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Slater and Gordon seeks justice for Aboriginal tenants living in substandard public housing

Callan Morse -

In a significant move towards housing justice for Aboriginal tenants residing in remote communities in Western Australia, law firm Slater and Gordon has announced an investigation into a potential class action in the state.

The class action is set to represent thousands of Indigenous tenants who have been enduring substandard living conditions in Australia’s west.

Proposed group proceedings seek to bring about improvements in public housing and provide financial compensation for those affected.

The action follows the recent landmark High Court decision in the Northern Territory relating to housing rights of Aboriginal tenants, run by Australian Lawyers for Remote Aboriginal Rights (ALRAR).

Slater and Gordon's investigation in Western Australia was prompted by site visits to several remote communities where tenants were found to be residing in properties unfit for habitation under residential tenancy laws.

Slater and Gordon class actions senior associate, Gemma Leigh-Dodds, said Aboriginal public housing tenants in remote communities were entitled under Australian law to significantly better treatment and may be entitled to compensation. 

“Public housing lessors hold a contractual relationship with thousands of tenants living in remote communities pursuant to tenancy agreements for receipt of public housing,” Ms Leigh-Dodds said. 

“Those contracts provide express conditions that the landlord provide tenants with housing in a reasonably secure and comfortable state of repair, including in compliance with health and safety laws. 

“Site visits to remote communities have confirmed tenants have been living in substandard housing with issues such as water that does not pass regulatory guidelines, significant infrastructure issues, sewerage and security issues, and a lack of air-conditioning.” 

The primary objectives of the class action are to improve the conditions of public housing in remote communities throughout the state and provide financial compensation to the affected tenants.

During site visits to these remote communities, lawyers from Slater and Gordon and ALRAR, who collaborated on the investigation, say they observed alarming living conditions. 

Conditions reportedly included housing units which lacked essential amenities like working toilets, showers, cooking facilities and safe drinking water.

Broken windows and blocked pipes were also prevalent, despite repeated repair requests from tenants that had gone unanswered, according to reports.

Ms Leigh-Dodds said the proposed claim would seek damages pursuant to breaches of contract, including for repayment of rent where the property was not reasonably comfortable or safe, the inconvenience experienced by tenants dealing with housing issues, incurred expenditure to rectify housing issues that tenants had paid for and disappointment and distress caused by housing issues. 

She said the class action would also investigate whether group members were entitled to make secondary claims under Australian Consumer Law and the Racial Discrimination Act for offering a disadvantageous service on the basis of race. 

“In 2005, a report released by the United Nations Housing Rights Programme specifically identified Australia as a case study to consider the disadvantage experienced by Aboriginal people,” Ms Leigh-Dodds said.

“The UN Report considered the poor living conditions, with chronic overcrowding, quality of housing and poor access to basic services such as water and electricity all highlighted. 

“Discriminatory attitudes toward Aboriginal tenants were also identified as a reason for Aboriginal tenants being blamed for the deterioration of housing stock in public housing.” 

A separate case study also considered the practices and policies of WA’s government housing provider at the time and the impact its practices had on Aboriginal tenants. 

“The fact that nothing has been done in almost 20 years to improve conditions for Aboriginal people in remote public housing is shameful,” Ms Leigh-Dodds said. 

“For too long Aboriginal people living in remote communities have been expected to put up and shut up in relation to their housing rights. We are proud to be working with ALRAR to contribute to a suite of public interest litigation demanding better housing justice for Aboriginal people.” 

The potential class action announcement comes following the High Court’s decision handed down on Wednesday, relating to the legality of housing conditions in the Northern Territory.

National Indigenous Times has contacted the Western Australian government for comment.

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