CONFLICT RESOLUTION : What best to do to ensure peaceful resolution to condo disputes

Question : Maria, My condo board is involved in a number of ongoing disputes with owners that have dragged on for months and have cost the corporation a small fortune in legal fees. Now other owners are taking sides, and I’m worried about the discord this is causing. How can we get these disagreements settled?

Unresolved disputes are not only costly, they also take a huge toll on the people involved in them. They can turn one group of owners against another, discourage people from serving on the board, and reduce the quality of life in a condo community. In its recent review of the condo industry, Service Alberta has identified the urgent need for a condo dispute resolution tribunal as one of its priorities. Until the new tribunal is in place, though, most disputes that are not resolved by the parties themselves must settled by the Court of Queen’s Bench, which is a time-consuming, and expensive process.

The current situation could be much improved by the creation of a new condo tribunal that can make decisions about condo disputes quickly and inexpensively. However, even without a condo tribunal, there are many steps that condo owners, boards, and condo managers can take to reduce the risk of conflict and to resolve disagreements on their own.

For instance, it’s important that the rules of your complex are clear and everyone is aware of them. Ensure your bylaws are up to date and written in understandablelanguage. Develop written rules to address common issues, like parking and the use of common elements. Make all relevant information readily accessible to owners, preferably on a secure owners’ website. When everyone
has the same information, misunderstandings are less likely to arise.

Another important factor in preventing disputes is board education. Condo board members often manage assets worth millions of dollars and sometimes have to deal with complicated issues, yet many have no training in board governance or dispute resolution. All condo corporations need a board development plan to orient and educate board members and ensure regular turnover of
the board. As the board is ultimately accountable to the owners, it is also important to keep the lines of communication open between the board and owners,and not funnel all communications through the condo manager.

Even these measures can’t prevent all disagreements, of course, so it’s important to respect differences of opinion when they do arise and to try to understand them. If we dig deep enough into the reasons for a dispute, it may be possible to find “win-win” solutions that everyone can live with. This approach to settling disagreements is called “collaborative” or “interest-based”
dispute resolution. It encourages the participants to work together to attack the problem, instead of attacking each other. It also helps preserve relationships, which is an important benefit
when the dispute is between condo owners who are neighbours and co-owners of the common property. In contrast, traditional legal means of resolving disputes are “adversarial”, pitting the participants against each other to advocate for their own position and against the other’s. Adversarial dispute resolution requires the parties to argue their case in front of a decision-maker who decides who has the stronger argument — a “win-lose” situation. There is not much room for compromise, collaboration, or exploration of each party’s needs and wants. For this reason, adversarial ways of resolving disputes are not a good option in situations where the parties have an ongoing relationship, as they do in most condominium cases.