Tenancy Tribunal. Everywhere I go on my travels around this great country, it is the one topic that always gets hotly debated amongst Property Managers and landlords. There is always plenty of emotion that goes with the territory as well. Comments such as “We are having to wait months for our hearing” or “The adjudicator is biased’ are common complaints that I hear. Others are less critical however the consensus of opinion appears to be that Tribunal does favour tenants though these are just opinions and there have never been any conclusive studies done to prove that this is the case.

One thing is for sure, wait times are frustratingly long. Too long, and if the Coalition Government push through reform such as the removal of the 90-day no-cause termination notice, meaning that in many occasions, you will have to go to the Tribunal to get a ruling, they are likely to increase further, and that is going to be unacceptable. If you have to go to Tribunal and wait for six to eight weeks to remove the antisocial tenant, and even then, your going to need sufficient evidence to do so, more small-time ‘Mum and Dad’ investors may leave the market at a time when we desperately need more landlords as rental stock plummets increasing rents further.

With approximately 600,000 rental properties in New Zealand, there are a staggering thirty to forty thousand Tenancy Tribunal applications every year with approximately 50% of them making their way to the Tenancy Tribunal. That means if you take the average length of a tenancy being two years and three months, approximately 10 to 15% of all tenancies will have a dispute worthy of an application to the Tribunal.

Who makes the applications?

Unsurprisingly, it is the landlord who is making the vast majority of the applications. In 2018 over 85% of all applications were made by the landlord and so far year to date up to the end of June, those numbers remain consistent.

But if you take away rent arrears which make up approximately 70% of all applications, you start to get a picture that there are an equal amount of applications and disputes between landlords and tenants.

There are over 50 Tenancy Tribunal adjudicators in New Zealand operating in 38 different locations. This means on average, adjudicators will make rulings on approximately 300 cases per year.

From a Property Management or landlord perspective, going to the Tribunal is a costly and time-consuming exercise, particularly when waiting times can be for so long. From a tenants perspective, you will automatically have second thoughts about taking a landlord to Tribunal as your name will show up in Tenancy Tribunal orders that are publicly available. 

So what can be done to speed up the process and improve the consistency of rulings? 

And what about the jurisdiction of the Tribunal? Do we need to review how it works and what powers it has? How is it monitored for consistency as in many cases I see, the decision-making process seems to vary considerably as to who is making the decision and whether it is against a landlord or a tenant?

This article is by in no way a criticism or beat-up of the Tribunal, more a recommendation as to how it can evolve. We are fortunate to have a disputes resolution process that is both accessible and affordable with Tribunal orders being made public. But with all things in life, change is a constant and the Tenancy Tribunal is no different. Is it too much to ask to get wait times down to two to three weeks for basic disputes and with more serious cases such as matters around health and safety, antisocial behaviour, assault and wilful damage, why not aim to get this down to within a week?

We believe that this is a possibility but it will need radical thinking and change to make this possible. Change in Government departments is typically slow with so much bureaucracy that you have to navigate. It is like a giant cargo ship in the ocean having to change direction so don’t expect change to come quickly.

So, without further ado, we look at a number of reforms that the Tenancy Tribunal should undertake.

  • Removal of rent arrears only cases from Tenancy Tribunal

This is something we have been talking about for over 12 months. As stated earlier, approximately 70% of Tribunal hearings will have a component of rent arrears. Let’s assume that over 50% of these cases are arrears only. If arrears only cases were taken away from the Tribunal, you would remove over one-third of Tribunal hearings and this alone would be lead to a vast reduction in hearing times.

How can we make this work without jeopardising tenants rights and keeping the process fair and transparent?

We think we have found a solution that will protect the rights of tenants and landlords alike.

Firstly, you have to acknowledge what the Tenancy Tribunal is and what its purpose is for. It is there to resolve disputes between landlords and tenants that relate to the Residential Tenancies Act. Now ask yourself this, are rent arrears a dispute or are they more a matter of fact?

There are plenty of grey areas and reasons for disputes between landlords and tenants but rent arrears is not one of them. It is one area that is black and white. You have either paid your rent on time, or you haven’t. Therefore there is no dispute.

