The PM's daughter has won her legal stoush against her former landlord after she broke her lease at an inner-Melbourne apartment. But is Frances Abbott's case business as usual -- or did she get special treatment?
News of Abbott’s lease-break produced howls of laughter and derision from tenant advocacy workers who deal with these sorts of claims day in, day out. Nobody had much sympathy either for Abbott, waving around her dad’s name while blithely observing "I felt like I didn’t deserve different treatment", or for her landlord, Janine Moussi, who reportedly went into default on her mortgage after missing out on just one month’s rental at her Prahran investment property.
Abbott had initially paid a bond and first month's rent on the property, but the Australian Federal Police then declared it was not secure enough for the daughter of the Prime Minister. Moussi took Abbott to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal to fight keep Abbott's bond and first month's rent, arguing: "It’s a lease break, you have to honour it. It’s the law." But this isn’t necessarily true. Landlords can claim compensation for costs they incur when a tenant breaks a lease -- typically, things like the rent they’ve lost, the cost of re-advertising the property, and part of a re-letting fee. But they have to mitigate their loss by making reasonable efforts to re-let the property as soon as possible -- they can’t just leave it empty and run up a huge claim.
Often real estate agents convince tenants that they must continue paying rent until the property is re-let, which isn’t true; tenants then end up frustrated when they’re still paying a month or more after they left and the property still hasn’t been advertised. Abbott, at least, had more sense. While Moussi claims it took her eight weeks to re-let the property after Abbott broke the lease, it’s difficult to see why it would take so long to find tenants for a decent apartment in as desirable a suburb as Prahran. But as a rule, landlords who can’t convince VCAT they’ve properly mitigated their losses tend to find their claims reduced, not dismissed, as seems to have happened here, with VCAT returning Abbott's bond and most of her first month's rent.
In any case, Moussi is probably right that this wasn’t exactly "a standard VCAT decision". Why did Abbott get off so lightly? There are no minimum standards for residential tenancies in Victoria, and a landlord’s duties on the day a tenant takes occupation of a property extend no further than ensuring the property is vacant and reasonably clean. And when they do have a case, tenants ordinarily have to bear the costs of producing evidence they want to rely on at a hearing and don’t have the AFP on hand to assess the quality and security of their rental properties at taxpayer expense.
While none of us know what evidence was produced by Abbott at VCAT, it’s probably fair to say that it’s unusual for a tenant to keep their bond after breaking a lease, especially on the basis outlined by the Herald Sun
, relating to police security concerns. And while there are a range of possible defences that all tenants can use in lease-breaking cases, most of us obviously can’t tell the tribunal, as Abbott did, that "my dad’s the Prime Minister”.