Owning your own property comes with a raft of benefits, including a general right to privacy and control over who can access your property and who can’t.
But of course, there are exceptions. And apart from the obvious ones, a recent High Court judgment highlights one that is particular to sectional title schemes. It involved a unit owner whose “recalcitrant actions” prevented a body corporate from entering his unit to check for a water leak.
A recalcitrant unit owner blocks access to his unit for a leak test
• A unit in a sectional title scheme had a damp problem and the neighbouring unit owner initially allowed the body corporate access to his unit to conduct a leak test. No leaks were found.
• However three months later the damp problem was still unresolved, and this time the neighbour flat out refused access to his unit for a second leak detection test. Requests for access through the managing agents, loss adjusters, leak detection agents and the body corporate’s attorneys all fell on deaf ears.
• The body corporate applied to the High Court for an urgent order compelling access within 48 hours.
• Although the neighbour had initially taken the stance that there was no reason why a second inspection should be conducted, he had a last-minute change of mind (after taking legal advice) and accepted that the body corporate is entitled to conduct reasonable inspections from time to time in order to properly manage the common property. He made a settlement offer to this effect to the body corporate, which rejected the offer as it still wanted its costs.
• Ultimately the Court rejected the neighbour’s attacks on the body corporate’s standing to bring the court application and held the neighbour liable to the body corporate for both the leak detection costs and the legal costs (only on the Ombud’s tariff – more on that below).
Were the body corporate’s round robin resolutions valid?
At issue was the validity of two body corporate resolutions. The full details of the various legal challenges mounted against the resolutions will be of great interest to industry professionals, but for most bodies corporate and unit owners perhaps the most important practical aspect is the attack on the first resolution because it was signed only by two of the five trustees on a round robin basis.
The Court was unimpressed by the neighbour’s argument that the resolution was defective because it was not signed by a majority of trustees and did not record date, place, and time.
“It is common practise” said the Court “what with the onslaught and the lagging effects of [Covid 19] that trustees, shareholders, governing bodies and directors meet virtually and sign documents via round robin.”
“It is … not uncommon for [trustees] to manage the affairs of the body corporate as they deem fit and in the best interests of the owners. Ad hoc and informal meetings are often held in order to deal with incidents without having to call or convene a formal meeting of the trustees.”
Each case will be different
The particular facts in this case clearly played a significant role in the Court’s ultimate decision, and there is no substitute for legal advice specific to each unique set of circumstances.
For example, one of this scheme’s Management Rules specifically caters for a trustee meeting by ‘any other method’ which, said the Court “in my view would encompass and encapsulate the extension of the method of signing resolutions. It would be absurd to consider or apply anything to the contrary.”
Important also was the Court’s finding that “throughout the entire process all the trustees were aware of and informed of what was transpiring”.
Finally, a warning from the Court to always approach the Ombud first
The Court once again confirmed the principle that in a matter such as this the parties should in the first instance approach the CSOS (Community Schemes Ombud Service) rather than the High Court.
Commenting that “I am of the view that this matter should never have been brought before this court as first instance” and “There are no exceptional circumstances pertaining to this matter, but rather issues that fall squarely within the ambit of the Ombud that can and would have been expeditiously dealt with at no cost as the employ of legal representatives is not permitted” the Court awarded legal costs to the body corporate only “on the tariff applicable in respect of proceedings under the ambit of the Ombud”.
Reading between the lines, the body corporate was possibly fortunate that the High Court agreed to hear its application at all. It may well have been saved only by the Court’s expressed displeasure with the neighbour’s “recalcitrant actions” and by his conduct in opposing the application in the first place.