Host: Belinda Heit – Communication and Education – RTA
Guest: Shae Francis – Senior Team Leader, Dispute Resolution – RTA
Host: Welcome to the Talking Tenancies Podcast, brought to you by the Residential Tenancies Authority. I'm your host, Belinda Heit. Join me as we explore everything you need to know about renting in Queensland with experts from the RTA and industry. We're here to help make renting work for everyone.
When tenancy disputes occur, the RTA encourages all parties to try to resolve disagreements by talking to each other. Often, disputes arise when someone does not meet the terms of the tenancy agreement. Today's expert from the RTA is Shae Francis from the RTA's dispute resolution team. Welcome, Shae.
Guest: Thank you, Belinda, it's nice to be here.
Host: Can you tell us about your role at the RTA and what you're responsible for?
Guest: For sure. As you all know, my name is Shae. I've been at the RTA for five years in the Customer Experience division. I'm currently leading the dispute resolution team where our primary focus is to assist parties to reach an outcome that is acceptable by all parties, whilst remaining impartial through our communications.
Host: Today, we're talking about dispute resolution and how the process is managed. Self-resolution is the first recommendation in any dispute. How’s that done, Shae?
Guest: That's a really great question, Belinda. First of all, self-resolution starts by having open and respectful communication. Having an open mind really is the key here. We often find that disputes happen with misunderstandings between parties where they don't communicate clearly and openly with each other, or work on the assumptions instead of asking actual questions. Some of the basic things you can do to self-resolve disputes include raising concerns and issues identified as early as possible, don't leave them to the end. Also, look to consider the other person's perspective, as we all know, everyone's situation is different.
Host: That's right.
Guest: And we also know that everyone is different. Considering what you are willing to give and take, and what the best and worst possible outcomes could be. We also like to advise parties to talk to other persons directly via text message and via email. Sometimes the tone of voice can be lost through those communications. It's really important to try and stick to factual information and evidence that you can actually refer to in those communications. We also need to ensure that we're staying calm and being realistic.
Host: That helps, doesn't it?
Guest: Absolutely. And also part of that is being flexible in the way that we look to try and get solutions to work together. So not being so positional, being able to move around and consider things that may not be ideal, but that you're willing to live with.
If you do reach an agreement, it is important to remember that you always put that agreement in writing. You may consider creating a record of conversation, sending through that communication to the other parties just to confirm the expectations moving forward. It also gives you a good piece of knowledge where if you do find yourselves in that position in the future, you may be better positioned to make more informed decisions. But if you've tried all those avenues of communication, you’ve tried being direct with those parties, it's always best to try and also engage our dispute resolution service, which is free. Our conciliators are trained to assist those parties to bring them together, to help them work through it.
Host: There are some really good points you've raised there, Shae. I think not communicating with each other is probably the big thing that causes disagreements and disputes in a tenancy, isn't it? I think making notes of your conversations is really, really important. And also talking face to face because, texting each other and emails can get out of hand.
Host: Now, if you do find yourself in a situation where you need assistance, how is a request for dispute resolution made?
Guest: OK, so there are two ways for the RTA to receive your request for dispute. Currently what we're looking to provide a streamlined service to our customers that allows them to lodge that dispute without too much paperwork and administration. The preferred option would be a tenancy dispute resolution request via our online web services. And obviously we do factor in that not everyone has access to that platform. There's also the paper route as well, that can be sent in via email.
The dispute resolution service, as I mentioned before, is a free service. We have trained conciliators who can assist parties to resolve disputes without the need for legal action. Which means conciliators are more cost effective and a faster way for parties to reach a resolution moving forward. It then also doesn't put a lot of strain on our legal system through the Queensland Civil and Administrative Tribunal (QCAT) environment.
Host: Yeah. And this is a voluntary process as well, isn't it? So no one's forced to do this.
Guest: Absolutely, it’s voluntary. We want parties to come to us in good faith when we engage, so then that means that we can see that they're willing to negotiate, not positional, and that we're able to potentially see a way forward past the current issues.
Host: Yeah. We try to avoid all the legal processes where possible and I think that's what's so amazing about this free service we provide, it actually helps people get to a resolution quicker.
Host: Now, a dispute resolution itself can seem a bit daunting if you aren't sure what's going to happen. What can customers expect during the conciliation?
Guest: Oh good, I'm glad you've asked. It's a great, great service and I'm really proud of what we do at the RTA in relation to this. Often people who are engaging with the dispute resolution service for the first time have different ideas and experience around what we actually do. First and foremost, it's about setting the expectation for us.
First off, an RTA, conciliator is impartial and does not have the ability to advocate for either side. The conciliation is an opportunity for everyone to have their say in the outcome and is a voluntary process. First and foremost, RTA conciliators are impartial and they do not advocate for either person. That just provides an even level playing field for all parties to feel that they have the opportunity to be heard and have their say. Conciliators cannot make decisions about the dispute, and rely on parties in attendance to come in good faith to resolve the matter. Conciliators aim to create and provide a calm and supportive environment for parties to have that discussion, and these discussions are facilitated via a teleconference at a mutually agreed time with representatives in attendance from both sides.
