The Australian High Court has ruled that some public housing tenants in the Northern Territory (NT) are entitled to financial compensation for distress caused by government inaction.
The case involved more than 70 households from a remote community in the NT, and was led by a First Nations woman.
The ruling could set a new precedent about how the NT Government will compensate public housing tenants living in substandard conditions.
The lead applicant, referred to in court as Kwementyaye Young, lived in public housing in the remote First Nations community Ltyentye Apurte/Santa Teresa, about 80km southeast of Alice Springs.
Young was in her seventies during her tenancy agreement, which began in 2011. She spoke little English, and could not read English.
Young said her property was without a back door for over five years. This left her vulnerable to animal intruders, such as snakes or wild horses, and criminal activity.
Young alleged the NT Government breached their tenancy agreement by failing to address defective parts of the property.
She asked for about $9,000 in compensation. This included a rent refund for a period when her home was believed to be uninhabitable and for the distress caused by living without a functional air-conditioner and stove.
Young died in July, more than six years after initiating the lawsuit. Legal action on the matter continued in the months since on her behalf.
The case was first heard by the NT Civil and Administrative Tribunal. It said the Government didn’t breach its tenancy agreement and found Young’s property was still habitable.
Young’s case was then heard in the Supreme Court, which ordered the Government to pay her $10,200. This was struck down by the NT Court of Appeal in 2022.
The High Court then reviewed the Court of Appeal’s decision.
High Court decision
The High Court reversed the Court of Appeals decision, finding that Young and other public housing tenants in the NT were entitled to compensation for the distress and disappointment caused by the Government’s poor management of their homes.
It found the Government didn’t uphold its obligations under the tenancy agreement with Young.
The decision will prompt fresh rulings around compensation for other residents impacted by poor housing conditions in Ltyentye Apurte.
NT government response
NT Minister for Remote Housing and Homelands Selena Uibo said the Government was committed to improving public housing conditions in remote areas.
Uibo said the government had made several improvements to NT housing since the lawsuit was filed. This includes better handling of maintenance requests.
“We will consider this week’s judgement in light of the improvements that have already been made.”