Who Pays the Costs to Defend a Defamation Claim Involving a Committee Member?

Who Pays the Costs to Defend a Defamation Claim Involving Committee Members?

 

Committee members naturally think that any claim made by or against them while performing their duties should be defended, at the cost of the body corporate (or its insurer). 

However, this is not necessarily the case.

Insurance

Insurance policies for community titles scheme will generally include cover for office bearer’s liability. This policy is designed to provide protection to committee members against losses arising from their conduct performed (or not performed, as the case may be) during the course of carrying out their committee duties. 

However, this policy will generally contain an exclusion from protection for defamation. This means that if a defamation claim is made against a committee member, the insurer will generally not provide cover for any costs incurred in defending that claim. 

Body Corporate 

There are statutory restraints regarding how a body corporate may apply its funds. 

The primary functions of a body corporate include administering the common property, enforcing the community management statement and carrying out other functions – as required by the body corporate legislation. 

Body corporate funds may only be used to undertake these statutory purposes, and cannot be used for other purposes, no matter how worthwhile those other purposes may be. 

Adjudicators have previously determined that paying for costs incurred by a committee member defending (or initiating) a defamation claim, are not usually considered costs that fall within the functions of a body corporate. 

A body corporate’s duty to act reasonably also applies to the way that the body corporate chooses to spend its money and the circumstances where it might be reasonable for a body corporate to pay the legal costs of a committee member arising from a defamation claim are limited.

In the event that a body corporate was to pay the costs of a committee member arising from a defamation claim, it is likely that an adjudicator would order a body corporate to recover those costs, should an adjudication application be made. 

What to do? 

Before a body corporate makes any payment for costs incurred by a committee member in a defamation claim, it should obtain legal advice, otherwise the body corporate may be embroiled in a dispute in the Commissioner’s Office, despite any good intentions. 

If you are a committee member (including a non-voting building manager) and you are not protected from liability for a defamation claim by the body corporate legislation, it is unlikely that a body corporate will be allowed to pay for costs incurred by you to defend that claim. 

However, if a committee member is required to defend a defamation claim, the circumstances surrounding the claim may make it appropriate for the body corporate to pay for any costs incurred, and legal advice should be obtained about the committee member’s position about the recoverability of costs.

Article Written by Col Myers (August 2021)

 

Liability limited by a scheme approved under Professional Standards Legislation
Disclaimer – This article is provided for information purposes only and should not be regarded as legal advice.

 

 

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Terminated Caretaking Agreements – is it the Courts Problem

TERMINATED CARETAKING AGREEMENTS – IS IT THE COURTS PROBLEM?

 

We all know that disputes about terminated caretaking and letting agreements are heard by QCAT. However the Supreme Court of Queensland has recently considered whether the Courts have jurisdiction to hear claims arising out of a terminated caretaking and letting agreement (Dunlop Case). 

If they do, it would appear likely that access to litigation by caretakers and letting agents may increase.

The facts

  • Mr Dunlop conducted a caretaking and letting business at an apartment complex in Port Douglas;
  • Mr Dunlop was subsequently convicted of an offence, and at the time of the conviction, Mr Dunlop’s property licence was cancelled;
  • The Body Corporate made enquiries in to Mr Dunlop’s cancelled licence and, upon confirmation, resolved to terminate the caretaking and letting agreement;
  • Mr Dunlop filed a claim in the Supreme Court for the lost value of the caretaking business, alleging that there was a breach of contract and Australian Consumer Law;
  • Mr Dunlop’s claim was against the Body Corporate, committee members and solicitor;
  • The Body Corporate sought an order setting aside Mr Dunlop’s claim on the basis that the Supreme Court did not have jurisdiction, as the claim should be considered a “complex dispute” within the meaning of the Body Corporate and Community Management Act 1997 (Qld) (BCCMA);
  • The Body Corporate alleged that the “only remedy” for resolution of the dispute is by an order of a specialist adjudicator or QCAT.

 

What did the Supreme Court think?

The Supreme Court largely agreed with the Body Corporate’s position, given the very precise wording of the BCCMA, by commenting:

“The applicants submit the claim against the body corporate is a complex dispute … namely a dispute between the body corporate and a caretaking service contractor and letting agent about a contractual matter, namely the termination of the engagement of the contractor and letting agent. From this it follows… that pursuant to s 229 the “only remedy” for resolution of the dispute is by an order of a specialist adjudicator or QCAT.” 