How we see this working

It is a complete waste of time for both the landlord and the adjudicator for rent arrears only cases. Typically, the tenant will not even turn up for the hearing and it is more a case of putting a seal on an order. 

An alternative solution is to make rent arrears applications remotely without having to go to Tribunal. On or after the 21st day of the tenant becoming in arrears you simply send the application through with possession and termination automatically granted to the landlord. The landlord would have to send evidence across to prove this is the case. Rent statements, arrears notices, a copy of the Tenancy Agreement and an address for service for the tenant would likely be required. Under section 55 of the Residential Tenancies Act (RTA), the Tribunal shall make an order terminating the tenancy if the Tribunal is satisfied that the tenant is at least 21 days in arrears. 

A remote adjudicator would ensure that the information is correct and write out the orders ending the tenancy and granting possession back to the landlord. Tenants have to be given the right to reply and defend themselves. So the termination and possession order will be granted to the landlord no later than 10 working days from the date of the decision. This gives the tenant the opportunity to seek a rehearing if they can prove that there has been a substantial wrong or miscarriage of justice. This is clearly stated in section 105 of the RTA under Rehearings.

If the tenant can prove that this has happened, then a Tribunal date will be set within 10 working days of the original decision. Either way, you will limit the risk to the landlord to approximately five weeks rent arrears.

If the tenant cannot prove this, the order stands and the tenancy will end. We estimate that there are approximately five to six thousand cases a year like this so there would be a reduction of about 120 cases a week going to the Tribunal. Two remote adjudicators could handle that workload between them.

  • Track and measure decisions to improve consistency

With so many Tribunal orders being made every day, we believe that to help improve consistency, the decisions that adjudicators make should not only be monitored but also measured. With small data comes big opportunities and the Tribunal is no different. 

It would be hugely beneficial for adjudicators to measure their decisions against other adjudicators. If there are inconsistencies between adjudicators then it would be easily identifiable through this process.

It will also give clarity as to how adjudicators decide who is liable when a ruling is made against a Property Manager. Too often, we see rulings made against a Property Management company when they actually have done nothing wrong. Examples of this are around maintenance or non-compliant properties. The owner is responsible for maintaining the premises and too often Property Management companies face exemplary damages because of the actions of their owners. We highlighted this back in our April article, who is liable?

How do we do this?

With over 15,000 decisions being made by over 50 adjudicators, it will be easy to track the performance of each adjudicator and compare their decisions. You will categorise each decision, for example, rent arrears, damages, cleaning and exemplary damages and you will be able to benchmark decisions based on case type, location and adjudicator.

Such a system would identify any inconsistencies in decisions that adjudicators make but more importantly, we would have an excellent tool to educate not just adjudicators, but both tenants and landlords on what likely decisions the Tenancy Tribunal will come up with on certain cases.

Too many applications will be made based on raw emotion rather than fact. Having such a tool in place will mean that applications will typically be made based on factual evidence and case history rather than one party getting wrapped up in emotion and taking matters too personally.

  • Allow anonymity of the applicant

With the Privacy Act being talked about so much within our industry, we believe it is time to ensure that applicants should be able to remain anonymous. Likewise, if you are the defendant and you have had no ruling made against you, you should also have the option if you wish to remain anonymous.

It is in the public interest to have bad landlords and tenants identified however if they have done nothing wrong or they are a victim then is it really in the public interest to have them identified?

As an example, I have a family member who lives in Wellington and is paying a huge amount of rent for what can only be described as a slum. He has shown me pictures of mushrooms growing in the bathroom, rot, mould and damage to the property through fair wear and tear. This two storeys two apartment flat will be earning approximately $1300 a week in rent and I have spoken to the occupants, explaining their rights. However, they are very reluctant to make a claim as they do not want this to hinder future applications for rental properties.

I can well understand this as any prudent Property Manager or Landlord will do a Tribunal search on applicants. 

Tenants should be encouraged to take recalcitrant landlords to the Tribunal without fear of retribution or how it could impact their renting future. Likewise, often Property Managers are named in orders and this can be deeply distressing for them. It can also be a concern for their safety as sometimes decisions are made that they have little control over and they find themselves named in the media and sometimes subjected to online abuse and threats. 

This is totally unacceptable but unfortunately, it is systematic of the world that we live in. Safety and wellbeing have to be the number one priority.

