Owners of a Sydney apartment block will have to pay an estimated $500,000 in legal costs after losing a lengthy battle to enforce a no-pets by-law. It’s a big price to pay and it highlights that while strata by-laws can seem dry and fussy, they are directed at helping strata owners manage some of the most emotive aspects of people’s lives.
Pets are a common flashpoint because their owners see them as family members (or some rank higher than family members). Restricting ownership rights or limiting the way pets behave can be a very personal matter, making it easy for tempers to flare and lawsuits to start. Other by-laws such as those regulating noise or the hanging your washing can have an obvious purpose, but if you point them out in the wrong way you are not guaranteed to get a good reaction.
Not many schemes will have their internal disputes go as far as the Court of Appeal, but most have by-law issues from time to time and resolution is not always straightforward.
In theory, the regulation of by-laws is simply a matter of following the defined process. Most by-laws are reasonably clear in writing and intent. If an occupant breaches them, they can be provided notice of this and asked to stop. If they keep breaching the by-law, the matter can be proceeded for legal determination either through mediation or, if needs be, the determination of an adjudicator. If owners aren’t happy with a by-law, they have the right to propose that it be amended, rescinded or that a new by-law can be written.
If only it were so easy.
In practice, you can know someone is breaching a by-law but it is not always easy to produce the evidence to demonstrate this. Then, if you do have the evidence, it takes time and money to produce breach letters. Then more time and money to have meetings and decide to take the matter further. If you do get to the courts the judgements don’t always fall in your favour. And, if you do change the by-laws or get a judgement to support your view, there are still some people who just do what they want anyway.
So, should owners just give up? Not at all. The standard process may not always bring easy results, but it is still effective in most cases can be finessed to produce better results. If you are having trouble, try the following:
Review your by-laws
Every few years it’s good practice for the committee to review the by-laws and discuss if they are working for your scheme. The by-laws are a living document and they can be changed, removed or new ones can be written. Ask, do the by-laws you have work for your building? If they are outmoded, it may be time for some amendments. If they are twenty years old and don’t reflect modern life, add a new rule that does. And, as owners have to vote on any changes, hopefully they will be more committed to any new laws passed.
Give Reasons Why
It sounds obvious, but a lot of by-law breach notices fail to take effect because the recipient doesn’t really understand the reason why the by-law exists or why their action interferes with others. Have you ever heard something like this: “If no one else is using the visitor’s parking, what’s the problem if I put my car there?”
That’s the sound of a narrow perspective. If you are talking to people about by-laws, make sure they understand the bigger picture. If you are lucky, you will hear the golden words: “Oh, I never thought about it like that before”.
- Out of sight, out of mind. Keep your by-laws relevant by keeping them visible. Make sure copies are posted around your site.
- Use signage to reinforce key messages.
- Send out a newsletter now and then to keep people up to date.
Don’t give people an excuse not to know.
Organise a Get Together
It’s old fashioned, but getting to know your neighbours can really improve your relations. Some friendly chat and mutual understanding can help people remember that they live in a community and that’s a good thing.