For those involved in strata living in NSW, the legal regime for the collection of unpaid strata levies can be confusing. That confusion is made worse when strata managers, lot owners and committee members receive conflicting advice from lawyers experienced in this area of the law.

Some common questions include:-

  1. is an owners corporation entitled to recover the expenses it incurs chasing owners for unpaid levies?
  2. are there any limits on these expenses?
  3. can expenses be recorded on an owner’s ledger (also known as a “levy register” or “lot account” or similar);
  4. regardless of the above answer, should costs be recorded on an owner’s ledger?

Different lawyers answer these questions in different ways.

In this paper, I make available my opinion on these questions.

How do owners corporations recover “debt recovery expenses”?

Section 80(1) of the Strata Schemes Management Act 1996 (NSW) (“the Act”) provides:

“An owners corporation may recover as a debt a contribution not paid at the end of one month after it becomes due and payable, together with any interest payable and the expenses of the owners corporation incurred in recovering those amounts.”

In the 2009 case Owners of Strata Plan 36131 v Dimitriou, the NSW Court of Appeal held that:

  1. a) the term “expenses” in section 80(1) of the Act includes legal costs and disbursements;
  2. b) to be capable of recovery, such legal costs and disbursements must be reasonably incurred and reasonable in amount;
  3. c) an owners corporation may recover legal costs and expenses as a component of the principal claim before the court;
  4. d) because of the words ‘together with’ appearing in section 80(1), a claim for expenses must be made in the same proceedings as the claim for the unpaid contributions. In this respect, one Court of Appeal judge (Hodgson JA) said that if all outstanding contributions were paid in full before court proceedings were commenced, the owners corporation could not then commence an action for recovery of the expenses alone. However, if all outstanding contributions were paid in full after court proceedings commenced, the owners corporation could continue the proceedings seeking recovery of expenses only;
  5. e) an owners corporation’s conduct in commencing recovery proceedings must be reasonable.

These principles have since been confirmed by the Federal Court (McClymont & Anor v The Owners Strata Plan No 12139 [2009]).

To help put these principles into context, I set out the following very simplified scenario (which is actually quite common):

  1. A lot owner (call him Mr Smith) is in arrears of levies to the tune of $10,000;
  2. The Owners Corporation engages a lawyer to send a letter of demand to Mr Smith. The lawyer charges $88 for the sending of that letter;
  3. Mr Smith still does not pay the outstanding levies;
  4. The Owners Corporation instructs the lawyer to prepare and file a Statement of Claim;
  5. In the Statement of Claim, the lawyer lists the sum of $11,088 as the debt due and owing to the Owners Corporation. This comprises:

(a) $10,000; plus

(b) $1,000 interest; plus

(c) $88 expenses incurred under section 80 of the Act, so far.

  1. The lawyer also includes in the Statement of Claim their fees and disbursements for preparing and filing the claim (say, for example, $1000).
  2. The total amount claimed against Mr Smith is therefore $12,088.
  3. Mr Smith does not file a defence to the Statement of Claim and judgment is entered in favour of the Owners Corporation. It is in the total sum of $12,500, which includes some additional costs incurred by the Owners Corporation since the filing of the Statement of Claim, and interest to the date of judgment.
  4. Mr Smith is very uncomfortable about having a judgment debt and does not want the Owners Corporation to issue a bankruptcy notice. He pays the $12,500 owing without further delay.

In this simple scenario, the recovery exercise has not put the Owners Corporation out of pocket one cent. Mr Smith has paid for the entire exercise. Section 80 of the Act allows this.

The point here is that a Statement of Claim has been filed. That is to say, court proceedings were commenced.

The scenario would be different if the letter of demand was issued (for a cost of $88) and Mr Smith then paid the outstanding $10,000. The Owners Corporation could not then sue Mr Smith for the $88 alone. What happens to the $88 in that case? That is what I deal with under the next heading.

