An alternative to taking tenant and landlord disputes to the ACT Civil and Administrative Tribunal (ACAT) is being considered for the Territory, with an investigation to begin into establishing an ACT rental ombudsman.
Greens MLA Johnathan Davis moved a motion in the Legislative Assembly during the May sitting week, which could see such a body investigate breaches of rental law; give free mediation to resolve disputes; issue infringement notices; provide information, communication and engagement on legal responsibilities of renters, landlords and rental estate agencies; and give advice to further improve renters’ rights.
It could also represent ACT Housing tenants.
Mr Davis introduced the motion because he said he had heard “countless horror stories” from Canberra renters – who make up 30 per cent of residents – such as unannounced rental inspections, structural issues not being resolved, no-cause evictions and rental bidding.
“Where breaches to rental law occur, putting the onus on renters to hold their landlord or real estate agents to account assumes that renters are aware of their rights in the first instance, and are willing and able to lodge their dispute with ACAT and see the dispute process through to a full resolution,” he said.
“This process can work, but it is not without difficulties.”
Mr Davis said the ACAT process could be lengthy and expensive for tenants, and there could also be a power imbalance as many renters feared that by taking such action, a landlord could raise their rent or cancel their lease.
“We need another way to help renters to stand up for their rights and reach resolutions quickly and easily, and that is why I am calling on this Government to establish a rental ombudsman,” he said.
Mr Davis said this wouldn’t just benefit tenants, but also landlords and real estate agents, who could be warned or advised in instances where they may have misunderstood or inadvertently breached their renters’ rights.
“More often than not in this city, when you think your real estate agent is being malicious, they are more often than not ignorant to their obligations,” he said.
“It is far too often the case in the ACT that your property manager is usually in their first or second year in the job, usually under 30, it is a highly feminised industry, and they are usually grossly overworked and underpaid – a rental ombudsman would support these people too.”
An alternative to ACAT for tenants is something ACT Legal Aid has been advocating for years.
Its tenancy aid service receives about 4,500 calls a year from tenants, providing advice and guidance to apply for grants for legal representation should a person’s complaint reach ACAT.
Head of Civil Justice Legal Practice Derek Schild said many tenants didn’t have the resources or time to invest in taking a complaint to the tribunal.
Given some laws have changed in the ACT around tenant rights, he felt it was important to have an accessible place for people to take complaints where matters could be resolved quickly, and an appropriate deterrence enforced.
“We have a lot of people inquiring about bonds not being lodged … that continues to happen, which means enforcement through infringement notices would help,” Mr Schild said.
“The recent rental bidding provisions … tenants aren’t well placed to enforce that, they usually have their heads down trying to find a rental for themselves.”
He added if non-compliance by landlords or real estate agents was subject to a register, that would also act as a deterrent against future breaches.
ACT Legal Aid tenancy solicitor Tien Pham said it could also help reduce the backlog of cases at ACAT, as sometimes issues lodged were a result of a misunderstanding or communication breakdown rather than an actual legal breach.
“It’s important for there to be a process where people can file a complaint and have it investigated, and for that to be a lot more accessible,” she said.
Shadow Housing Minister Mark Parton argued the rental ombudsman should also be able to investigate claims by ACT Housing tenants, accusing the ACT Government of being the “worst landlord in the city”.
Housing Minister Yvette Berry took issue with the accusation, insisting the Government was continuing work to be “good, social landlords”.
While she felt an investigation into the proposal was appropriate, she questioned whether an ombudsman was needed.
“I note something like that would cost millions and millions and millions of dollars, and I would rather see that go into public housing, that’s my view,” Ms Berry said.
However, Mr Davis supported the possibility that the ombudsman could also look at assisting ACT Housing tenants.
“I would encourage every single tenant in the ACT to make use of a rental ombudsman or commissioner, should the Government produce one,” he said.
“The ACT Government is the Territory’s biggest landlord, it should be the ACT’s best landlord, and all landlords should be held to the highest possible standard.
“A rental ombudsman is one way of securing that.”
The Government must report back to the Assembly by the final sitting day of 2023 on its progress.
ACT Legal Aid’s tenancy advice service can be contacted on 1300 402 512.