Coolah Home Base Class Action
“The Castle” – Minus the Humour!
The Peoples’ Solicitors are assisting 18 “grey nomads” who pooled their life savings to establish their own retirement community in rural NSW. Now they risk losing everything.
In 2012 two grey nomads, Graeme Booker and Janet Kelly, formed Coolah Home Base Pty Ltd (“CHB”) which bought a caravan park and sold “allotments” to about 20 retirees. Each retiree was issued a share in CHB. Allotments were defined in the Company Constitution as the ‘portion of land including the buildings thereon.’
Booker and Kelly heavily promoted Coolah Home Base at camping and caravan shows as a new concept that offered grey nomads cheap home and land with “real estate security”.
The residents say that ads like these and verbal promises made to them prior to moving into Coolah Home Base, made it clear they were buying a cabin and title to the land on which it stood, as well as a share in the company.
The terms of the contracts which shareholders signed with Coolah Home Base Pty Ltd also confirm that they were being sold “allotments”. Some of these allotments had cabins on them at the time of purchase. Homes were subsequently built on others by the individual residents, some costing over $300,000.
Booker and Kelly were the managers of CHB and also its directors. They collected the site fees (initially $50 p.w.) to cover outgoings and wages, but they refused to give residents/shareholders a proper account as to how their site fees were being spent.
In 2018 shareholders made an application to the Supreme Court for access to CHB’s books, to understand what was happening in the management of CHB as they had been left in the dark.
Booker and Kelly responded by putting the company into administration. They then struck a deal by which in December 2019 CHB Pty Ltd sold the land and business to another company they had formed for the purpose, Coolah Tourist Park.
In December 2019 Booker and Kelly told residents the old site agreements between CHB and the shareholders were terminated, and the residents have to enter new ones, paying $185 per week (three times the existing site fee). If they don’t sign, they will be evicted.
The residents who were sold “real estate security” by Booker and Kelly are now being told by them they never owned the land, Booker and Kelly now own their houses, and the weekly site fee has jumped from $65 to $185.
Back in 1999 Parliament enacted the Retirement Villages Act to prevent precisely what has happened to the residents of this retirement village, as summarised by this extract from the second reading of the Retirement Villages Bill 1999:
Mr WATKINS (Minister for Fair Trading):
"I've been disturbed by the exploitative practices of some operators. Fleecing retirees out of their entire life savings is abhorrent to all fair minded people. A practice that causes me great concern is the way in which some operators go about pressuring their residents into signing amendments to existing contracts, or terminating contracts and replacing them with new contracts altogether. Some threaten to evict residents or to close down villages unless residents agree to sign. Any amendment or proposed termination of a contract initiated by an operator, will now be void unless residents obtain a certificate from a legal practitioner of their own choosing, stating that the change has been explained to them, and that they consent to it. Unfortunately some village operators have gone broke. This has left residents in the perilous position of unsecured creditors. The Bill addresses this problem by providing that any village contract is enforceable against any operator for the time being of the village."
The People’s Solicitors asked NSW Fair Trading, as the body responsible for enforcement of the Act, to intervene at CHB. Fair Trading said it’s not a retirement village, so they are not interested. When asked to explain their decision, the Fair Trading officer said “we don't need to give reasons”.
The People’s Solicitors then applied to NCAT for protection under the Retirement Villages Act. If NCAT rules that CHB is a retirement village, that law makes the old site agreement enforceable against the “new” owner. That would mean, for a start, site fees will remain at $64.75 per week, not the $185 the “new” owners are demanding.
Supreme court proceedings
The residents also want their land and homes back. NCAT has no jurisdiction to decide ownership of real estate, so The People’s Solicitors are also running a class action in the Supreme Court on behalf of 18 residents.
The residents say they own their land, the sale was unlawful, they want their names put on the title as tenants in common, and they want compensation for the expenses and distress they have suffered for the past year.
A hearing date is yet to be set, and in the meantime residents are still being threatened with eviction.
No protection for the elderly
The People’s Solicitors wrote to the Ageing and Disability Commissioner for assistance with what had become elder abuse. The outcome of that letter was a phone call saying “Gosh that sounds awful. There’s not much we can do about that. Maybe the Ombudsman can help?”. It seems there is no legislation to protect the elderly from anything short of criminal assault.
The retirees are waiting for their day in court. Although The People’s Solicitors are acting largely on “no win, no fee” there are still costs to be paid and some residents have set up a Gofundme campaign: https://www.gofundme.com/f/caravan-park-help
Christine and Geoff McMillan outside their home, now under threat