REMOTE ABORIGINAL COMMUNITY WINS SAFE HOUSING IN CLASS ACTION AGAINST NORTHERN TERRITORY GOVERNMENT, 27 February 2019
Residents in the Aboriginal community of Santa Teresa will finally be compensated for the NT Government’s failure to maintain housing to a safe and healthy level after the Northern Territory Civil and Administrative Tribunal (NTCAT) found the NT Government is legally obliged to provide habitable housing in remote communities.
The class action lawsuit was brought against the NT Government by 70 households after it failed to action over 600 urgent repairs, with some families waiting over five years. Many houses posed serious health and safety risks to residents, with some building structurally unsound, without running water, sewerage and ventilation despite the desert temperatures in the area regularly hoving above 40 degrees in summer and below zero in winter.
Grata Fund, the public interest litigation fund which financially supported the class action, hails the decision as a victory for the residents of Santa Teresa and all Aboriginal communities that have been systematically ignored by a Government that continues to fail to meet its basic responsibilities as a landlord in the community.
Australian Lawyers for Remote Aboriginal Rights (“ALRAR” have acted for the Santa Teresa residents in the case for over three years free of charge). ALRAR’s lead lawyer, Dan Kelly said, “Aboriginal communities, including the people of Santa Teresa, have fought long and hard to protect their rights while the Government has continued to fail to meet its basic responsibilities as a landlord in the community.
“The NTCAT decision has cemented the rights of the Eastern Arrernte people of Santa Teresa under residential tenancy law - just like anyone else who rents from a landlord - despite the Government’s attempts to shirk its obligations.
“The NT government has pursued our clients for years over these dodgy debts, which across the community came to over a million dollars. They let the rental system fall into disarray for years, and only raised it to try and silence our clients when they dared to take legal action for better housing.
“After years of litigation it is clear today they had no right to this money, it is clear the housing system is in chaos, and it suggests that rentals debts across the Territory are unenforceable. The entire housing system has been called into question.
“For the first time remote Aboriginal people will be compensated for the dire state of their housing, and the NT government is found directly responsible. For years NT governments have failed to fix the housing crisis in Aboriginal communities. What this decision shows is that those who have suffered are not powerless. They have rights, and they can be enforced through Courts. Unless the government acts, there will be more litigation. The system has been utterly exposed, and if people in Santa Teresa are entitled to compensation, the same must be true for the other 70 remote communities across the NT”, said Mr Kelly.
Grata’s head of strategic litigation Lou Dargan said, “Litigation is so expensive and time consuming that it’s rare for important public interest cases such as this one to be pursued. It’s a great outcome for Santa Teresa residents.
“This class action was a crucial piece of strategic litigation which provides an important precedent for all remote communities seeking to protect their right to housing that meets basic legal standards of health and safety.
“This is not a problem unique to Santa Teresa but is felt across the Territory, where for years the Government has ignored calls to fix appalling conditions. Grata Fund will continue to work with Australian Lawyers for Remote Aboriginal Rights and investigate the potential for similar litigation in other communities,” said Ms Dargan.
Josie Douglas, Policy Manager at Central Land Council said, “This case proves what we have seen for a long time - that the NT Government is failing to meet its responsibilities for Aboriginal housing since taking control during the 2007 NT Intervention. The NT Government must return responsibility for housing decisions back to Aboriginal control, through local or regional community housing organisations in a phased approach.”
Jasmine Cavanagh, a resident of Santa Teresa told the NTCAT “The main problem was the leaking shower. The toilet was blocked and leaked sewerage into the water leaking from the shower. Water was everywhere in the back area of our house. This started soon after I moved in. I complained about it many times to Housing. Sometimes I got a bandaid solution. Then the same problem would start again. When it was leaking, we would have to mop up dirty water about every four hours. I would mop it up at 8pm, then get up at midnight and mop it up again, and then get up in the early morning and mop it up again. I used to have to go and have a shower at my mum’s house. We would also wash the kids there.”
Grata Fund - Hayley Conway, 0484 313 466
Australian Lawyers for Remote Aboriginal Rights - Dan Kelly, 0431 373 245
Central Land Council - Josie Douglas, 0439 854 750
Aboriginal Housing NT - Barb Shaw, 0401 291 166
The 70 Santa Teresa residents bringing the class action are being represented by Australian Lawyers for Remote Aboriginal Rights and financed by Grata Fund. The NT Department of Housing initially counter-sued the plaintiffs for unpaid rental debts but amended its suit after many of its claims were found to be incorrect and some residents had never been billed for the rents claimed. The plaintiffs argue that the NT Government is legally bound to ensure that dwellings rented under its remote public housing scheme are adequately maintained.