The Judge further commented that “these conclusions trend in favour of granting the application to set aside the claim and statement of claim in respect of the body corporate for the reason that it is a complex dispute to be resolved pursuant to s229(2)”. 

The Court considered that some aspects of the claim may be heard in QCAT and the remainder heard in the Supreme Court. However this outcome would be less than desirable, given that each claim has some connection to the other claims put forward by Mr Dunlop. 

In these uncertain circumstances, the Courts ultimately refrained from reaching a conclusion on the matter of jurisdiction pending further submissions on the matter. 

What does this mean? 

Whilst the outcome of this case is yet to be determined, it is of particular note to any Strata Manager that should the Courts take the view that such matters are within the jurisdiction of the Courts, it would appear likely that access to litigation may increase for a terminated caretaker/letting agent. 

Regardless of the outcome, the case serves as a timely reminder to ensure that any Body Corporate considering taking such steps to terminate a caretaker/letting agreement seek the professional advice of a Body Corporate lawyer.

 

Article Written by Brendan Pitman (1 July 2021)

 

Liability limited by a scheme approved under Professional Standards Legislation
Disclaimer – This article is provided for information purposes only and should not be regarded as legal advice.

 

 

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Pros and Cons of Pooled Letting

PROS AND CONS OF POOLED LETTING

 

When an owner lets out their unit through an on-site letting agent, there are two ways that the owner’s letting income is typically calculated. These can be described as the “direct income” method or the “pooled income” method.

The method to be used is set out in the letting appointment (i.e. the agreement between the letting agent and the owner of the investment unit).

The majority of letting appointments pay an income to owners using the direct income method, where the income collected from the unit bookings is paid directly to the owner, after deductions of all expenses.

The pooled income method is used predominantly for short term lettings in a hotel style business. When using pooled income, the combined income and expenses for all units in the letting pool are aggregated and then a share of the profit is paid to all the owners in the letting pool.

In a perfect world, the pooling of income would seem the fairest way for Managers to operate their letting businesses. By pooling the income, owners can’t accuse the Manager of favouring certain owners over others when allocating bookings, and all owners rise and fall together with the success of the letting business. However, as we all know, we don’t live in a perfect world!

There are a number of common issues that can arise when operating a pooled letting business. The types of questions you will encounter include:

  • How to fairly determine the income ratio? Do you allocate based on the number of beds, unit entitlements (which are designed to reflect value), quality of the unit, sea views or some other unique quality? Or do you divide everything equally regardless?
  • How to share expenses? Do you share any or all expenses across the letting pool? Do you share expenses only up to a certain cost? Do you use the same ratio for sharing income to also sharing expenses?
  • How to determine who authorises significant expenditure? Do you ask a committee or one or two owner representatives, or should you be asking all owners – as all owners are sharing the costs?
  • How to operate a maintenance fund? Do you deduct a maintenance levy each month or just withdraw expenses as and when incurred?
  • What happens when an owner leaves the pool or has only just joined the pool? Should part of the retained maintenance funds be returned to the leaving owner? What if an owner leaves the pool after the general maintenance fund has just paid out for a new hot water system or installed new carpet in their unit?
  • How to adjust income when the owner uses their unit? Do you make no adjustment, or do you pro rata adjust for the days used?
  • How to change the terms of the letting appointment? What do you do if not all owners agree to your proposed change?

If you elect to go the pooled income route with your letting business, all of the above questions need to be thoroughly considered and appropriately addressed in your letting appointments with your owners. Unfortunately, we see a lot of letting appointments providing for pooled income where the issues raised above are not sufficiently answered.

When these issues are not suitably addressed we see unfair scenarios arise where owners are not receiving an income that truly reflects their unit’s contribution to the letting pool income. For example, if two bedroom units are in demand far more often than three bedroom units, the owners of the two bedroom units are effectively supplementing the income of the owners of three bedroom units. To add insult to injury, if the distribution of the pooled income is based on unit entitlements (i.e. the value of the units), the three bedroom units will also receive a higher return from the pool than the two bedroom units.

When you look at the questions and examples above, you can see there are many situations where a disgruntled owner could easily start asking some difficult questions. Questions that will be uncomfortable to answer if the terms of your letting appointment are either vague or silent on the issue.

If you operate a letting business that pools the income given to owners and your letting appointment doesn’t have the answers to these questions, it’s definitely recommended that you prioritise a revision of your letting appointments, as it only takes an issue with one owner to be an issue with all owners.