 

The practice of placing those expenses on the owner ledger

It is a common practice amongst some strata managing agencies to record the expenses incurred in attempting to recover unpaid levies on the owner ledger of the defaulting lot owner. Some are following legal advice when they do this.

These expenses are recorded as they are incurred – usually when the lawyer issues their invoice to the Owners Corporation.

I advise strata managers I work with not to do this.

I set out below a variation on our simple example to illustrate why I give that advice:

  1. Lot owner (Mr Smith) is in arrears of contributions to the tune of $10,000;
  2. The Owners Corporation engages a lawyer to send a letter of demand to Mr Smith. The lawyer charges $88 for the sending of that letter;
  3. The Owners Corporation’s strata manager records that $88 on Mr Smith’s owner ledger;
  4. One week after receiving the letter of demand, Mr Smith pays the $10,000 he owes;
  5. Mr Smith’s ledger therefore reflects $88 owing. Nothing is done about this and it remains on the ledger.
  6. Six months’ later, Mr Smith is in arrears again. This time, the total is $10,088;
  7. The Owners Corporation engages a lawyer to send a letter of demand to Mr Smith. The lawyer charges $88 for the sending of that letter;
  8. The Owners Corporation’s strata manager records that $88 on Mr Smith’s owner ledger;
  9. Mr Smith does not pay the amount outstanding;
  10. The Owners Corporation instructs the lawyer to prepare and file a Statement of Claim;
  11. In the Statement of Claim, the lawyer lists the sum of $11,176 as the debt due and owing to the Owners Corporation. This comprises:

(a) $10,088; plus

(b) $1,000 interest; plus

(c) $88 expenses incurred under section 80 of the Act, so far.

Herein lies the problem. You will see from (a) and (c) above that the lawyer has included both the $88 charged for the first letter of demand and the $88 charged for the second letter of demand.

Because of the principles arising from the Dimitriou case, this is not legal: a claim for expenses must be made “together with” the claim for the unpaid levies. In this example, the first $88 has nothing to do with the unpaid levies identified in the Statement of Claim: it was incurred in trying to recover the earlier $10,000 debt and that amount was paid in full.

The prudent lawyer will avoid getting themselves into this predicament by carefully analysing the owner ledger before settling and filing the Statement of Claim to ensure that any expenses being claimed in the Statement of Claim relate to the current debt and therefore the current proceedings. In the example above, this would be quite easy: there is only one other expense to consider and it is clear that this relates to an earlier debt which has since been settled. We would advise our client not to claim the earlier $88. This would have to be borne by the Owners Corporation (this is referred to again under the next heading).

The difficulty arises when we see ledgers that go back some years (sometimes up to 6 years) and list many “expenses” as well as payments and interest charges. If the ledger never returns to a clean, nil balance (which is rare) there is no place to draw a line in the sand and calculate the actual amount outstanding. In such cases, the ledger essentially has to be reconstructed from scratch to ensure that the expenses being claimed in the legal proceedings are expenses incurred only in relation to the current debt. From time to time, this involves actually looking at the content of past invoices rendered to be able to establish what legal work was carried out and whether it relates to the current debt.

The financial impact for owners corporations involved in such a process can be significant. It can take many hours for lawyers (and sometimes forensic accountants) to properly reconstruct an owner ledger to a state sufficient to tender in court in order to confidently assert which part of the owners corporation’s claim relates to contributions and which to expenses and interest. Many hours equates to considerable professional fees, which, in our view, a court would not find to be “reasonable” if tested, and therefore would not order a defaulting lot owner to pay.

In my view, an owners corporation could rightly be very critical of a managing agent who did not warn them that by recording expenses on owner ledgers they were setting themselves up for this type of expensive exercise.

Not all lawyers recommend and engage in the ‘owner ledger analysis’ that we recommend and perform prior to filing the Statement of Claim. Instead, they count on the fact that the statement of claim is unlikely to be defended and a judgment entered in default of a defence will cure any anomaly. After all, in about 98% of cases, lot owners don’t file a defence and just pay the claimed amount without looking behind it to see how it is calculated. Does it really matter that the statement of claim includes amounts it really shouldn’t?

