Shady snake not reason enough to vacate, says QCAT

A Queensland tenant terminated his lease early after a guest heard a snake hissing in his wall, but the Queensland Civil and Administrative Tribunal has ruled that he must continue to pay rent.

Aaron Holesgrove’s guest reported to him twice that a snake could be heard hissing and moving around inside the wall of his home’s spare room. Holesgrove told the tribunal that his property managers, First National Real Estate, took no action to remove the snake.

He issued a notice to remedy the breach to an agent. The tribunal heard that Holesgrove was then told to call the agency immediately if he spotted the snake, keep it in sight, photograph it and call a professional snake catcher named Jeff.

But instead Holesgrove vacated the property without notice, and the agency sought to claim compensation for unpaid rent, water use, repairs and a fee for breaking the lease. Two Justices of the Peace at QCAT allowed the claim, with Holesgrove filing to appeal the decision.

If the matter was in Victoria, the situation may have been somewhat different. According to James Bennett, policy and liaison officer at the Tenants Union of Victoria, there are no specific provisions in the Residential Tenancies Act 1997 (Victoria) addressing dangerous animals or pests.

“A tenant can make an application to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal for an urgent repair if the rental property has a fault which renders the property unsafe,” Bennett said.

“For example, if there were holes in the walls that enabled the snake to enter the wall of the rental property then this may be an urgent repair.

“A tenant can issue an immediate notice to terminate the lease if the property is unfit for human habitation.  However, if the tenant does this and vacates during a fixed term lease, the landlord may claim that the have broken the lease and seek compensation.

“In the event of a compensation claim for lease breaking costs, the Tribunal would need to decide whether the presence of the snake meant that the property was in fact unfit for habitation.”

Holesgrove’s snake case was made even more slippery when his guest did not appear at tribunal to provide evidence. In fact, Holesgrave did not even hear the snake’s noises after his guest brought them to his attention, as senior tribunal member Peta Stilgoe pointed out.

At the hearing, Stilgoe said that Holesgrave could have gotten rid of the snake himself, after the agency did not attend to his for an emergency repair. But Holesgrove claimed that he could not afford snake catcher Jeff’s fee.

Stilgoe responded that Holesgrove could have applied to the tribunal for orders, instead of terminating his lease.

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