31 May 2017 Unprecedented class action launched against Victoria’s building regulator
An unprecedented class action is being levelled against Victoria's building regulator for failing to protect dozens of home owners from shoddy and dangerous building work.
Victims of a disastrous townhouse development in Diamond Creek in Melbourne's outer suburbs claim they suffered financial losses and physical and psychiatric injuries as a result of the inaction of the Victorian Building Authority.
A rotted balcony at the troubled Rangeview Estate in Diamond Creek. Photo: Eddie Jim
It is believed the case could spark a rush of legal action from other Victorians who feel abandoned by the VBA, which has been slammed for being asleep at the wheel while defects plague the industry.
Many of Victoria's new residential buildings are riddled with faults, and experts say new laws may have to be introduced to manage mass demolitions of apartments.
This month a statement of claim was lodged in the Victorian Supreme Court by Melbourne solicitor Sarah Hinchliffe, who is representing 36 home owners.
The case centres on a planning saga involving dozens of townhouses in the Rangeview Estate in Melbourne's north-east, where total costs of defects have been estimated at more than $7.6 million. The builder, David Brayer, was stripped of his registration for three years.
Young couple Erin and David Robertson said they were overjoyed to buy their first home in the estate in 2010, but were left devastated after they received a knock on their front door a few days later.
“Two of our neighbours were standing there. To be honest I thought they were coming to greet us and to say welcome. But we were incredibly wrong about that,” Mrs Robertson said.
“They informed us that we had bought into a property where there were a huge amount of building defects. We had bought a lemon.
“We said goodbye and shut the door and I think I just started crying.”
Erin and David Robertson say they bought a “lemon”. Photo: Eddie Jim
Mrs Robertson said they later discovered that the slab had been built lower than ground level, which meant water ran underneath the house, causing the floor skirting to swell up, discolour and grow mould.
But that was only the start of their problems.
According to a building consultant who assessed the Rangeview properties, the walls between the homes do not have proper fire separation, and could quickly collapse during a blaze.
The VBA is accused through the class action of knowing the deficiencies were capable of “causing death or serious injury” in the event of a fire.
Water damage in the Robertson's spare room. Photo: Supplied
Another owner, Steve Balfour, said he first complained to the building authority about the fire threat in August 2013, and an inspection was later conducted.
But Mr Balfour said it took the VBA almost another two years to take any action on the fire safety issues.
It was only in June 2015 after he rang the VBA and told them he would be contacting the local council, that the authority passed on its concerns about Rangeview, he said. The council's building surveyor went on to find 10 breaches of building regulations that needed to be urgently fixed.
A rotting balcony at the Rangeview Estate. Photo: Supplied
The Supreme Court claim includes a written concession by the VBA in March 2016 that it had not overseen works at the Rangeview Estate as well as it should have.
“Prior to June 2015, the VBA did not engage with the municipal building surveyor towards ensuring he take appropriate actions at his disposal under The Building Act… This in part led to the non-compliant matters identified at the estate not being resolved as soon as they might have been,” the VBA correspondence states.
A spokesman for the VBA said it had not yet received the writ, but planned to defend the case.
“The VBA maintains that in this matter we have carried out our statutory responsibilities. This includes investigating the builder, which subsequently led to the cancellation of his registration,” the spokesman said.
He said an investigation was also ongoing into the building surveyor.
Former federal independent senator for Victoria John Madigan is cited in the claim after he visited the estate in February last year.
“What I saw when I visited the site was disgraceful. While the major defects were to the roofing, the external cladding, the electrics and to fire separation walls, there were a multitude of other defects and generally, the level of workmanship on display was extraordinarily poor,” Mr Madigan is quoted as saying.
Mould and moss growing on the outside of the Robertons' home. Photo: Supplied
The litigation caps years of tumult for the state's building regulator, which emerged from the ashes of the Victorian Building Commission which was abolished by opposition leader Matthew Guy when he was planning minister in the former Coalition state government.
Mr Guy replaced the commission with the VBA after a series of financial and conflict of interest scandals brought to the surface widespread public dissatisfaction with the performance of the regulator.
But confidence in the VBA remains low.
This prevalence of poor workmanship (in particular waterproofing) has been blamed on its failure to ensure builders and developers adhere to existing codes and standards.
Builders Collective of Australia president Phil Dwyer said in the 15 years he had been working with building consumers, not once had their problems been resolved by the VBA or building commission.
Instead he said many builders and buyers spent up to $100,000 fighting disputes in the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal.
“The VBA has any amount of powers to be able to assist people, but instead of assisting people they put them on a merry-go-round and claim they don't have the powers to do anything for them,” Mr Dwyer said.
“The VBA at the moment is a toothless tiger.”