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MEDIA RELEASE: Northern Territory’s highest court confirms right to decent housing for First Nations people living in remote communities

In an important victory for remote communities, the Northern Territory’s Court of Appeal this morning confirmed that the NT government must provide decent housing, and rejected the NT government’s third attempt to water down its obligations. 

The Court ruled that the government has a legal duty to provide people with housing that is not only safe, but reasonably comfortable, judged against contemporary standards. [1]

The case was brought by residents of Ltyentye Apurte (Santa Teresa), an Eastern Arrernte community about 85km south of Alice Springs. Badly maintained houses have left many people in the community without electricity, hot water, cooking facilities or functioning toilets for weeks, months and even years at a time. The lead tenant in this case endured more than five years with a missing external door to her property. 

The residents bringing the case are being represented by Australian Lawyers for Remote Aboriginal Rights at no cost to the community. The litigation costs are being financed by Grata Fund.

"Today the Court of Appeal has confirmed that the Territory government has a legal responsibility to improve the standard of housing for remote communities. This is validation for the people of Santa Teresa, who have spent more than six years fighting for housing they can actually live in. Our thoughts are with Mr Conway’s family today, who unfortunately did not live to see his fight deliver better outcomes for his community. The onus is now on Chief Minister Gunner to work with Aboriginal peaks to implement community-led solutions to the housing crisis,” said Daniel Kelly, Solicitor for Australian Lawyers for Remote Aboriginal Rights. 

The case has run for more than six years, and over that time the courts have consistently ruled that the Northern Territory government has failed to meet its legal obligations to the residents of Santa Teresa. [2]

The case was of such importance that the Australian Human Rights Commission intervened in the case as amicus curiae and presented evidence on the obligation to provide housing in line with international human rights standards. 

Each stage of the case has set important precedents that should bring benefits to First Nations People all over the Territory. Up to 75 other remote communities across the Territory are entitled to the same legal protection. 

The remote housing crisis is one of the factors behind an escalating outbreak of Covid-19 in Central Australia. [3] The Santa Teresa resident bringing the appeal is 82 years old and isolating as a close contact in a three bedroom house containing 6 adults. 

“The consequences of the government’s neglect of remote housing are playing out in communities across the Territory. The current Covid outbreak in remote communities is reminding us once again that overcrowding threatens lives. This could have been avoided if the Territory government had spent less time fighting this case and more time giving people decent homes to live in,” said Maria Nawaz, Acting Executive Director, Grata Fund.


1. When the case first came before the NT Civil and Administrative Tribunal (NTCAT), the NT government argued that they were only required to provide the residents of Santa Teresa with housing that did not put them at risk of physical harm. The NTCAT found that some housing provided to the residents of Santa Teresa did not even meet this low standard. On appeal, the NT Supreme Court set a higher standard of ‘reasonable comfort’, ‘judged against contemporary standards’.

In its judgment, the Court of Appeal dismissed the NT government’s attempt to roll back the Supreme Court’s definition of ‘habitability’ to require that remote housing be merely ‘safe’. Instead, the Court of Appeal confirmed a test that requires housing to be both safe and reasonably comfortable when judged against contemporary standards.

2. Case timeline

  • In February 2016 70 people from Santa Teresa brought a legal action against the Northern Territory government over the woefully inadequate public housing in the community.
  • In February 2019 the NT Civil and Administrative Tribunal found in favour of the residents.
  • Two of the residents appealed and in December 2019 the case went before the Supreme Court in the NT.
  • In September 2020 the Supreme Court strengthened many of the precedents in the NTCAT's ruling. Unfortunately Mr Conway passed away while the appeal was underway.
  • In October 2020 both parties appealed the verdict to the Court of Appeal. The Court of Appeal heard the case in February 2021.


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