Living in strata inherently involves living in close quarters with your neighbours in your scheme. No matter where you live in Australia, or what laws and regulations apply to your situation, disputes may arise from time to time.
Some disputes may be minor in nature (such as occasional smoke drift or a neighboring dog barking from time to time), or potentially just a clash of personalities, whilst others may be more significant and lead to larger conflicts in a strata/body corporate scheme and potentially be very time consuming and costly to the parties involved.
It is difficult to draw a line in the sand as to when such disputes go beyond what the parties may reasonably be able to resolve amicably between themselves and when it would be in the interests of the parties to obtain independent legal advice.
Whilst not intended as a comprehensive guide, the following should be considered when any dispute arises between neighbours in determining whether legal advice should be obtained.
Nature of the dispute and informal resolution
Sometimes disputes that arise between neighbours may be complex and have significant costs implications for the respective parties. For example, a dispute may involve consequential water damage to an apartment as a result of renovations undertaken by a neighbouring property.
In those circumstances, the nature of the dispute involves significant complexity in the legal obligations and liabilities for both parties (and others, including an owners corporation/body corporate or third-party contractors) which extends beyond what the parties may reasonably be able to understand or resolve between themselves without potentially significant legal ramifications.
In other circumstances, the issues may be relatively “minor” and be able to be informally discussed and resolved between the parties without the same potential consequences. Using the above examples of occasional smoke drift or a barking dog (if smoking and/or pets are permitted within lots under the by-laws for the relevant scheme), the parties may be able to informally discuss their perceived concerns and try to resolve the issues between them (such as closing a window/door or otherwise taking steps to minimise disruption). These issues will need to be considered on a case-by-case basis, but a good rule of thumb is to consider whether you can reasonably discuss the dispute informally with your neighbour to try and come to an amicable solution to resolve the dispute.
If you are unclear of what specific rights and obligations may arise under your scheme, your strata/body corporate manager may be able to assist and point you in the right direction. However, if you remain uncertain about your rights and obligations, you should consider seeking legal advice.
Your rights, obligations, and other considerations
There are times in which your rights and obligations will be clear or sufficiently known between the parties—perhaps by way of the by-laws of the scheme or otherwise—and other times where you may not be clear on your rights, obligations or such understanding may be incorrect.
In the event that you are at all unclear on your rights and obligations in a dispute with your neighbour, you should contact your strata/body corporate manager in the first instance and consider obtaining legal advice before taking any steps which may adversely expose you to liability.
Beyond the specific rights and obligations that arise in relation to the dispute, you should consider the commercial reality of the issues in dispute. Often, where the issues are potentially “minor”, there may be a reluctance to obtain legal advice due to the costs involved. However, this may potentially expose you to liability.
In those circumstances, it would be beneficial to discuss the matter with your strata/body corporate manager in the first instance and subsequently obtain legal advice. Unfortunately, a dispute and the ramifications involved with taking certain steps (or failing to take further steps) may lead to exposure. It is important that you take all prudent steps to ensure you are in a position to make an informed decision when seeking to resolve a dispute, protecting your interests and/or avoiding potential liability or adverse action(s) against you.
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