I was talking recently to a strata manager about a new service that’s springing up around their territory – I call them strata advocates – and she said “Oh, you mean those professional pains in the a***.”
I can see why this new breed of quasi-strata-legals is ruffling feathers. They are usually people with experience as a strata manager or on a strata committee who offer advice (for a fee) to anyone who is struggling to navigate the maze of apartment living politics.
Strata across Australia is full of people who are convinced they know their rights, despite never having read the relevant rules, laws or by-laws.
And, renter or owner, any dispute around your home can quickly descend from arguing over regulations and responsibilities to an arm-wrestle about winning or losing.
The result is frustration and friction, neither of which make for good community spirit.
Enter the strata advocates whose clients might be unsure of the legalities of a strata dispute, or dealing with neighbours who simply won’t listen, or confronting committee members who either don’t understand their responsibilities or don’t care.
Isn’t that the strata managers’ job, to explain the rights and wrongs? They are the trained professionals, after all. They have actually read the laws and rules … or they should have. But there are a few holes in that assumption.
For a start, it’s estimated that only about half of the strata schemes in Australia have strata managers. Small schemes, especially, are less likely to hire them because of expense, while small blocks can demand just as much of their time for a lot less income.
You’d have to concede that the strata management industry’s professionalism has come on in leaps and bounds in the past 10 years. Individually, however, they can occasionally let the side down.
Some are less competent than others. Some simply know on which side their bread is buttered.
They are employed by the owners collectively, not individually, and may be tempted to tell committees who issue their contracts what they can get away with rather than what they should and shouldn’t be doing.
Thus, when the average owner believes they have been wronged but no one is listening, they are left with two options – give up or “go nuclear” with legal cases at a tribunal or even in court.
Enter the strata advocate, someone with the knowledge and experience to calm everyone down and encourage them to look at the facts and the likely outcomes.
Obviously, they can’t be completely neutral – one side or another has brought them in – but at least they have no long-term contract dependent on who they support or challenge.
There are a couple of individuals and small companies already operating in this area but they have to tread carefully – basically, you shouldn’t offer legal advice unless you are a lawyer.
But lawyers don’t come cheap and, given that organisations like Fair Trading in NSW and Consumer Affairs in Victoria will only offer generic advice, if that, there is a huge gap for someone to help strata communities resolve issues before anyone hits the big red button.
In a constantly evolving environment where many people are new to apartment living – or unware that the world has moved on since they first moved in to their flat – specialist strata lawyers have an important role to play.
But when what you really need is someone to calmly explain the facts of strata life, rather than escalate the dispute to the next level, perhaps the role of the professional pain in the a*** should be recognised and, eventually, regulated.
This column first appeared in the Australian Financial Review.