Above: John Cooper, resident committee spokesperson for Queens Lake Village
By Keryn Curtis
Followers of the Queens Lake Village (QLV) retirement village residents versus Stockland (Aevum) case, last reported in AAA on 4 February this year (click here for details) will be interested to hear what the QLV resident group is calling ‘the final chapter’ in their year-long dispute with the operator.
The dispute concerned the operator’s provision of – or failure to provide – sufficient detail about certain costs presented in the annual budget to village residents. These ‘line-item’ costs related to ‘insurance’ and ‘corporate recharge’.
The dispute was heard in the Consumer, Trader and Tenancy Tribunal (CTTT) last December where the Tribunal found in favour of the residents. Without prior discussion or notice to the residents’ group, Stockland lodged an appeal of the Tribunal decision in the District Court in Sydney. The appeal made the QLV residents’ group the ‘defendants’ and liable for all legal costs should the CTTT decision be overturned by the court. The group argued this amounted to a dismissal of the only affordable legal recourse available to them and would place the residents at extreme financial disadvantage if they were to pursue their side of the case.
A peace offering from Stockland to the residents group at the final hour, granting up to $50,000 for legal fees for legal counsel of their choice, was welcomed by the residents and both parties agreed to proceed on the basis that clarity on the matter was essential for all future negotiations between operators and residents in New South Wales.
At the final hearing in the District Court last Friday, 8 April, Judge Levy dismissed Stockland’s application to have the CTTT decision of 9 December overturned. Instead he upheld the CTTT’s decision that the two contentious line items in the 2010-11 budget, namely insurance $23,100 and corporate recharge (management fees) $28,594, be removed from the 2010-2011 budget.
While the QLV residents are pleased and relieved with the decision, their spokesperson, John Cooper, says they remain concerned that it had to happen in the first place.
“Residents are very happy with the result and they’re very relieved. It’s been exactly 12 months from the time of the first meeting and it’s been a stressful time for a lot of residents,” said Mr Cooper. “They’ve been very worried; they didn’t fully understand it and were concerned about the outcomes and how they might be affected.”
“The situation should never have got to that stage. If they had talked and negotiated it would have been different. There’s a lot to be said for communication, consultation and negotiation,” said Mr Cooper.
“In my opinion, they ran an all or nothing case. There appeared to be no room for compromise and look what’s happened.”
Mr Cooper said it was also his opinion that the case would set a new precedent in law. “Firstly, residents only have to meet the cost of insurance for the items related to in the Act and, secondly, in respect to the budget, residents are entitled to receive sufficient detailed information to enable then to make an informed decision as to the acceptance or rejection of the budget.”
“The information must show that the statement of proposed expenditure relates directly to services provided to the operation of this village,” Mr Cooper said.
Lawyer for the QLV residents, Mr Peter Hill, from the firm, Hill and Co Lawyers on the NSW Central Coast is equally disappointed that it became necessary to pursue the case to this extent.
“It beggars belief that a large organisation like that chooses not to meet the Act’s requirements of transparency. It’s a consumer business and they are selling a lifestyle and brand is important,” said Mr Hill. “People want to enjoy their retirement, not be fighting cases like this in the courts.”
“If they had come and said, here are the amounts of insurance and here is the breakdown of the corporate recharge, it could have been negotiated and settled. The way they have conducted themselves, in my view, during the proceedings and investigation hasn’t served the interests of the industry.” he said.
“It’s been a real David and Goliath story and, through persistence and good leadership, the residents have done a great job. I’m from a local central coast law practice. Stockland is a huge, diverse corporate with access to the most expensive lawyers and a senior and junior barrister. There’s no comparison,” said Mr Hill.
“Ultimately time is a good warrior and the strength of the win in the district court will prevail. Operators who decide to adopt artificial distinctions to avoid simple transparency will be shown to be self serving and a light will be shone on that and it won’t put them in very good stead for the future.
“The worm is turning. Residents are tired of having the wool pulled over their eyes and they’re increasingly becoming activists. Increasingly they’re very well networked; many have occupied senior roles. They may have retired from their work but they haven’t retired from life,” Mr Hill said.
A peaceful future
Cooper remains a strong advocate of retirement villages and the lifestyle they can offer retirees. In his final report to fellow residents of Queens Lake Village, John Cooper remains optimistic about the future of resident-operator relations there.
“I am hopeful that we can put this episode behind us and look forward to working in harmony with our management and Stockland with the view to making Queens Lake Village the village that a lot of people want to retire to,” he concluded.
*Stockland was contacted for comment for this report. A spokesperson there provided a response to a question concerning a decision made by the organisation last Monday to seek a ‘discontinuance’ of the final hearing scheduled for last Friday. Stockland has no further statement at this stage.