Farewell to WEstjustice and Reflections on the Sector: Denis Nelthorpe AM!

After 12 years working in Melbourne’s west as CEO of Footscray, Wyndham and WEstjustice community legal centres, Denis Nelthorpe has decided to say farewell. Denis has been involved in the work of community legal centres for more than 40 years and remains passionate about consumer law and the need for justice for low income and disadvantaged members of the community. He was appointed an Adjunct Professor of Law for the Victoria University Law School in 2014 and was a consumer Board member of the Financial Ombudsman Service until 2015. He is also a past president of the Consumers’ Federation of Australia and a past CEO of the Consumer Credit Legal Service 1986-91 and the Consumer Law Centre Victoria 1993-98.

Denis is the quintessential social justice warrior, driven by a deep understanding of what it means to live in a position of disadvantage in society. You will be dearly missed by your friends at WEstjustice.

Q: When did you first become part of the CLC movement?

I began in my final year of law in 1976 at Springvale CLC in the clinical program. In 1978 I heard that the fledgling Tenants Union was not just defending tenants but suing landlords – so I became a volunteer and occasional staff member. In 1979 the now Justice Kevin Bell and I began work on the Poverty Law Practice starting at Fitzroy and eventually establishing Footscray Legal Centre because the legal profession couldn’t cope with our more radical proposal. In 1982 I helped establish the Consumer Credit Legal Service and that was the start of a passion for civil and consumer law reform that would stay with me until the present day.

Q: You have had a major influence in the shaping and design of the CLC and consumer movement.  If you had to choose three of your proudest professional moments, what would that be?

In the late 80’s I was part of the CCLS legal team that won a licencing case against US multinational HFC Finance. Two solicitors (including the incredible Paul Bingham) and an article clerk took on the might of the legal profession – Two QC’s, three juniors, and Allen’s plus an in-house legal team and we won. I was so out of my comfort zone but stayed the course over nine months of litigation. We negotiated a Cy Pres settlement for $2.25 million to establish the Consumer Law Centre – now part of CALC.

Wearing my more practical hat I created the “bugger off” letter as a precedent to respond to debt collection letters of demand to impoverished debtors. That led to the Bulk Debt project that achieved waivers of debt of $20 million for 5000 debtors around Australia. The project permanently embedded debt waiver as a common tool in legal centres and financial counselling agencies.

My third highlight was playing a significant role in bringing PILCH (now Justice Connect) to Melbourne from Sydney and then extending the pro bono services to include the Homeless Persons Clinics after reading about them in a John Gresham novel “The Street Lawyer”. I was lucky enough to have the role of recruiting the large firms and homeless agencies to get the clinics up and running.

Q: As well as setting up CLCs and improving access to justice for society’s most vulnerable, you have ALSO spent time mentoring and supporting a number of young community lawyers. What is motivating this?

When I arrived back in the West in 2007 generalist centres were struggling in many ways. I wanted to create opportunities to pursue innovative legal projects that would reinvigorate legal centres and make better use of the skills of some of our outstanding young lawyers. Footscray and Wyndham CLC’s became laboratories for innovation led by new lawyers eager try different forms of service delivery and alternative solutions to legal problems. I found mentoring these lawyers exhilarating and the results help build the reputation of those Centres and WEstjustice.

Q: From your experience, what makes the difference between a policy idea that ‘washes out’ and one that gains traction and creates change?

The best policy solutions begin with targeted casework that identifies systemic issues. Often, targeted casework raises new problems or looks at them from a different perspective. The solutions then need to offer something different by way of resolution – not just the same old suggestions. As community lawyers we need to think outside the square. Sometimes it also comes down to marketing – making your solution sound different and achievable!

Q: From your perspective, what are the myths or misconceptions about our sector that are getting in the way?

I believe the CLC sector has come a long way in the last 10 years. Better funding has helped but the move away from generalist clinics to work targeted at specific client groups and legal issues has also created more opportunities. CLC’s have also realised that our clients are not middle class and may need solutions targeted to their needs and lifestyles. One significant myth that continues is that CLC salaries will deter staff from long term commitment. In my view poor management of centres and a lack of opportunities to make a difference will prove much more likely to drive staff out of the sector.

Q: What would be your number one piece of advice for those interested in making policy change?

Change does not have to be big, spectacular and earth shattering! The waiver letters largely did not require a change of law but rather a change in the way of thinking about the problem. It will often require a number of different parties to change their position so thought needs to be given about how best to persuade different people and organisations to change their position. It will not always be adversarial!

