In an important victory for renters and remote Indigenous communities, the NT Supreme Court today ruled that the public housing landlord is legally required to supply safe drinking water to its tenants.
In 2019 residents of the remote community of Laramba, west of Alice Springs took their landlord, the NT Chief Executive Officer (Housing), to the NT Civil and Administrative Tribunal (NTCAT) over concerns about their drinking water, which contained uranium at levels three times the maximum safe level set out in the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines. The NTCAT found the landlord was not responsible for providing safe drinking water to its tenants. That decision was overturned by the NT Supreme Court today.
Today’s decision resolves a legal black hole, wherein no government department or agency accepted responsibility for providing safe drinking water to people living in remote communities. It also opens an avenue for the estimated 250,000 Indigenous people who are currently unable to reliably access safe and healthy water, to seek legal redress and compensation.
Four years after the Laramba community’s ground-breaking legal action, the NT Government responded by constructing a new water treatment plant only for Laramba. It opened in April 2023. While this resolved the issue for Laramba, it did not address the issue of who was legally responsible for ensuring a safe drinking water supply nor who will compensate tenants for the health risks that came with uranium-enriched drinking water, particularly to the kidneys of long-term residents.
The residents bringing the case were represented by Australian Lawyers for Remote Aboriginal Rights (ALRAR) and barrister, Matthew Albert, at no cost to the community. Grata Fund has provided funding and support to the community throughout the legal journey.
Dan Kelly, Solicitor at Australian Lawyers for Remote Aboriginal Rights, said:
“The Laramba community has won a landmark case that will hopefully benefit Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities across Australia, who are denied the most basic of human rights, which is access to clean and safe drinking water.
“Tap water in more than 500 remote Indigenous communities across Australia isn’t regularly tested and often it isn’t safe to drink. Today’s win has confirmed that Indigenous peoples have as much right as any Australian to safe drinking water, and the government can be held to account when they fail in their most basic obligations.
“The case brought by Laramba families has delivered a win for the legal rights of remote Indigenous communities and renters across the Northern Territory.
“The decision establishes the NT CEO for Housing has an obligation to provide safe drinking water to its tenants. Remote tenants will now be able to demand their water quality be improved if it does not meet safety standards, and seek recourse for any health impacts caused by unsafe drinking water.
"For more than a decade no government department took responsibility or accepted liability for the water they were delivering to remote Aboriginal communities.
“It has taken lengthy legal action for this remote community to access their basic rights to safe drinking water. This should not be the case in the 21st century in a country as wealthy as Australia,” said Dan Kelly.
Isabelle Reinecke, Executive Director, Grata Fund said:
“I warmly congratulate the community of Laramba on their important win today, for leading the way and fighting for their rights to better health outcomes and safe drinking water for their families, and for all tenants in the NT,” said Isabelle Reinecke.
- 2019 - Laramba residents took their landlords, the NT Department of Housing, to the NT Civil and Administrative Tribunal (NTCAT)
- July 2020 - The NTCAT finds the government, as landlord, isn't liable for the water supplied to the community by the government-owned company, Power and Water Corporation
- May 2022 - Laramba residents appeal the decision in the NTCAT, and lose
- Sept 2022 - Laramba residents appeal the decision in the NT Supreme Court
- April 2023 - NT Government opens a water treatment plant in Laramba
- Oct 2023 - Decision from the NT Supreme Court
Available for interview:
- Dan Kelly, Solicitor, Australian Lawyers for Remote Aboriginal Rights
- Isabelle Reinecke, Executive Director, Grata Fund