Students Kate Aston (she/her) and Sigourney Vallis (she/her) took the ANU to the ACT Civil and Administrative Tribunal (ACAT) at the end of last year, after being made to pay rent for rooms they were unable to inhabit due to ACT COVID-19 Health Regulations. The students spoke to Woroni about the situation earlier this year, stating that they felt the University had adopted an “aggressive” approach, reminiscent of a “David and Goliath” situation.
Prestigious private firm King & Wood Mallesons and barrister Prue Bindon represent the ANU in this case. Kate and Sigourney are represented by the ANUSA-funded legal service, and pro-bono barrister Steven Whybrow SC. The ANUSA legal service is funded through SSAF and free for students to access.
Students Kate and Sigourney are asking for a refund totaling approximately $10,500 from the University, amounting to between $4,500 and $6,000 each. They claim that their occupancy agreement contracts were “frustrated” – a legal term – by the unforeseen event of the 2021 COVID-19 lockdown and that they should have been allowed to break their contracts, as regular rental tenants across the ACT could. They also claim the occupancy agreements were repudiated by the ANU when it told students outside the ACT to remain where they were, and when it couldn’t provide quarantining facilities for the students, meaning they were barred from entering the ACT.
The ANU reports that between approximately 650-700 students were in a similar situation, whereby they were paying for a room on campus that they could not inhabit due to ACT Health directives. If ACAT were to rule in favour of the students in this case, it may set a legal precedent allowing all 650-700 students to claim back rent paid during the time they could not access their rooms.
ANU is claiming that the University briefed students on the situation and that they should have foreseen the national lockdown, highlighting the quick lockdown of Sydney’s Northern Beaches at the end of 2020 as indicating that a national lockdown could also occur. However, it cannot be proven there were clauses within the accommodation portal to state that COVID-19 or other public health directives would impact occupancy agreements, or that staff had previously informed students that a public health order would not constitute grounds to terminate the contract.
ANU declined to comment on the fact that ACT Health orders had barred students from returning to the territory, particularly if they weren’t residents. Living on campus at ANU did not classify a student as a resident during COVID-19 restrictions. Applicants who were not considered residents of the ACT were, in more cases, rejected when applying to enter the territory during lockdown.
Recently procured invoices show that the ANU has spent a cumulative $126,242.71 on the case, including $31,475 in barrister fees, between April and November 2022. The University reports it is currently operating at a $117.4 million dollar deficit, albeit a better result than the expected $182.8 million.
This amount is shown as the total fee “after discount.” When asked, an ANU spokesperson stated that they received a “discount to rates charged by external legal services providers, as is ordinarily the case for similar clients.”
When contacted, the University maintained that the ANU was the respondent to the case brought to them by the students. They asserted “ANU has not taken the matter to the Tribunal” and that the “legal costs were incurred in defending a claim brought against ANU.”
Signourney and Kate expressed disappointment that the ANU would spend “so much of its funds fighting two of its own students.” The process was described as an “unquantifiable burden” from the time and effort involved compiling evidence, meeting with legal teams and undergoing trial proceedings.
The students also expressed continued concern about the unfair nature of college Occupancy Agreements, arguing these should be “more balanced so students have more power.” They highlighted amendments made after 2021 which require students to exhaust all internal dispute mechanisms before being able to approach ACAT or seek legal help.
When asked about potential amendments to its occupancy agreements an ANU spokesperson stated that the University “reviews its contracts annually to ensure compliance with all applicable laws.”
The outcome of the case will set a precedent, and could lead to many other similarly affected students coming forward to claim reimbursements. Regardless of the outcome, the trial has helped demonstrate to students that they can stand up to their University or institution if they feel they have been wronged.
While the case is still ongoing, an outcome is expected in the next few months. Woroni will continue to report on further updates.
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