Responding to changes in domestic violence laws

Changes to family and domestic violence laws are being rolled out across the country, providing greater options and support for Australians suffering at the hands of abuse. The legal shift ensures the nation has a contemporary legislative framework that puts the safety and security of victims first.

The changes to family and domestic violence laws are a welcomed change for all Australians who believe in a strong and resilient justice system. While the amendments are designed to better respond to those suffering abuse, they also affect landlords and property professionals who own and manage rental properties.

Previously, rental laws have restricted tenants affected by family and domestic violence wanting to end a tenancy agreement. Under traditional laws, if a lease is terminated early, all tenants are held equally responsible for break-of-lease expenses and any damage caused within the property. In addition, a victim is not able to immediately terminate their lease and rather must apply to a tribunal or court for an order. Failure to fulfill contractual obligations and follow the correct process often is followed by harsh penalties including ‘black-listing’ on tenancy databases and loss of bond. This leaves the person experiencing violence in a vulnerable position if they need to flee and seek new accommodation.

These inflexible laws ultimately weren’t working for the people who needed them to work for them the most. And now, states and territories are responding with new and improved laws that alleviate the legal and financial barriers of leaving an abusive household.

Most recently, New South Wales and Western Australia made significant legislative changes (with other states and territories taking strides in the same direction).

Here’s what property professionals need to know about the new rental laws…
The laws

Under the rental reforms, survivors of domestic violence have added protections. Immediately breaking the lease is now permitted in some states without incurring any penalty and, in some jurisdictions, the tenant cannot be held responsible for damage to the property caused by a violent partner.
The impact

These are necessary protections for those caught in domestic violence situations, allowing them to escape without the added burden of financial penalties or repercussions. However, these situations flow on to the landlord – who could find themselves out-of-pocket due to broken leases or damage.
The protection

In these situations, landlords will look to their insurance to cover the loss (rental losses and potentially malicious damage repairs). This means agents and property managers need to make sure there is adequate protection in place so they can make a successful claim. Agents also need to be aware of the provisions within the laws so they can provide accurate information to their landlords and tenants. Knowing the rules is a part of the agent’s duty of care to both landlord and tenant, and failing to provide that care or giving incorrect information could result in a claim being lodged against them for negligence.
The benefits

The new laws allow property professionals to offer support and compassion in times of crisis. They mean survivors of family and domestic violence now have a legal way to leave a tenancy which may reduce the number of tenants abandoning properties and leaving behind belongings which landlords then have to dispose of. In addition, in some states and territories, there is an option for either party to stay in the property which aims to prevent vacancies.
The challenges

In this situation where one of the co-tenants is remaining on the lease, they are still required to pay the full weekly rent and the difference of bond. A challenge arising from this is the argument the existing tenant is only responsible for half the rent and half the bond. If this is the case and they refuse to top up the bond, you would treat this like any other breach of the tenancy Act.
Next steps

Agents, property professionals, landlords and tenants must comply with the new legislation. The laws differ from state to state and agents should make sure they are informed about the changes and be fully armed with the tools and knowledge needed to properly respond in times of crisis. It is also suggested property professionals contact their landlord insurance provider to check the property is covered for incidents relating to family and domestic violence including rent default and damage caused by malicious acts.

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