Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Renting laws in review: Tenants’ services

In the months following publication of Fair Trading’s discussion paper for the review of the ResidentialTenancies Act, we have endeavoured to cover some of the most critical topics for discussion. With submissions due at the end of the week, we’ve saved what is unquestionably one of the most important issues until last.

Buried all the way down at question 39, barely a half scroll from the appendix, is a brief description of the Tenants’ Advice and Advocacy Program followed by the question:

“Do the current information, advice and dispute resolution services operate effectively?”

The Tenants Advice and Advocacy Program is partly funded by the interest generated on tenants’ bond monies while deposited with the Rental Bond Board. This funding arrangement is made possible by Section 186 of the Residential Tenancies Act - with the current, triennial round of funding expiring in June 2016.

In recent years Fair Trading has also established an in-house information and voluntary dispute resolution service for both tenants and landlords - a central, statewide service operating out of a single office. 

Messrs Hoffman and Redford wonder why the program is up for discussion

The Tenants’ Union is the resourcing body for the 19 Tenants’ Advice and Advocacy Services (TAASs) operating across the State - that is, the organisations that make up the Tenants Advice and Advocacy Program. We also consult regularly will the network on a wide range of policy and legal issues. So we are well placed to say in the strongest possible terms that they offer their clients and communities so much that no one else could.

The basic statistics are impressive in their own right. In the 2013-14 financial year, TAASs provided over 22,000 advices by phone, worked on more than 4600 cases, and appeared at NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal over 2000 times.

But the true value of the TAASs is in their quality. They are the only services in NSW that provide tailored legal advice and partisan advocacy to tenants. There are no specialised ‘tenancy lawyers’ in private legal practice at all. The network is home to unique skills, knowledge, and experience to be measured in the thousands of hours. There is simply no comparison between such personalised, expert assistance and the general information with impartial dispute resolution provided by Fair Trading.

The work of the TAASs – especially longer form casework and Tribunal appearances - is focused on the most vulnerable. This means all services are dedicated to providing for those in danger of eviction and homelessness. The inherent complexity of such work makes their advice and casework statistics more impressive still.

The TAASs are also distinguished by the manner of their work. Tenants’ advice and advocacy requires a unique approach – blending legal skills with a social worker’s approach to provide tenants with more holistic assistance. Advocates take pride in providing long-term solutions - helping tenants beyond the closure of a case file, linking them up with other groups and services as necessary.

Finally, there is the value of the TAASs as true ‘community’ organisations – local services staffed by local people. This means not just increased affinity with their clientele, but an accumulation of specialised knowledge of the needs of the local renting population. For example, depending on the demographics of the area, a service may devote time to servicing the needs of boarding house residents, international students, Local Aboriginal Land Council tenants, or those who live in residential parks. In between, they also find time to conduct community education programs to serve the needs of their communities.

All of this makes question 39 seem almost redundant. When it comes to the Tenants’ Advice and Advocacy Program, the answer to whether they are operating effectively is a resounding yes. In fact, we campaigned for increased funding for the TAAP program throughout 2015, to ensure that no tenant had to miss out on their services (more about that here).

If you are yet to make your submission to the Residential Tenancies Act review, be sure to mention the extraordinary value of Tenants’ Advice and Advocacy Services. To make a submission, email policy@finance.nsw.gov.au, or follow the instructions here.

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