Q: And finally, what is next for Denis Nelthorpe?

Not sure! Maybe a formal role as lawyer or advisor on a part time basis but I hope to spend some time offering to mentor staff (on a voluntary basis) in Centres that would like assistance with civil, debt and consumer issues or project development. The time is right for all centres to develop innovative projects for their communities.

A Growing Accommodation Risk in Melbourne’s CBD?

The international students that come to Victoria to study get to experience an amazing and diverse range of academic and cultural opportunities, but living in rented accommodation in a new city can provide challenges of its own. Here’s why it’s so important that their issues are heard and addressed.

Peter arrived from India to Australian on a student visa in 2018 to do a business course in Melbourne. Coming here was a source of major pressure and pride for Peter. He and his family had made significant financial and personal sacrifices to come as far as he has.

Peter had to budget carefully – though he knew as a student he’d need to be careful with money, he was still surprised by how expensive accommodation was. It was also hard to know what a fair price was, and where was good to live, without having existing friends and connections.

That’s how it came to pass that Peter wound up sharing a room with two other men in a small Docklands apartment. In the next room were three young women – six people in all in a place designed for two people. It was cramped, hard to keep clean, hard for people to respect each others’ privacy and space, and nearly impossible to study. The person who ran the apartment let himself in whenever he liked to check people’s rooms, set arbitrary rules, and charge people ‘fines’ for when he thought things weren’t clean enough.

Peter finally found a place through friends that was less cramped and cheaper. But the person who he paid his rent and bond to in the Docklands apartment refused to give it back, and Peter soon found out he had never lodged it with the Victorian government like he was meant to. Peter has really struggled financially since. The bond was a lot of money to him, for food, transport, and course materials.

Victoria (and Melbourne in particular) have seen a huge influx of international students in the past 10 years. Students choose the state as a destination because of the wide range of study options, effective and easy public transport options, and a rich, active cultural life.

However, accommodation can be a more challenging area. It will be no surprise to readers that Melbourne is currently in a rental affordability crisis, which can be tough on people who have saved and made sacrifices to study and arrive in Australia with tight, careful budgets. When you factor in language barriers and the challenge of not knowing anyone in a new city, finding somewhere to live and pay rent can suddenly become a lot more difficult.

Young domestic students will often have a ready set of friends to share house with; a good idea about where is easiest to live to access their study, work and essential services; and a basic understanding of their rights and responsibilities as renters in Victoria.

Without this, some international students can be thrown into a range of situations that may be unstable, exploitative and unsafe. One of the most concerning of these is the escalating operation of some small CBD apartments as unregistered rooming houses. This happens when the apartments are used to house at least four people, each of whom separately pays rent to an operator. This may be done by using bunk beds in rooms, and even in some situations using curtains or temporary boarding to ‘partition’ already small rooms into smaller spaces.

In some cases, six or more students may be occupying premises that are really only suitable for couples. In these spaces, it is hard to enjoy privacy, dignity, hygiene, and find a quiet place to do one’s study. It goes without saying that exceeding maximum occupancy in such apartment buildings is fundamentally unsafe. These buildings are not designed to let so many people evacuate safely in the event of a fire or another emergency.

Added to this is the recent revelation that a number of Melbourne high-rises have used highly combustible aluminium composite cladding of the sort used in England’s 2017 Grenfell Tower disaster. Until something is done to fix this, overcrowding will be an even more pressing problem.

Apart from this danger, here are some common issues international students can face:

  • Failure to lodge and return bonds, often in excess of $1000.00;
  • The provision of dodgy rental contracts with unlawful terms;
  • Threats to unlawfully terminate and evict students from accommodation;
  •  Disruptions to quiet enjoyment of rented premises (for example, everyone having to get out because the property is being inspected and they may be unapproved subtenants);
  • The lack of clear legal options and remedies for licensees and co-tenants.

We should note that for most international students, living in Melbourne is a very positive experience. Even a bad situation while renting doesn’t take away from the many highlights and benefits they’ll enjoy. But this is why it’s so important that instances of unfair treatment and exploitation, where they arise, are identified and dealt with.

In conjunction with Study Melbourne, WEstjustice now runs an International Student’s Renting and Accommodation Service on Tuesdays and Fridays and Study Melbourne’s Student Centre in 17 Hardware Lane. You can see one of our lawyers on Tuesday or Friday mornings.

If you are an international student with a renting or accommodation issue (or if you are supporting an international student) please contact the team at Study Melbourne on info@studymelbourne.vic.gov.au or call 1800 056 449 (free call from landlines).