  • Exemplary damages are out of date. Change them.

We believe that penalties that the Tenancy Tribunal can award do not go far enough and have to evolve. Many of the penalties or, as they are known under the RTA, exemplary damages, have not changed in nearly a decade. As rents have increased over the last 10 years, it would make sense that exemplary damages should increase as well.

They are also geographically biased as well. The median rent for Remuera is $730 yet for Gore in Southland it is only $260. Is it fair and reasonable that the landlord or tenant in Gore pays the same fine as the tenant or landlord in Remuera?

We believe that penalties need to be stiffer. Also, we need to take into consideration the amount of rent that is being charged when making decisions. Instead of having a fixed dollar amount, we believe a fairer system would be to base exemplary damages on a percentage of the annualised rental income. For example, the landlord is breaching his or her obligations under section 45 of the RTA, have maximum exemplary damages of 40% of the annualised rent. 

This would ensure that landlords would be severely hit financially if they purposely breached the act. Is a $4,000 penalty really a harsh punishment when a landlord rents out an unlawful premise that is infested with mould and dampness causing the occupants to become sick?

Stiffer penalties will ensure that landlords are more likely to maintain their properties and therefore we should see a reduction in applications by tenants over time. Bad landlords will be exposed and weeded out.

  • Exemplary damages for wilful damage to the premises

Finally, we find it unbelievable that a tenant can smash up a rental property and not face any exemplary damages or criminal prosecution. Section 40 of RTA under Tenant’s Responsibilities does state that tenants cannot intentionally or carelessly damage, or permit any other person to damage the premises. However, if they do this it is not considered to be an unlawful act and exemplary damages cannot be awarded.

This is ridiculous. I can go out onto a street and smash up a neighbours car and I would rightfully face criminal prosecution. However, as a tenant, I can smash up a property and only be liable for the repairs. This is often a lot less than the true cost of repairing the property as adjudicators have to take into account depreciation.

Tenants who wilfully damage the premises that they are renting should also face sanction and severe penalties through the Tribunal. Too often, the mental and financial strain that this causes to landlords is not taken into consideration. Tenants need to know that the consequences of such actions will hit them financially hard and this should prove to be enough of a disincentive to carry out such obscene behaviour.

If tenants are fully aware of this, then we again should see less damage caused to property resulting in fewer Tribunal hearings.

The 90 days no-cause termination. What shall become of it?

It is going to be the most hotly contested debate around the RTA reforms when this Government finally announces them. With all the well-intentioned ideas that the Coalition has, the reality is that ideology alone does not always make good policy. 

We have already seen one ridiculous Tribunal case where a tenant has taken HNZ to Tribunal, trying to get a full refund of rent of up to $26,000. This was after he was sent a written apology and paid $7,000 in compensation after being removed from a rental property which he contaminated following a police raid that discovered evidence of a Methamphetamine lab. The fact that he had the audacity to waste taxpayers money shows that there will always people who will simply not play by the rules and take advantage.

Safety must be the number one priority

Landlords have to have the ability to remove bad tenants quickly. They also should not need to obtain evidence from scared or intimidated neighbours to do so. Likewise, no Property Manager should ever have to tolerate abuse or threats. In a case highlighted in the REINZ weekly publication to its members, a tenant was for some inexplicable reason granted a rehearing after the Property Manager applied for eviction even though the Property Manager could provide evidence of abuse and threats through text messages. 

Safety and wellbeing must come first. If Tribunal can guarantee that cases such as antisocial or aggressive behaviour will be heard and actioned against within seven days of an application, without the need to get statements or evidence, then I would support the removal of the 90 days no-cause termination. A Property Manager taking oath in Tribunal should be sufficient evidence. Is it really worth risking your job over to get rid of a tenant you simply don’t like?

If they cannot do this, then the status quo must remain. Tenants have plenty of rights and giving notice through retaliation already comes with a strong penalty. Maybe including this statement into a Tenancy Agreement is the way to go so tenants are fully aware of their rights.

There is no silver bullet to reducing applications, however, we should set a target to do so. It is in everyone’s interest to have a fast, transparent, fair and consistent Tenancy Tribunal process. Let’s hope that this can start a discussion in ways to speed up the process.

David Faulkner

 

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