A Halifax lawyer says a recent case he handled for a woman convicted from her apartment shows the province’s tenancy law needs to be strengthened to ensure hearings are recorded and perjury is punished.
Devin Maxwell represented his assistant, paralegal Wendy Mugridge, against Olympus Properties Management Ltd. at a March 30 residential tenancies hearing.
During the hearing, adjudicator Julie Tapp heard Mugridge’s account of how in early February a sprinkler leaked in her $936-per-month unit, and she was served an eviction notice.
The 61-year-old woman spent weeks living in accommodations paid for by her insurance and told the hearing she expected to return to her apartment once the repairs were made. Instead, she said, she was told she had to move out permanently.
In her April 3 order, Tapp voided the landlord’s eviction, rejected Olympus’s assertion that the apartment was still “uninhabitable” and said the landlord breached the act by “unilaterally” dictating the end of the tenancy and changing the locks.
She also said in her decision — based on testimony from the landlord’s representative during the hearing — that the unit “remains vacant,” as she ordered Olympus to let the tenants return.
Property manager filed appeals
Olympus appealed to small claims court, saying in its April 14 notice that Mugridge’s return was impossible because the apartment was “now occupied.”
Mugridge submitted a follow-up affidavit after the hearing to the board, noting that during the hearing her lawyer had presented evidence that after she left her apartment, it had been advertised for rent for $1,495-a-month.
“During the hearing, (the landlord’s representative) gave sworn evidence. She tested, under oath, that the unit was not rented and that it was vacant and available,” Mugridge wrote in his affidavit.
Mugridge also wrote that on April 1, she met a man outside her former apartment with a U-Haul van who told her he was moving in.
The Canadian Press made multiple attempts by email and phone to contact the CEO of Halifax-based Olympus for comment but received no response.
Mugridge said in a telephone interview Tuesday that she went through considerable stress not knowing where she would live and has had to move into an apartment further from her workplace that costs over $300 more per month.
The board’s process is toothless: lawyers
Maxwell said when he wrote to senior officials at the board to see what could be done to investigate whether the company representative’s statements under oath were true, he was told the board was powerless to act.
“Currently, we have no mechanism to directly hold accountable a party who has committed perjury,” the provincial agency wrote to Maxwell.
Maxwell said that without an audio recording of proceedings, and a commitment to punish potential perjury if it occurs, the board’s process is toothless. “Why even bother having a residential tenancies board?” he asked during a telephone interview Tuesday.
“It’s very clear to me from (the landlord’s) actions before and after this hearing, the landlord knew the process had no teeth.”
The current legislation has a section allowing $1,000 fines for tenants or landlords who breach the act, but advocates for tenants’ rights have found it is hardly ever used due to a lack of legal clarity on who should impose the fine.
Maxwell said in an email Wednesday that following his interviews with The Canadian Press and other media he received a financial settlement offer for Mugridge, but he couldn’t disclose the details of the offer.
The provincial government recently received a consultant’s report about the possibility of creating an Ontario-style enforcement system for landlords and tenants, in which trained officers would have the power to issue fines and directly mediate in disputes.
In an interview on Thursday, Colton LeBlanc, the provincial minister responsible for the Residential Tenancies Act, said work is ongoing but the government is “many months” away from any formal legal reforms.
Asked if the residential tenancies system needs to start at least recording proceedings, he said he’s heard the call for that change and “it’s on the radar,” adding he is “not opposed” to the idea.