Credit Joseph Nunweek, Senior Lawyer, WEstjustice

For more information, please contact Caitlin Louth, Lawyer on caitlin@westjustice.org.au

WEstjustice Mortgage Stress Program: Homelessness prevention in Melbourne’s west

Mortgage stress can be defined in a number of ways, including: spending more than 30% of household income on mortgage payments, levels of household indebtedness as it relates to housing debt, or households that are in some form of loan default or are struggling to pay their mortgage on time. Applying the latter definition, just under 1 million Australian households are estimated to be in mortgage stress (Digital Finance Analytics).

Our client Zara is a single mother of 8 young children living in Melbourne’s west. She came to Australia with her husband on a humanitarian visa. Her marriage ended due to family violence and her ex-husband is now in jail.

As a result, Zara had fallen into significant debt; owing over $15,000 in arrears on her mortgage, $3,000 in arrears on Council rates and $10,000 owing on a car loan. She also had a number of personal credit card debts that she took out in order to support her family. 

When Zara was referred to WEstjustice’s Mortgage Stress Program (MSP) by her local Council, legal proceedings had been initiated by the bank and her house was in the process of being repossessed. Zara was told to go with her family to Unison to seek crisis accommodation and housing support. Sadly, Zara’s mental health had become so bad that she tried to take her own life.

The MSP successfully negotiated with the bank and was able to put a three month hold on her mortgage repayments as well as reconfigure the loan and reverse proceedings so that the house was not repossessed. The program also negotiated a hardship arrangement with respect to her car loan and rates to prevent further risk of repossession of her house.  The program’s social worker provided continuous wrap around social support for her mental health issues.

Mortgage stress is a growing concern for Australians with nearly 30% of households currently in some form of loan default or struggling to pay their mortgage on time. A sudden rise in interest rates or an event which results in loss of income or capability, such as a job loss, illness or family violence, would have a devastating impact, with a dramatic increase in the number of people entering the homelessness and housing sector.

In response to the rapid increase in mortgage stress across Melbourne’s outer west, WEstjustice established the MSP. The MSP is a homelessness prevention program which has been running for over two years as a Health Justice Partnership with Djerriwarrh Health Services and forms part of the Wyndham H3 Alliance (H3).  Previously, a similar program was delivered in Melton by Brimbank Melton Community Legal Centre and funded by the Legal Services Board and Commission. The first of its kind in Australia, the MSP aims to keep people in their homes by avoiding repossession and therefore preventing people from entering the homelessness and housing sector. The MSP provides an integrated model, delivering legal, financial counselling and social work support to clients experiencing mortgage stress. The MSP also provides community outreach and engagement and cross-sectoral referrals with banks.

Since the H3 program began in July 2017, 342 people have been prevented from entering the homelessness service system, 102 houses were saved from repossession and $180,000 of debt waived. Over 33% of clients had experienced family violence and over 40% experienced mental health issues.

Further findings from the MSP show that the lived experience of mortgage stress can be found in the sacrifices being made by families foregoing school camps and new clothing or restricting essentials like food or electricity while servicing the mortgage. Unopened letters from lawyers and courts mount for fear and anxiety of the consequences. As the pressure builds, common impacts of mortgage stress include family breakdown, substance abuse and mental ill-health; housing repossession has been shown to significantly increase the risk of common mental illness, and there are crushing stories of personal shame when presenting at homeless shelters or asking friends and family for temporary accommodation.

The MSP shows that working proactively through early intervention can protect people and families, reduce harm and minimise costs arising from mortgage stress. To do this effectively, it is important to ensure Victorians are empowered to seek and receive assistance through trusted, local, integrated services. The community, government and banking sectors have a moral obligation, knowing what we now know about the risks and growing problem, to work together to support vulnerable Victorians. The opportunity cost of failing to invest in early intervention is too significant – both for our community and for our economy.

Based on the highly successful H3 pilot, WEstjustice is seeking funding to expand the MSP across the western suburbs of Melbourne.

Credit: Stephanie Tonkin, Founder, Mortgage Wellbeing Service

If you would like to discuss, contact Matthew Martin, Senior Lawyer Mortgage Stress Program on matthew@westjustice.org.au

Restoring Financial Safety: Family violence survivors struggle to access government bond loans

After a victim-survivor decides to leave a violent relationship, one of the first things they often have to think about is ‘how will they leave and where will they live?’, Many have no choice but to enter into the private rental market.  Bond loans are an essential lifeline to help women and their families meet the costs of entering housing in the private rental market and avert emergency housing or homelessness.

