Victorian Ombudsman, Media Release, 15 November 2023
This story of a 72-year-old widow, who has spent the last six years entangled in a bureaucratic nightmare with two local councils – Mitchell Shire Council and Yarra Ranges Shire Council – serves as a reminder to all councils of why the most basic hallmarks of good complaint handling are important, says Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass.
The Ombudsman, who tabled her report Investigation into a Building Permit complaint in Parliament, said that while Robyn’s circumstances may be unique, aspects of her story could happen to any of us.
“We all make mistakes, but when they are compounded by officialdom we should expect agencies to help us find solutions. Our vulnerabilities should be acknowledged and reflected in how we are treated. We are all human; behind every complaint is a human story needing to be heard,” Ms Glass said.
Robyn’s ordeal began after her home was ravaged by the Black Saturday bushfires of 2009. Some years later she was widowed, and her adult son relies on a dialysis machine to survive. In 2016, Robyn built a structure on her land for her son to live in. She thought she had the correct permit to do so, but she did not. Unknown to her, her builder had applied to Mitchell Shire Council (not her local Council) for a permit to build a shed.
An error in communication ensued as Mitchell Shire Council sent a copy of the permit to the wrong person at the wrong address, preventing Robyn from realising the inconsistency with her plans. It was not until 2017, when Robyn’s local Council, Yarra Ranges Shire Council, issued a Building Order requiring her to address health and safety concerns with the building, that Robyn learnt that she had the wrong type of permit. At this point being told to vacate the building was impractical, as her son’s dialysis machine had been specially installed there by a hospital.
“In attempting to resolve this tangled bureaucratic web, Robyn complained repeatedly to both Councils. The Councils did not always coordinate with each other, and at times their requirements were conflicting. Neither Council initially demonstrated the kind of effective complaint handling a ratepayer should expect.
“At times, both Councils struggled to recognise the human story behind the complaints – or that a vulnerable person who had lost so much might not be familiar with the Building Act and regulations,” Ms Glass said.
Although both Councils have tried to work with Robyn, they have struggled to find a solution, and we wait to see if this investigation finally produces one.
“Councils need to communicate clearly and consistently, to use their discretion, to find flexible solutions and to give reasons for their decisions. They need to treat dissatisfaction as a complaint and respond appropriately, rather than adopting a defensive position.”