The transition from life in a detached dwelling, where one is accustomed to a degree of autonomy, to life in a body corporate is a challenge for many residents.
How well the realities of community living are managed hinges upon communication. It is not an overstatement to say that good communication is the cornerstone of an effective body corporate. Where the ties of communication are strained or damaged, conflict inevitably follows, too often ending up as a dispute application in the BCCM Office.
We have observed that, while on its surface an application might relate to a problem such as a busted pipe, a rowdy neighbour, an unauthorised improvement to a lot, a pet application that has been rejected, or a bad body corporate decision, it is commonly poor communication – in its many forms – that has cultivated the seeds of dispute.
Communication between residents
Living in close proximity to other residents is characteristic of community living. It follows that residents must do their utmost to be considerate and avoid placing unreasonably high expectations on each other. For example, you are more likely to experience noise issues where someone is living directly above you, or where you share a common wall with another lot. Also, it is important to bear in mind that all residents have the right to use and enjoy common property areas, provided it is within the parameters of the by-laws for the scheme and the relevant legislation.
Where a concern about another owner or occupier escalates to the point that it needs to be addressed, be mindful that how you communicate initially can set the tone for the remainder of your interactions with that person. As they may be unaware of the impact of their behaviour on others, immediately switching into combat mode is unnecessary and more likely to be counterproductive. So, rather than venting your frustration by demanding to ‘keep the noise down’ or to ‘get your leaking pipe fixed’ in an abrasive manner, ensure that your first attempt at communicating the issue is non-confrontational.
A polite letter explaining the situation or, depending on your existing relationship, a friendly chat in person, is potentially all it takes to remedy the situation.
Communication between the committee and residents
We often hear from residents who are vexed by their committee’s failure to respond to questions or correspondence. We consistently advise that body corporate legislation does not govern general communications and does not oblige the committee to respond to questions or correspondence from residents. Where time permits, it may be preferable for the committee to acknowledge receipt of correspondence from residents to avoid unnecessary disputes or further correspondence caused by insufficient communication. While the body corporate is required to act reasonably in the circumstances – it may not be reasonable for volunteer committee members to expend limited time and resources responding to all correspondence.
In some schemes owners and occupiers believe that the committee’s role extends to acting as the body corporate ‘police squad’. While it is true that the committee has been elected to make decisions on behalf of the body corporate and tend to the day-to-day running of the scheme, membership is not a permit to unduly impose upon or harass residents. When communicating as a committee member, it is important for those communications to be courteous and professional. Limiting your involvement in the private lives of residents wherever possible as a committee member also minimises the potential for conflict. However, some situations may demand a firmer approach. It is for the committee to act reasonably when communicating and to strike the appropriate balance in the circumstances.
When communicating with committee members, residents must recognise that these positions are typically unpaid and avoid setting unrealistic standards. Adapting your communications accordingly to reflect this fact is worth considering. Limiting the amount of correspondence so as not to bombard volunteer members with excessive communications may be a good starting point.
If there is a legitimate issue you would like the committee to consider, an owner can submit a motion. While there is no statutory obligation on the committee to respond to general complaints or correspondence, the legislation specifically provides that an owner can submit a motion to the committee to be decided within the ‘decision period’ (within 6 weeks after the day the motion was submitted, or up to 12 weeks at most if the committee notifies the owner that more time is needed than the initial 6 weeks). A motion should state the specific action you want the committee to take to resolve the problem. If the committee does not decide within the decision period, or an extended period, the motion is deemed declined. You can read more about drafting motions on our website.
Communication between committee members
Committee members occasionally feel that they are being excluded from committee correspondence and discussions. As all committee members have equal voting power, there should be no reason to exclude certain members. Doing this only serves to exacerbate any negative feelings and promote further division within the group.
There is often confusion around the ‘conflict of interest’ provision in the regulations. To clarify, it does not mean that a committee member who has a direct or indirect interest in an issue being considered is to be excluded from all communications around the issue. It simply means that the member is required to disclose that interest to their fellow committee members and not vote on the issue.
While the legislation doesn’t regulate communication between committee members, it requires the committee to act reasonably when making decisions. Being inclusive and keeping the lines of committee communication open helps to maintain good working relationships.
Internal dispute resolution processes
Developing internal dispute resolution processes may prove an effective means of promoting open communication in a body corporate. In addition to encouraging the free flow of communication, it enables grievances to be aired in a controlled environment, thereby deterring residents from lodging formal dispute applications.
Some examples of possible internal processes include mediation or meetings of some kind. Also, not quite an internal dispute resolution process – but still helpful – is the appointment of a committee member as the first point of contact where practical. These options could be proposed by the committee, or they could be submitted for consideration as a motion from an owner.
Enabling residents to voice their concerns internally means that they are less likely to view a formal dispute application through this office as their only hope of a resolution. Once an issue escalates into an application in the BCCM Office, the reality is that the ties of communication will be strained considerably, and relationships will be harder to preserve.
Many of our clients experiencing communication issues are surprised to learn that the body corporate legislation does not specifically regulate communication. As the legislation is largely geared towards self-management and flexibility for schemes, communication is, for the most part, an internal matter.
In some situations, stronger measures may be needed to regulate inappropriate communication and keep residents accountable. Implementing by-laws that regulate communication may assist here.
For example, where a resident is persistently inundating the committee with correspondence or communicating in an offensive manner, a communication by-law may prove effective. In the decision of Tank Tower  QBCCMCmr 322, the body corporate adopted the following by-law:
Owners and occupiers must communicate with the Committee in a reasonable manner and not in any way which may become an annoyance or a nuisance to any Committee member.
In considering this by-law, the adjudicator noted that it was “entirely appropriate…to expect communications to be reasonable, respectful, constructive, and not a nuisance” considering the extensive responsibilities of the volunteer voting committee members and the paid non-voting members (namely, the body corporate manager and the committee).
The adjudicator also determined that the respondent had clearly breached the relevant by-law. The volume of correspondence together with the abusive content were both found to be indicative of a failure to communicate in a reasonable manner
When creating a new by-law to address issues of this nature, a body corporate should nevertheless bear in mind the limitations for by-laws in section 180 of the Body Corporate and Community Management Act 1997. If a by-law is adopted that does not comply with Section 180, the body corporate runs the risk that an adjudicator may decide that the by-law is invalid. For further information, you can search for similar orders about communication by-laws online via the Australasian Legal Information Institute.
It is evident that good communication goes hand in hand with the smooth and efficient running of a body corporate. As we have outlined, there are various attitudes and measures the body corporate and its residents can employ to support productive communication and avoid fracturing fragile relationships permanently. In most cases, stopping a dispute before it gets through the doors of the BCCM Office is in the best interests of all involved. The strain on time and emotions makes formal dispute applications something to avoid where possible. Fostering healthy communication is critical and its value to a scheme should not be underestimated.
Author: – Sarah Zeidler, Commissioner for Body Corporate and Community Management
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