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Strata battles: Know when it’s time to stop fighting

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Q: What’s the phrase that lawyers love to hear most?  A: ‘It’s a matter of principle.’

Yes, even better than ‘you win’, according to that old joke, a battle fought on principle soon rides roughshod over common sense and logic while racking up the billable hours. Nowhere is that more evident than in apartment living.

One of the first stories I heard when I started writing about apartments featured two captains of industry who shared a lift lobby in their upmarket apartment block and couldn’t agree on whether the carpet should be vacuumed pile down or pile up.

This was not an issue that allowed for compromise.  The pile was either up or down – there was no in-between. Because the block was Company Title and neither party was prepared to give way, it ended up in the Supreme Court where I believe the cleaners were instructed to alternate the pile on a weekly basis.

By the way, these days a dispute like that in NSW could be heard in the Local Court, saving a small fortune in fees. Or you could take it to a TV reality show like this one and make some money from your misery.

A NSW Fair Trading mediator once told me that he had spent days with two neighbouring families whose behaviour was mutually irritating and their argument had escalated to the point where dog poo had been thrown over their garden fence.

Using every ounce of his skill and experience, the mediator finally got both warring households to agree to moderate the behaviour that had started the dispute in the first place, forget about revenge and move on.

As the two sides shook hands, the ancient grandmother of one family asked what was going on. When she was told that they had agreed to disagree, she threw her hands in the air and shouted, “They threw shit in our garden! They must be punished!” Mediation over – everyone back to the trenches.

This is typical of the many minor skirmishes you come across in strata, however some are a lot more serious. I have seen millions of dollars lost because experts recommended a strata scheme demand more from a developer even though a substantial defects settlement offer was on the table.

And I have seen hundreds of thousands of dollars frittered away in a doomed defamation case driven by someone who confused financial might with right.

The plaintiff lost the money but could afford it. It was the defendants, fearing they could lose their homes, who suffered the sleepless nights.

In strata, where ignorance is endemic, a state of mutually exclusive conviction is commonplace. And by the time you have schooled someone in their limited rights and considerable obligations, you’re often past the point where principle prevails over logic or the law.

So what do you do when you are utterly convinced you are 100 per cent right – and the person with whom you are in dispute believes just as strongly that you are wrong?

If explaining the facts of strata life doesn’t work, you can try mediation then think about pursuing fines and orders from a higher authority – like a Tribunal or court.

But what about the occasional psychopath who’s only measure of right and wrong is whether or not he or she is getting what they want?

When that happens, it may be time to ask yourself if it’s worth it, abandon the high moral ground and be satisfied that, while you may have lost the battle, it hasn’t cost you a cent or a wink of sleep.

This column originally appeared in the Australian Financial Review

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