of Canberra, the rent payable to the Commonwealth would increase due to a regular valuation of the land (as rent was proportionate to land value).  In addition, there would be a requirement that anyone who owned land would be required to build on it within a set period following acquisition. This would prevent land banking. Land banking is the process where a developer or land speculator buys land but does not develop it immediately. Rather, the developer or land speculator waits for the value of the land to rise before selling or developing the land to make a profit.

And so, during World War One, the Federal Capital Commission set about compulsorily acquiring the freehold land in the ACT and by the early 1920s, Crown leases were ready to be issued.

Unfortunately, what followed was a failure to enforce the requirement to build and further, the land was not revalued for a period of 20 years until the 1940s which meant that the revenue raised did not increase.

Then the Gorton government in 1970, with a by-election in Canberra looming, promised to abolish rents entirely. Consequently, rents on leasehold title were abolished in 1971.

What this meant was that the rental income anticipated by this system was never realised and further, the land is effectively valued as freehold rather than leasehold.

This is an extract from our forthcoming book Kerin Benson Lawyers Guide to ACT Strata Law set to be published June 2017.

ACAT Ruling Tribunal: Section 31 Costs and Expenses

The following article provides an update on our article published 21 March 2016 titled ‘ACT Case note: Recovering costs in levy recovery matters’.

In The Owners – 840 v Richardson [2015] ACAT 77 Member Daniels determined that awarding legal costs in levy recovery proceedings was contrary to the provisions in the ACT Civil and Administrative Tribunal Act 2008 (ACAT Act). Pursuant to section 48 of the ACAT Act the Tribunal can only award costs in limited circumstances. Since Richardson the situation on whether legal costs can be awarded in levy recovery proceedings has been uncertain.

Due to pressure from ourselves and another legal services provider and to resolve the uncertainty the Tribunal established a Ruling Tribunal to determine the question. The hearing, where we appeared through Counsel on behalf of our Owners Corporation clients, was held on Friday 17 February 2017 before Presidential Member McCarthy, President Neate and Senior Member Fergusson.

At the hearing there were no appearances or submissions from any respondent. The Tribunal directed a series of focused questions to Counsel relating to the Tribunal’s power to award legal costs as an expense pursuant to section 31 of the Unit Titles (Management) Act 2011, when expenses are deemed to be incurred and therefore recoverable and the reasonableness of such expenses

Any questions about recovering strata levies?

Call Kerin Benson Lawyers on 02 6140 3270 or email allison@kerinbensonlawyers.com.au or enquiries@kerinbensonlawyers.com.au

ACT Case note: Recovering costs in levy recovery matters

On 20 November 2015 ACAT heard a levy recovery matter and made a decision that has a significant impact on all strata levy recovery matters commenced in ACAT. The case was The Owners – Units Plan 840 V Richardson (Civil Dispute) [2015] ACAT 77.

What was the case about?

The owners corporation sought to recover unpaid strata levies, interest and its expenses of taking the ACAT action under section 31 of the Unit Titles Management Act 2011 ACT (the Act). The costs of a previous ACAT action to recover levies were also claimed.  In the previous ACAT matter default judgment had been awarded. The owners corporation applied for a redirection order in the Magistrates Court, the lot owner applied to set aside the default judgment and stay the redirection order and while the amount under the default judgement was ultimately paid, legal expenses were not.

The owners corporation argued that:

  • as a matter of public policy the Act provides that the costs of recovering levies is to be met by the defaulting lot owner;
  • the expenses incurred under section 31 were for costs incurred for steps ancillary to the failure to pay levies;
  • the steps taken by the owners corporation were necessary and reasonable; and
  • the quantum of the owners corporation’s costs was reasonable.

Section 31 of the Act permits an owners corporation to recover expenses as a debt from the lot owner if in carrying out its functions it incurred an expense or carried out work due to either a wilful or negligent act or omission by a lot owner or occupier or a breach of its rules.

The lot owner argued that there was no need to incur costs as he would have paid the levies if the levy recovery procedure of the owners corporation been followed. He also argued that the costs of the enforcement action should have been argued at the time of the enforcement proceedings.

What was the decision?

ACAT held that section 31 of the Act operates to create a statutory debt which does not require a court or Tribunal to find the money payable and that “[t]he right to recover expenses under section 31 is not an automatic award of indemnity for all costs incurred by an owners corporation”.

To recover costs under section 31 the following criteria must be met:

  • there must be a “default” by the owner or occupier of the unit;
  • as a result of the default the owners corporation took action within its functions;
  • in taking the action the owners corporation incurred an expense;
  • the action taken by the owners corporation was reasonably necessary; and
  • the amount of the expense is reasonable.

The ACAT considered whether section 31 of the Act, which acts to make a lot owner responsible for expenses prior to an order being made, could apply to legal costs incurred in ACAT matters. Section 48 of the ACT Civil and Administrative Tribunal Act 2008 (the ACAT Act) provides that parties in an ACAT matter must bear their own costs unless ACAT makes an order otherwise.

The ACAT held that section 31 of the Act conflicted with section 48 of the ACAT Act. Paragraph 83 of the decision sets out the key finding which was:

“Costs incurred in tribunal proceedings are not recoverable by the owners corporation as a section 31 expense unless they have been ordered to be paid by the Tribunal or the ACAT Act otherwise provides.”

ACAT also held that the word “costs” under section 48 of the ACAT Act should be given its ordinary and natural meaning and should not be limited to legal professional costs and disbursements. Costs were awarded in the matter for some of the owners corporation’s claims.

ACAT also considered section 31 costs in respect of ACT Magistrates Court matters and held that unlike in the tribunal an application for section 31 costs could be made in the same proceedings.

What does this mean?

Costs can be claimed in certain circumstances in ACAT. Applications for legal costs in ACAT should be brought under section 48(2) of the ACAT Act rather than section 31 of the Act.

Claims for legal costs in the ACT Magistrates Court under section 31 can, and should, be made in the levy recovery proceedings.

This decision is currently under appeal and we understand that all levy recovery matters in ACAT have been or will be adjourned until after the appeal is determined.

Note this decision is currently under appeal.

Any questions about recovering strata levies?

Call Kerin Benson Lawyers on 02 6140 3270 or email allison@kerinbensonlawyers.com.au or enquiries@kerinbensonlawyers.com.au