In a landmark lawsuit, a tribunal finds the NT government has a legal obligation to ensure remote housing is habitable and in good repair.

UNSW Law School partner, Grata Fund, has supported a community to run a landmark lawsuit brought against the Northern Territory government by 70 remote Aboriginal households who demanded action over 600 urgent repairs.

In a win for Aboriginal residents living in Santa Teresa, 80 kilometres south-east of Alice Springs, the Northern Territory Civil and Administrative Tribunal (NTCAT) found for the first time that the government has a legal obligation to ensure remote housing is habitable and in good repair.

“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’s Head of Strategic Litigation Lou Dargan said.

Grata Fund, a public interest litigation fund, provided the financial support the community needed to run the class action lawsuit after the government failed to action the repairs, with some families waiting more than five years.

Many houses posed serious health and safety risks to residents, with some structurally unsound, without running water, sewerage and ventilation, despite the temperatures regularly hovering above 40 degrees in summer and below zero degrees in winter.

Santa Teresa resident Jasmine Cavanagh told the NTCAT that her housing problems included a leaking shower and blocked toilet.“I complained about it many times to Housing. Sometimes I got a band aid solution, then the same problem would start again,” she said.

“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.”

Compensation

The residents were represented by Australian Lawyers for Remote Aboriginal Rights (ALRAR) lead lawyer Daniel Kelly, who said for the first time, remote Aboriginal people will be compensated for the dire state of their housing.“For years NT governments have failed to fix the housing crisis in Aboriginal communities,” Mr Kelly said.“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.”

According to ALRAR, the decision has confirmed the NT government has failed to meet its responsibilities for Aboriginal housing since taking control during the 2007 NT Intervention.

Grata Fund has been working with the Santa Teresa community and ALRAR to build public awareness about the case and to relieve the significant challenges facing the community of Santa Teresa by providing financial support for disbursements.

Grata is now protecting two residents from adverse cost risk as they seek leave to appeal some aspects of the decision, arguing that the way the NT government enters into tenancy agreements with Aboriginal people living in remote communities is unconscionable.

The appeal would also look at whether the term ‘habitable’ of the Residential Tenancies Act is properly construed to require  housing conditions that do not pose  an injury to health and/or meet contemporary standards of humaneness and reasonable comfort

“Grata Fund will continue to work with Australian Lawyers for Remote Aboriginal Rights and investigate the potential for similar litigation in other communities,” Ms Dargan said.

Grata Fund hopes the case has set a precedent that will encourage the NT government to act to make housing safe and habitable.