There is no doubt that COVID-19 restrictions have led to a huge change in our lifestyles and the way we interact.
Despite this, disputes within retirement villages will continue to arise, which means that residents must approach the challenge of advocating for their rights while managing communication barriers that come with COVID-19 restrictions.
· Retirement village residents may have difficulties contacting their village manager because of COVID-19. This could be the case if the manager or other staff have been working from home, or if the front office is operating at reduced hours.
· Those who are at higher risk of developing COVID-19 (such as older people or those with weakened immune systems) may be taking extra precautions to self-isolate, and this could make it harder to approach the manager about any issues.
· Groups of residents may want to get together and discuss problems that are affecting everyone living in the village (such as fee increases) but are unable to do so because of COVID-19 limits on gatherings.
These and other communication barriers are even more significant for people who don’t have access to the internet, or the ability to use email or video-chat technology.
While we are seeing a gradual relaxing of COVID-19 restrictions in Queensland and across Australia, it will take a long time for our lifestyles to return to normal.
Residents will need to try and adapt to the “new normal” while finding ways to communicate with management about any issues that are affecting living situations at the village.
What are my rights?
As a resident of a retirement village, your rights and obligations are governed by the Retirement Villages Act 1999 (Qld) (the Act) and the terms of your residence contract.
If you continue to experience problems with the village and want to formally raise a dispute with management, the Act creates a 3-step dispute resolution process that you need to follow.
The following is a brief overview of that process:
Step 1 – preliminary negotiation: write to the manager setting out the issues in dispute, and nominating a time/day/place to meet at the village and discuss the matter (you need to give them at least 2 weeks’ notice of your nominated date for the meeting). You must then try and meet with them for the negotiation.
Step 2 – mediation: if you are unable to reach an agreement at the preliminary negotiation stage, you can apply to QCAT for a mediation of your dispute.
Step 3 – QCAT hearing: if you are unable to resolve your matter at mediation, you can apply to QCAT for a hearing where a QCAT member will make a decision about the issues in dispute.
Our “Dispute Resolution” fact sheet provides you with a detailed guide to navigating these processes.
Importantly, you aren’t allowed to skip any of these steps before you can progress to the next stage.
At present, we understand that many residents are having difficulty getting past step 1 (preliminary negotiation) because they are unable to meet in person with village management to discuss their issues.
Do we really have to meet in person for dispute resolution?
In short, no.
While the Act says that you should meet within the village and discuss the issues, this doesn’t mean you have to physically meet.
· Given the current concerns with COVID-19, we think it is appropriate for these “meetings” to take place virtually – whether that is by a telephone conversation or video-chat (using apps like Skype or Zoom).
· Importantly, the Act says that you can progress to step 2 (mediation) once you have “attempted” step 1.
· If you are unable to meet in person but still try and organise a telephone conference or video-chat, this should be enough to show that you have “attempted” to engage in step 1.
Even some court and QCAT proceedings at the moment are using teleconferences or video-conferences, rather than requiring people to attend in-person.
What about annual or other resident meetings?
Section 131 of the Act states that, in each year, the village operator must call an annual meeting to provide residents with the annual financial statements for the village. They are required to give residents at least 21 days written notice of the meeting.
The village operator can also call other meetings (by giving 14 days’ notice or, in urgent circumstances, 2 days’ notice) about issues affecting the village. For example, the village operator may want to call a meeting to consult with residents about plans for redevelopment or closure of the village.
· Residents have the ability to vote on various issues at these meeting, e.g. to approve new services or capital items for the village.
· Importantly, the Act doesn’t specifically state that these meetings have to take place in-person, or on site at the village
· While it would be most practical for these meetings to take place at a location in the village (e.g. a community hall), this may not be possible or desirable given the COVID-19 restrictions and risk to older people in particular.
The Act also sets out the process for residents to vote at those meetings. In particular, the Act allows for residents to cast a postal vote rather than attending the meeting in person. To facilitate this, the village operator must provide a secure locked container for postal votes, which should be left in a village common area at least 24 hours before the meeting.
Please refer to our fact sheet “Participating in Decision Making” for general information about these processes.
In light of the COVID-19 restrictions and ongoing concern about coronavirus, we suggest that the following approach could be used to convene residents’ meetings:
1. the village manager should organise for the meeting to be held virtually (i.e. by telephone conference or using video-chatting technology – such as Skype or Zoom);
2. the village manager should include, with the notice of the meeting:
a. instructions about how to attend the meeting;
b. a written summary of the issues to be discussed at the meeting;
c. a copy of any statements (such as the annual financial statements) that were to be handed out at the meeting; and
d. information about how residents can cast postal votes on the relevant issues.
3. the village manager should make themselves available to be contacted prior to the meeting, to address any resident concerns about their ability to attend or vote;
4. at least 24 hours prior to the meeting, the village manager should set up a postal voting container to allow residents to vote on these issues prior to the meeting. The postal voting station should have adequate hygiene and social distancing measures (e.g. hand sanitiser provided and a limit of one person at a time). The postal voting option should be made available for a reasonable amount of time, to minimise the amount of people who need to gather in the one place to cast their vote in person.
I’m trying to organise a group of residents who want to negotiate with management – how can I meet with everyone when we aren’t allowed to gather in one place?
You may want to consider whether it is feasible to hold a virtual meeting – either by telephone conference or using video-chatting technology. This may only be a practical option if you have a smaller group.
· For very large groups, you could perhaps consider sending out a survey by email or using programs like Google Forms or SurveyMonkey.
· Another option could be to do a “mailbox drop” using printed survey forms, and ask residents to return the completed survey within a certain timeframe.
· Before doing so, you should check your residence contract and/or the village by-laws to make sure this is allowed.
Of course, you should also practise good hygiene if sending out communications to other residents (e.g. proper hand washing before and after handling any survey forms).
Where can I get advice?
Caxton’s Queensland Retirement Village and Park Advice Service (QRVPAS) provides free legal advice to manufactured home owners in Queensland, and can assist you to navigate the dispute resolution process.
To make an appointment with QRVPAS, please contact our reception on (07) 3214 6333.
For more information about this service please see our website at https://caxton.org.au/how-we-can-help/qrvpas/.
Overcoming technology barriers
For those who may struggle to use email or video-chat technology, there are a range of government initiatives that are aimed at helping seniors to improve their computer skills. For more information about services that are available, please see the Queensland Government website here.