Our client Sharon lived in a private rental with her ex-partner Alex and was often subjected to violence. He punched holes in the walls, smashed kitchen cabinets and physically assaulted her so badly that there were blood stains on the carpet. Sharon and her children eventually left the home and Alex was arrested and sent to prison. They had a bond loan from the Department of Housing, totaling $1600 but due to the property damage, the full bond was claimed by the landlord.

Sharon spent 18 months living with her mother but now wishes to find a property for her and her children but does not have enough for the bond.

Under the Department of Housing’s current policy, Sharon cannot access a second bond loan until the previous bond loan she shared with Alex is paid back to the government. According to government policy, she is currently single and not being subjected to family violence, so she does not fall under the exception to the repayment rule.

Since 2017, WEstjustice has been running the Economic Abuse Project in partnership with McAuley Community Services for Women; a family violence crisis accommodation and support service in Melbourne’s West. The project aims to support women to regain financial security, which includes addressing barriers to entering the private rental market.

Sadly, it is common for abusive partners/co-tenants to cause bonds to be forfeited by acts of physical violence or withholding rental payments. In many cases, women and their children may flee due to immediate safety issues, unable to perform a vacate clean or leaving a partner to accrue arrears before being evicted.

So what happens if you owe a bond loan debt to the Department of Housing after losing your bond on a previous property? As seen in Sharon’s story, the Department of Housing requires repayment of all outstanding bond loans before further assistance is provided, unless the applicant is forced to leave the tenancy because they are currently subject to family violence. In Sharon’s case, she was living with her mother when she applied for the second bond loan and was not experiencing family violence at the time. She was still required to repay the debt even in circumstances where it was incurred as the direct result of family violence.

Sharon’s story illustrates the need to reform the way the Department of Housing is currently treating bond loan debts arising from circumstances of family violence.

In a climate where it is now commonplace for Industry and government to have policies and procedures in place to waive debts and fines incurred in the context of family violence, the strict requirements of the bond loan scheme remains deeply concerning.

Economic security is a significant aspect of recovery for family violence victims and promoting economic independence through department policy is vital to empowering victims of family violence and allowing them to move on with their lives without the stress and worry of debt following them.

Westjustice has written to the Hon. Gabrielle Williams, Minister for Prevention of Family Violence, and has met with her office to discuss the bond loan scheme. We are currently waiting for her reply.

If you would like to discuss, contact Dacia Abela, Lawyer, on dacia@westjustice.org.au

Renters face unexpected financial risks

Some of our tenant clients find themselves being pursued for large amounts of money when an insurer pays the landlord but alleges the tenant was negligent. However, this risk doesn’t just face tenants but anyone who stays in someone else’s home, such as a holiday home.

Our clients Malik and Adela (not their real names) had been renting since they arrived in Australia, but had managed save up a deposit to buy their own home.  While still in their rented home, some oil caught fire while they were cooking, and caused significant damage to the kitchen.  The landlord’s insurer paid the claim and the kitchen was repaired.  However, six months later, when Malik and Adela were in their new home, they received a letter from their previous landlord’s insurer demanding payment of $30,000 for the accidental damage to the kitchen.  While the landlord was insured, they had no insurance that would cover them for this negligence claim, and the only way they could pay that amount was to sell their new house.

However, this is not just a risk for long-term tenants – it can even be a risk for people renting holiday homes.

There are a number of issues of fairness and appropriate corporate conduct when it comes to how some (though by no means all) insurers deal with former tenants and occupants of these homes. Some insurers will fail to have taken full initial statements from those present at the fire, or assess contributing factors (like errors and shortcuts in construction) to the spread of a fire or a flood. They may also impose a standard on tenants higher than that applicable under the applicable state or territory tenancy law. Other insurers may refer debts straight off to a collection agency who does not bother to identify who it acts for, the basis of the claim, or may try to pressure the allegedly liable tenants into unreasonable terms of settlement.

People who have house insurance, or contents insurance, may have public liability insurance that could cover such an event.  However, we believe it’s impractical, and unfair, for insurers to pursue uninsured renters for accidental damage.

If you’re a landlord who cares about your tenants – or even if you only rent out a house during the holidays – ask your insurer whether the insurer will pursue tenants, or even your friends or relatives, for any accidental damage.   Unless they say “no”, we suggest you find another insurer.

If you would like to discuss, contact Joe Nunweek, Senior Lawyer, on joe@westjustice.org.au