My answer is: yes. It does matter. I would even go so far as to say that such a practice is unethical and perhaps even immoral. As lawyers, we all know the law (or at least should know it). We know that section 80 entitles our client to recover, and the limits on that recovery. To bank on a lot owner’s lack of 5 knowledge or failure to obtain proper (or any) legal advice or representation in response to a Statement of Claim is to play on the very edges of the law. It is certainly not something I am prepared to do.

In addition, it is important to remember the Court of Appeal’s statement in Dimitriou that an owners corporation’s conduct in commencing recovery proceedings must be reasonable. Carrying out the ‘owner ledger analysis’ prior to filing the Statement of Claim allows the lawyer to make a proper assessment of whether the commencement of the proceedings is reasonable in the circumstances. For example, the analysis may reveal that there is only $1500 owing once old expenses are removed from the ledger. That may be less than one quarter’s levies. With that knowledge, an owners corporation may determine not to pursue the lot owner at that particular time, preferring to wait another quarter or two. This issue was discussed in some detail in the 2014 Local Court case of Khalil, which is reported on our website here: http://lawyerschambers.com.au/strata-managers-adding-debt-recovery-expenses-to-alot-owners-account/

Lot owners are becoming increasingly savvy when it comes to this particular issue. I have been engaged by lot owners seeking to challenge the amounts shown as outstanding on their owner ledgers. I have been successful in having amounts reversed off the ledger as owners corporations (including those represented by lawyers) recognise that they are amounts that they would never be able to recover in court proceedings. The answer begs the question: why are they on the ledger in the first place? I imagine it is embarrassing for those managing agents to have to explain to their executive committees why an amount has been removed from an owner ledger simply because that owner is aware of her/his legal rights. No doubt the agent is met with the questions: “isn’t it your job to know this? How did we get into this mess?”

So, if the expenses are not placed on the owner ledger, what happens to them?

This is what I advise in answer to this question:-

  • Expenses incurred prior to the filing of a statement of claim, such as costs incurred issuing letters of demand and engaging in correspondence with the lot owner, should be kept to an absolute minimum;
  • If the lot owner pays all outstanding contributions before any litigation is commenced, the expenses will not be recoverable. This means they must be met by the owners corporation as a cost of the recovery. From a commercial perspective, $88 seems a very small price to pay when (for example) $5000 is recovered by the owners corporation one week later.
  • Expenses should certainly be recorded, but not on the owner ledger. A separate ledger should be set up to record at least those expenses incurred prior to engaging a lawyer. From the time of the lawyer’s engagement, it’s the lawyer’s job to record their own expenses: that forms part of the court case against the lot owner.
  • When litigation is commenced (ie: a statement of claim is filed) all expenses, including those incurred issuing letters of demand and other preliminary correspondence in relation to the debt in question should be included as part of the amount claimed by the Owners Corporation.

Problems with allocating payments / calculating interest / rendering lot owners un-financial

This paper does not address ancillary but very important issues that arise from the practice of recording expenses on owner ledgers. In short summary, I believe that:

(a) the software used by most managing agents is programmed to allocate owner payments to interest and expenses first, and contributions last;

(b) the result is that interest continues to run on contributions which otherwise should have been marked as paid. I have recently been successful having such interest charges removed from a lot owner’s ledger;

(c) including expenses on an owner ledger can result in that owner being declared unfinancial, thereby removing that owner’s right to vote at meetings of the owners corporation when in fact all contributions are paid up to date.

In my view, issue (c) above is of serious concern, with far reaching consequences – some of which may not yet be known. Further and immediate consideration needs to be given to how this is addressed.

Amanda Farmer

Lawyer / Owner Lawyers Chambers on Riley

amanda@lawyerschambers.com.au

 

22 April 2015

 

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