The desired outcome, obviously, is that we look to assist those parties to reach their own mutual agreement without our intervention. However, through these discussions, we also do reality test and educate our customers on the legislative requirements so that they can make more better-informed decisions down the track. Also, they can retain some of those self-resolution strategies to apply in their daily life.
Host: It's a win, win situation. Now, when looking at the dispute resolution process, what are some of the potential outcomes that can come from that?
Guest: The best outcome obviously is that we resolve the matter, and where the parties mutually agree. If this is the case and we are able to assist, then the conciliator conducting your conference may put in an agreement, which will be sent to all parties in order for all parties to sign and return that to us. Then, potentially we can share that information. We can show everyone that we have now resolved the matter and can move forward.
There's also the ability for a conciliation agreement to be drawn up, which forms part of your tenancy agreement. It’s basically where parties can agree to certain terms and conditions, still in the current tenancy, and moving forward from that particular point, they are responsible for those items that they've agreed to. Each person obviously then gets a signed copy, just to confirm their acceptance of that agreement. So creating that level, playing field, creating that understanding and moving forward.
An even better outcome, apart from RTA involvement, is where parties actually do self-resolve. We have had situations where there has been a claim on a bond refund, and a tenant has not potentially agreed to those amounts being raised by the agent. We've seen that they've been able to actually talk it out and communicate with each other. Before we even touch that dispute, we are closing that and refunding that bond.
Host: That's the way to go, isn't?
Guest: And the great thing about it is it involves less time for the customers and waiting. It involves less administrative duties and requirements on the customer and the RTA. And it shows good faith that the parties are able to look past that potential issue and move forward with each other and repair that relationship.
Host: And we've got a fairly high success rate, don't we?
Guest: We absolutely do. Currently we are sitting at 73% for resolution rates for all the disputes we've received, which is a great percentage at this time, with the potential to increase that in the future. Sometimes even though the issue is not immediately resolved through conciliation, parties come out of it with a better understanding of the issues at hand, and each other's perspective. Most of the time, parties do continue to discuss and talk to each other after the conciliation in a productive manner, and it's definitely no surprise that they find an agreeable solution at a later time.
Another possible outcome to a dispute may be that the parties attending in the teleconference are quite positional and they're not able to negotiate, or willing to negotiate. So as mentioned before, part of the process for the parties is to attend in good faith, be considerate and have room for negotiation. So parties are also able to contribute to and continue to influence the outcome of the dispute, however, once the matter is referred to QCAT, that option is taken away. It can be quite difficult to appeal the outcome given by an adjudicator. And it also may not be ideal to the parties attending, so it's probably better to try and resolve it before you go there.
Host: That's it. Yeah. And, you know, even when you go through all that, you may not get the outcome that you want, right? So what happens if you go through that conciliation and you still can't reach a resolution?
Guest: OK, so if you go through the conciliation and no resolution can be achieved, then it's off to QCAT as an option to get that final decision. Out of all the requests, the dispute resolution team have come across, only a very small percentage of these disputes actually go to the tribunal. There's also an opportunity for parties to create an agreement after the matter has been closed by the RTA. Again, back to that communication, engaging with each other, and being willing to try and resolve the matter rather than point fingers.
There are also fees associated with QCAT applications and wait times. It is also heavily administrative. It is something that we ask parties to consider when they look to try and travel down that path, only because that's even more time and effort taken and is the matter really that important that you can't communicate directly with each other?
Host: That's it. And like we said just before, you may not get the solution that you want even if you go down that path. Generally, it's recommended that customers go through that dispute resolution process with us rather than resorting to an escalation through QCAT right?
Guest: Absolutely. I definitely would recommend our service here at the RTA. But the first step we would like to highlight is that self-resolution is always attempted first. Sometimes when parties see the RTA involvement, it does create an angst amongst the parties which can deter the conversations or communications to move forward. By approaching each other directly first, trying to resolve that matter - if you can, I guess, agree to disagree at that point, that's probably the next step, when you would look to engage the RTA.
As we mentioned before, the dispute resolution service is free and it's basically to give all the parties an opportunity to have control of the outcome. QCAT as we've mentioned is an evidence-based process. It can be quite lengthy having your matter heard at the tribunal. Not to mention you may not like the outcome.
Part of the discussions that we have with our customers is to reality test them in these processes. Which involves asking questions such as: what outcome can you live with? What outcome are you willing to accept or that you can move forward with? Also, we ask: are you willing to deal with this for several weeks? Sometimes we've seen cases at QCAT that may go for three to six month wait time, potentially be dismissed, which means a possible re-application. Matters, depending on the severity, can take their time.
Host: It's really just weighing up; is the effort worth the outcome?
Guest: Absolutely. That's definitely true. And really at the end of the day, do you want someone else making that decision for you? What we like to do is take control of the situation yourself, control your own destiny and your own outcome.
Host: Yeah, and the RTA really act like Switzerland, don't they?
Guest: Absolutely. The neutral ground.
Host: Thanks, Shae, for helping us get a greater understanding of the dispute resolution process and how it works. As we see yet again, communication is vital when it comes to any misunderstanding or disagreement in relation to a tenancy.
Thank you for listening to the Talking Tenancies Podcast. For more information about the Residential Tenancies Authority, visit rta.qd.gov.au.