Crazy rules at Australia’s strictest motel in south coast, NSW

Welcome to Sisters In Law, news.com.au’s weekly column solving all of your legal problems. This week, our resident lawyers and real-life sisters, Alison and Jillian Barrett from Maurice Blackburn, explain the potential illegalities of a “mean-spirited” motel business.

QUESTION: I stayed in a motel on the NSW south coast over the Christmas and New Year period that had the strictest rules I’ve ever seen!

We had paid an inflated rate of over $250 per night for a very basic motel off a highway but couldn’t believe how mean-spirited the family who owned it were. They lived on site but had a strict 3pm-6pm check-in policy and said they’d cancel the room with no refund if we didn’t arrive between those times.

Then, when we arrived we were greeted by a long list of rules including “management staff can enter your room without permission” and it was $75 if you needed assistance outside of the hours of 3pm and 6pm. They also charged $50 to do housekeeping and said it was $20 per person if we had any guests and they had to be approved!

The manager took a $100 holding fee when we arrived and I was on edge the entire time that they would find a way to charge us. Is it legal to have all these extra charges when you’ve paid for a motel? – Megan, NSW

ANSWER: When you book accommodation, most of your entitlements, and the rules you must comply with, will be outlined in the accommodation business’s terms and conditions.

Prior to booking, you should have been provided with the rules and agreed to them by, for example, agreeing over the phone if you made your booking by phone, or clicking “I agree” to the terms and conditions if you booked online.

It sounds like these rules may not have been provided to you prior to booking, which means they likely won’t be enforceable.

However, if you were aware of them, they will be enforceable, unless they are considered unfair.

Even though an accommodation provider might stipulate certain rules, the Australian Consumer Law (ACL) provides you with rights, and also protects you from unfair contract terms.

For a contract term to be unfair, it must:

• Cause a significant imbalance in the parties’ rights

• Not be reasonably necessary to protect the business’s rights, and

• Cause detriment (financial or otherwise) to the consumer

A court will also look at whether the contract was presented clearly to you prior to agreeing to the sale, in your case, prior to booking the accommodation.

The unfair terms will unlikely be enforceable if you were not provided with a copy prior to booking, or collecting your room key, and you only found out after you had entered the room (for example, the rules were displayed on the back of the door to your room).

Of the terms and conditions you provided to us, it would likely be an unfair term where you are charged $20 per person for a guest. For example, it would likely only be a minor breach of the contract if you had a friend visit for breakfast so the $20 penalty is likely unfair and would not be chargeable.

Similarly, if you booked online and it was advertised that the room would have a housekeeping service daily, but the terms and conditions changed when you arrived so that the room was only serviced once per week unless you paid an extra $50 per service, this would also be unfair and not recoverable by the motel.

It would also be a false and misleading representation, and the accommodation provider could be liable for a penalty, with fines for corporations in many such cases at around $18,780.

You should first try to resolve any issues directly with the motel or booking website. If that fails, you can lodge a complaint with New South Wales Fair Trading, or the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.

Finally, if your debit or credit card was charged inappropriately (with the $100 ‘holding fee’) then you can contact your financial institution and lodge a “chargeback” request. The provider will investigate and run the dispute for you.

This legal information is general in nature and should not be regarded as specific legal advice or relied upon. Persons requiring particular legal advice should consult a solicitor. If you have a legal question you would like Alison and Jillian to answer, please email stories@news.com.au. Get more from Alison and Jillian on their Facebook page.

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