I received an email from a long-time Flatchatter the other day who attached a letter they had received from their strata committee’s lawyer, demanding that they withdraw a case at the NSW Tribunal.
The letter was one of the most blatant examples of bullying I have ever seen (and I have seen a few).
I can’t go into too much detail without identifying the combatants but suffice it to say that this is a typical strata conflict that should have been dealt with years ago but has been allowed to fester and grow.
The owner wanted the strata scheme to fix common property that was causing leaks into their flat, and had taken the strata scheme to the tribunal for enforcement.
Several years and tens of thousands of dollars in legal bills later, the scheme has been dragged to the tribunal several times, mostly because of their failure to get the job done properly.
Clearly there is an element of personal animosity and frustration on both sides, but the whole sorry saga has damaged the health and finances of the apartment owner, not to mention the harmony and collective bank balance of their neighbours.
If all of this seems familiar, it was the topic for one of our chats on this week’s podcast.
In the podcast we questioned the role of the strata lawyer in all this. Strata disputes are usually unfair fights – a single owner versus the rest of the building. That’s why in NSW the government tried (but failed) to make tribunals lawyer-free zones.
In this case, the owner received a letter from the scheme’s lawyer saying the large number of emails of complaint received indicated that the owner was a vexatious litigant.
Therefore, the letter said, not only would the owner lose the case but all costs would be awarded against them, and those costs would be considerable due to the number of witnesses the lawyers intended to call.
In other words, pull your Tribunal case or we will crush you. Now, if you were in a legal battle, you might think you’d want this hot-shot lawyer on your side. But in strata?
Wouldn’t you rather have a lawyer who says, “look, mistakes have been made, tempers have become frayed, here’s what the law demands, let me negotiate a settlement that’s fair for everyone and create a binding, legal agreement that allows everyone to get on with their lives?”
Actually, a lot of strata lawyers already do that. But you get the feeling that some others have been watching way too much TV.
Strata law can be exceptionally dull, and it should be. The laws are pretty clear, as are their intent, and lawyers should be resolving conflict, not creating it.
However, in a typical strata dispute you will have one side arguing points of principle while the other may be defending their home.
And you might have one side telling their lawyer “don’t tell me what I can and can’t do; tell me how I can do what I want and get away with it.”
For the record, in the case I mentioned, the owner won, the strata scheme lost and costs were not awarded. I hope the strata scheme refuses to pay their lawyer’s bills, on the grounds that they were led into a fight that they couldn’t win.
There are enough problems in strata without disputes turning into an episode of The Good Fight or Law And Order. Strata law should be about right and wrong, not threats and intimidation.
And if there isn’t a code of conduct for strata lawyers already, there certainly should be.
A version of this column first appeared in the Australian Financial Review