The High Court has ruled Northern Territory Housing is liable to pay compensation to indigenous public housing tenants for a lack of repairs, in a landmark decision which could have ramifications across the country.
On Wednesday, the court unanimously allowed an appeal from a judgment of the NT Court of Appeal, which had denied compensation for distress and disappointment to Kwementyaye Young, a resident of the remote community Ltyentye Apurte (Santa Teresa), near Alice Springs.
Ms Young, who died earlier this year, had lived without a back door on her premises for more than five years.
More than 70 other households in the town have brought claims for a range of issues, including leaking sewerage, unstable electricity and no air-conditioning in their public housing premises.
The court ruling could allow all Australian renters to hold their landlords to account if repairs and maintenance are not carried out in a timely way.
The appeal concerned whether the NT Civil and Administrative Tribunal (NTCAT) had the power under Section 122(1) of the Residential Tenancies Act 1999 (NT) to order that a landlord compensate a tenant for distress or disappointment suffered by the tenant as a result of the landlord’s failure, in breach of a tenancy agreement, to take reasonable steps to provide and maintain security devices necessary to ensure that the premises are reasonably secure
NTCAT had taken the view that an external door was not a “security device” under the Housing Act 1982 (NT), and dismissed Ms Young’s application for compensation. The Supreme Court set aside that decision, ordering NT Housing to pay Ms Young $10,200.
The Court of Appeal set aside that order, construing s 122(1) of the Residential Tenancies Act 1999 (NT) as importing the principles of remoteness that limit the assessment of damages at common law. Consequently it held that those principles excluded compensation for distress or disappointment arising from breach of a term of a tenancy agreement other than in consequence of physical inconvenience.
The High Court, by majority, held that the Court of Appeal erred in construing the section that way, and that the statutory compensation was rather to be seen as an alternative, and likely more accessible, remedy to common law damages for breach of a tenancy agreement.
It held the connection between the landlord’s breach and the distress and disappointment suffered by Ms Young readily satisfied the causal connection required. It ruled it was therefore unnecessary for the majority to consider whether the distress and disappointment suffered by Ms Young would have been compensable in an action for damages at common law.
The High Court made no decision regarding the amount of compensation, which will be decided when the case returns to the Northern Territory Court of Appeal.