Some of Melbourne’s finest legal minds are spending long hours trying to solve the question of whether a landlord can recover from a tenant the costs of complying with the landlord’s obligations under the Building Act 1993 (Act) and regulations.
Much of the debate concerns s 251 which provides that:
“(1) If the owner of a building or land is required under this Act or the
regulations to carry out any work or do any other thing and the owner does not carry out the work or do the thing, the occupier of that building or land or any registered mortgagee of the land or the land on which the building is situated, may carry out the work or do the thing.
(2) An occupier may-
(a) recover any expenses necessarily incurred under subsection (1) from the owner as a debt due to the occupier; or
(b) deduct those expenses from or set them off against any rent due or to become due to the owner.
(6) This section applies despite any covenant or agreement to the contrary.”
In my view the effect of s.251 is that if the owner is required by the Act or the regulations to carry out any work or do any other thing and does not carry out the work or do the thing:
(a) the tenant can do the work that the landlord was obliged to do and recover the costs from the landlord owner as a debt; and
(b) the tenant can set-off the costs of doing the work that the landlord owner was obliged to do against the rent; and
(c) the usual rent covenant that rent must be paid “without deduction” will not assist the landlord if it fails to comply with s.251 and the tenant does the work that the landlord was obliged to do (Chen v Panmure Hotel Pty Ltd).
However, s 251 does not answer the question whether a building owner can recover from the tenant the owner’s costs of complying with its obligations under the Act and regulations. In other words, can the tenant be obliged to pay the owner’s costs of complying with the Act and regulations when s 251 has not been enlivened?
Section 39 of the Retail Leases Act 2003 (2003 Act) permits a landlord to recover outgoings from the tenant by appropriately drawn provisions in a lease. Section 41(1) of the 2003 Act makes void a provision in a lease that requires the tenant to pay an amount in respect of capital costs. Thus it is clear that the tenant could never be required to pay an amount in respect of capital works.
In my view, if s 251 is enlivened by the owner failing to do works that it was required to do under the Act and the tenant does that work, the owner cannot, pursuant to provisions in a lease, recover from the tenant the costs that the owner pays to the tenant under s 251.
But where 251 of the Act has not been enlivened and the owner seeks to recover from the tenant the costs that it has incurred in complying with the Act, it is not clear to me why the landlord should not be able to recover those costs from the tenant. Proponents of the view that the landlord cannot recover the costs will refer to Café Dansk Pty Ltd v Shiel where Deputy President Macnamara (as his Honour then was) held that a landlord could not recover from the tenant the costs of complying with s 52 of the 2003 Act. In my view there are good arguments as to why Café Dansk is not correct, but even if it be assumed that the decision is correct the logic applied in Café Dansk does not necessarily apply when considering the Act. The Act and the 2003 Act are directed at different things. The Act is concerned with ensuring the safety of persons using buildings; its provisions are directed solely to that end; and it says nothing about the ultimate allocation of the costs of complying with the Act while the 2003 Act, and s 52 in particular, is remedial leglislation concerned with restoring the balance of rights as between landlords and tenants. In my view it is not at all clear that there is anything in the Act that rebuts the presumption that an Act is not to be construed as taking away existing common law rights unless the legislative right to do so is clear. I am not convinced that it is clear that Parliament intended to take away the contractual right to pass on the costs of compliance.
 VCAT 2463
 VCAT 2009.
 Pearce, D.C and Geddes, R.S, Statutory Interpretation in Australia, 7th ed, LexisNexis, 2011, paragraphs 5.27, 5.28 and 5.35.