Pictured: John Cooper, spokesperson for the Queens Lake Village residents association and vice president of the Retirement Village Residents Association
By Keryn Curtis
A looming legal and public relations stoush with potentially long-range implications for retirement village operators and residents alike has been carefully averted. At least temporarily.
Retirement village operator, Stockland, has presented a peace offering to residents of its Queens Lake Village (formerly owned by Aevum Limited) at Laurieton on the NSW mid north coast, on the eve of a David versus Goliath-themed protest against the operator.
Residents of Queens Lake Village (QLV), with support from the Retirement Village Residents Association (RVRA) have spent the last two weeks planning the protest over Stockland’s decision to lodge an appeal with the District Court in NSW against a decision, granted in favour of the residents, by the Consumer, Trader and Tenancy Tribunal (CTTT) in December last year.
The CTTT decision relates to a dispute between Stockland and the residents association of the village over the residents’ refusal to approve the annual budget for 2010-2011 because of insufficient detail provided for two line items involving ‘insurance’ and ‘corporate recharge’. [Click here to read a related AAA story which provides more details of the dispute]
Stockland’s appeal, scheduled for hearing in the District Court in Sydney on 8 February, initially sought to not only overturn the findings of the Tribunal, but to ask the ‘defendants’ to pay any costs associated with or incidental to the appeal.
The village residents association had claimed that Stockland had rejected the ‘umpire’s decision’ and adopted intimidatory, ‘bully-boy’ tactics by choosing a course of legal action it knew was unaffordable to the mostly pensioner-based resident group.
Retirement Village Residents Association (RVRA) Secretary in NSW, Jan Pritchett, said the CTTT was really the only avenue available to retirement village residents for making a formal complaint against an operator.
“These people went to the CTTT and won their case against Stocklands. But I think to intimidate them, because over 90 per cent of residents are pensioners in this village, they thought that, if they took them to court, the residents would back off,” said Ms Pritchett.
Speaking Wednesday morning, before Stockland had made its offer, Ms Pritchett said the RVRA was especially concerned about this case because a win for the operator would mean that residents would have no legal recourse for complaints and disputes.
“What would be the point of going to the CTTT? The operator could use its superior financial clout and take the residents to court and have the decision overturned. And residents just don’t have the kind of funds to do that.
“It’s been a real wake-up call because if they can do that at Queens Lake then that will mean…it basically takes away any rights we have.,” she said.
A change of tune
But by late Wednesday night, Queens Lake Village residents association spokesperson, John Cooper had received a letter, via email, from Stockland’s CEO, Retirement Living, David Pitman.
In the letter, Mr Pitman acknowledges the “considerable concern” that the matter has caused residents and says the operator takes “on board the comments by the CTTT that we should have provided a higher level of transparency during the budget process.” He also says the company is reviewing its systems “to ensure an appropriate level of disclosure is provided in future budgets.”
However, Stockland explains and defends its objection to the CTTT decision, and the forthcoming court case, saying that the “outcome does not provide clarity for residents or operators about how these charges should be handled in the future.”
“This is a matter that requires clarification of the law to protect the best interests of all parties and, as such, Stockland is seeking to have this matter clarified. This is important because Stockland takes very seriously the wellbeing of its Retirement Village residents both now and in the future,” the letter states.
The good news for the Queens Lake Village residents is the company’s proposal to pay the residents’ “legal costs up to $50,000, with legal representation of the residents’ choice completely independent of Stockland.”
In addition to the residents of Queens Lake having full authority and responsibility for engaging and directing their own legal counsel, Stockland will pay its own legal costs “to ensure we all receive legal clarification for this matter at no personal cost to residents.”
Stockland further agrees not to pursue any costs orders that may be made by the District Court in its favour and will be suggesting an adjournment of the District Court hearing to a date later than the currently scheduled date of 8 February, to allow the residents more time for preparation.
Queens Lake resident spokesperson, John Cooper, addressed a special residents committee meeting before lunch yesterday. He said the meeting had gone very well and that residents were, of course, very happy with the outcome at this stage.
“It’s an enormous relief knowing that there’s no financial burden hanging over us now and we can afford to properly pay our lawyer,” Mr Cooper said.
Only Wednesday morning, Mr Cooper said the residents had resolved to go to the district court and not to give in, but admitted they would be relying on funds raised from raffles to pay the first stage fees for their legal counsel.
Stockland’s offer of $50,000 in legal costs and an undertaking not to pursue any other costs meant the residents could commit to the process without the financial anxiety.
“We would have had to run a bloody big raffle if it had gone to a full hearing,” he said.