Editorial: Liability for the flawed Victoria Square flats must fall on those who are to blame for the build defect, not on the taxpayer

News Letter editorial on Friday March 22 2024:
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Owners of the defective Belfast apartments won’t have to pay rates, Stormont’s finance minister says.

This is a sensible decision in light of the fate that has befallen the owners. It is a respect in which the assembly can help. Michelle O’Neill and Emma Little-Pengelly, the first and deputy first minister, have said they will meet owners and offer support.

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Ms Little-Pengelly was right to refer to the “fundamental unfairness" of the situation and to say “we need to ... support those people who have been caught in this situation through no fault of their own”. She also said: "We do want to support them in any way that we can.”

It is important, though, that this means MLAs changing the law so that the owners can retrospectively claim the cost of repair, as is possible in England and Wales since 2022. The Defective Premises Act was brought in after the Grenfell tower fire in London, and it aimed to address the fundamental unfairness to which Ms Little-Pengelly.

There is a key legal principle ‘Caveat Emptor’ (Let the buyer beware). It means, for example, that if someone buys a defective property at a low price, because the defects could have been detected by the purchaser, then they cannot claim later damages over it. If they could do so, then the fundamental unfairness would work the other way – it would mean the seller accepted a lower price for visible defects in the property, and the buyer got the benefit of that lower price, and could have investigated what they were buying, yet could still sue the seller despite their own negligence.

Given that this is not the situation in the Victoria Square flats, the political focus must be on identifying who is responsible for the build defect, then changing the law (if feasible) to ensure that they are liable for the repairs, rather than the typical, easy, Stormont response of transferring that responsibility from the blameworthy party to taxpayers.