Story 14: Property Law Advice for Homeless First Nations Woman

2020-2022: New South Wales

For the last two years, Johnson Winter & Slattery (JWS) has been acting for a First Nations woman in relation to a complex and protracted property-related dispute, which left her homeless and on the verge of bankruptcy. This matter is an archetypal example of how complex legal proceedings of the type JWS are able to bring (but which are inaccessible for disadvantaged persons without pro bono support), can have a profound impact on the passage of an individual’s life.

In this matter, JWS’ client was verbally granted a peppercorn 99-year lease over a property and on that basis she invested in it and occupied it for 20 years. She installed a pre-fabricated home, paid water and council rates, and made a number of improvements, including installing a drainage and septic system and concrete paving. However, unknown to the client, the lease was never formally executed.

The client was served with a notice to vacate the land and became homeless. As a result of associated legal proceedings (prior to JWS acting), she became the subject of a bankruptcy application due to an unpaid judgement sum. 

The JWS team was able to establish in the Supreme Court of NSW that the client had a valid claim for restitution based on the value of the improvements she had made to the property, and that she was also entitled to equitable compensation based on a proprietary estoppel. Damages of $115,000 were awarded, which also resulted in the creditor’s petition in bankruptcy being dismissed.

This was complex Supreme Court litigation, traversing res judicata, Anshun and issue estoppels, as well as complex leasing, property valuation and contractual issues. The client was awarded costs across multiple court applications.

The team was led by Samantha Daly and Angus Hannam.

Samantha Daly
Angus Hannam
Senior Associate

This story was submitted by Johnson Winter & Slattery.