Article Written by Col Myers (June 2021)

 

Liability limited by a scheme approved under Professional Standards Legislation
Disclaimer – This article is provided for information purposes only and should not be regarded as legal advice.

 

 

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Tel:          +61 7 5552 6666

Fax:         +61 7 5528 0955

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Resolutions Without Dissent

THE POWER OF ONE

 

The Queensland strata legislation, like other States’ legislation, includes varying motion types which necessitate different levels of voting support in order to become resolutions. Each State has unique categories of motions and different threshold voting requirements for such motions to be approved. Whilst there is some overlap, a special resolution in one jurisdiction may have a different meaning in another (at least in terms of the way votes are calculated).

In Queensland, the Body Corporate and Community Management Act 1997 prescribes the following resolution types (for general meetings):

  • Ordinary resolution
  • Majority resolution
  • Special resolution
  • Resolution without dissent

The most common resolution type is an ordinary resolution. Such a resolution is calculated quite simply in terms of a majority of those voting. The motion passes if there are more votes in favour than against. The qualifying aspect to this is if somebody (anybody entitled to vote) requests a ‘poll’. In such circumstances, the motion is passed if the total contribution lot entitlements in favour of the motion are more than the total contribution lot entitlements against the motion. An ordinary resolution is the only resolution type where a poll can be requested.

One infrequently used resolution type is a majority resolution. Because they are rarely required, there seems to be a tendency to assume (incorrectly) that a majority resolution is the same as an ordinary resolution – after all, it talks about a ‘majority’ doesn’t it? However, they are quite different things. A majority resolution is calculated based on the total number of lots in the scheme. The resolution carries only if the votes in favour of the motion are more than half of the lots entitled to vote on the motion. Given the general apathy and low voting turnout at general meetings, obtaining the required support for a majority resolution can be quite difficult.

Another misconception that owners and others in the strata sector frequently seem to have is the voting requirements for a special resolution. There appears to be a common assumption that such a resolution requires a simple 75% majority. Whilst perhaps that might be useful as a ‘rule of thumb’, the counting of votes for a special resolution is quite different. The test is a three-tier one, and requires all of the following requirements to be satisfied:

  • At least two-thirds of the votes cast are in favour of the motion.
  • The votes counted against the motion are not more than 25% of the number of lots in the scheme.
  • The contribution lot entitlements for lots voting against the motion are not more than 25% of the total contribution lot entitlements for the scheme.

That brings us to the final resolution type and the purpose of my commentary in this newsletter – the resolution without dissent. Such a resolution quite simply requires that no vote is cast against the motion. What’s more, this resolution type does not prohibit owners who owe a body corporate debt at the time of the meeting from voting on the motion. Accordingly, a single owner (financial or unfinancial) can ensure that such a motion does not carry – and this frequently occurs. 

It holds true that there will be very serious decisions that a body corporate will need to make from time to time that should require strong majority support – even beyond the requirements of a majority or special resolution. However, the question arises as to whether a unanimous voting requirement is a step too far? 

Of course, there will be those that point out that any failure of a resolution without dissent to pass can be the subject of challenge in the Commissioner’s Office – the relevant test being whether it failed to pass ‘because of opposition that in the circumstances is unreasonable’ – a test for which we have High Court authority (Ainsworth v Albrecht [2016] HCA 40).

However, that still means that valuable time and resources are consumed in seeking to have an unreasonable vote overturned in the Commissioner’s Office. Conversely, if one or two votes were insufficient to prevent the passing of the motion, it would be up to those ‘aggrieved’ owners to take the initiative and commence dispute resolution proceedings to challenge the passing of the motion. Without good cause and reasons for their dissent, most owners will probably not take up this option – particularly as frivolous or vexatious applications can be dismissed with costs. 

That brings us to another question about whether the current statutory maximum of $2,000.00 is sufficient to discourage the lodging of frivolous or vexatious applications. Certainly not in my opinion. However, that is a debate for a different day – and a different newsletter!

Article Written by Jarad Maher (26 May 2021)

 

Liability limited by a scheme approved under Professional Standards Legislation
Disclaimer – This article is provided for information purposes only and should not be regarded as legal advice.

 

 

GET IN TOUCH

Tel:          +61 7 5552 6666

Fax:         +61 7 5528 0955

Office:      Level 2, 17 Welch Street, Southport Qld 4215

Postal:      PO Box 1876, Southport QLD 4215

 

OFFICE HOURS

Open:        8:30am – 5:00pm Monday to Friday

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