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Back to Basics - Members Legal Forum

It’s time again to review some key concepts of self-storage law that cover basic, day-to-day self-storage business operations. These topics might sound so basic that you wonder why we are covering them, but the three topics discussed here make up a huge proportion of the legal enquiries we field daily here at the SSAA.

Who can access a storer’s unit?
The SSAA receives many enquiries on this topic each week. Can the Alternate Contact Person (ACP) demand access to the storer’s unit, or the husband of the storer if the storer is in hospital? What about if the storer has gone missing, is in gaol or is in default?
Surely we can provide the daughter/ sister/mother/wife/ACP access to the unit to remove the goods under those circumstances?

There are many different versions of the “who can access the storer’s unit” question, but the answer is always the same:
• only the storer; or
• a person who has the key and access code (if relevant) when the account is up to date; or
• a person who has a power of attorney that is not limited or restricted; or
• a person with a valid legal demand (such as the police with a warrant); or
• when the storer has signed a more recent agreement, the ACP, but only when the storer isn’t meeting their obligations under the contract; ie. is in default. Only the most recent version of the AU or NZ agreements include this option. You must check the storer’s
agreement to ensure this is authorised.

That’s it. No one else. Ever! Your contract is with the storer and the storer only. To assist a third person to access the unit is not only a breach of the agreement, it may well result in action against you for facilitating theft or damage to goods stored therein.

Who can I talk to about the storer’s agreement, including the account?
The only person with whom you can discuss the agreement, account, or even the fact that the storer is storing with you, is the storer or the ACP. No one else. It may be a breach of privacy legislation to even confirm that the storer is storing with you, and disclosing this information may also result in tortious action against your facility if that information is used in a manner that results in damage or loss for the storer. For example, we have had two incidents in which a facility disclosed that a storer was storing with a facility and / or information about the storer that had serious consequences for the storer.

In the first instance, we had a woman call several self-storage facilities in one metropolitan area asking to pay “her husband’s account”. She appears to have called more than 20 facilities until she has discovered at which facility he was storing. She paid the bill, then came into the facility using the gate access swipe card and key to access the storer’s unit and removed all the items. The couple were apparently in the middle of a nasty divorce, and the wife had discovered the keys along with a unit number but no facility name or address. Her “paying the bill” line was merely a fact seeking mission, allowing her to work out where her husband was storing. Thankfully, when the facility was challenged by the husband, it was established that the wife was the ACP on the contract, hence disclosure of account information was not a breach of the agreement, the privacy policy or privacy legislation.

The other incident is much more serious. A man known to employees at a facility came into the office to pay the account for his girlfriend’s unit. The man had paid the account before, and had been seen in the company of the storer many times. Although the man was not the ACP, a receipt for the payment was issued to the man. The receipt included the storer’s home address. There was, in fact, a restraining order against the man due to domestic violence, and the storer had recently moved to new premises, the address of which was unknown to the ex.  By issuing the receipt to the man, the facility unwittingly provided the new address of the storer to an incredibly violent man. He used the information to locate the storer, attended the residence and seriously beat her. Apart from the breaches of privacy here and the very real possibility of legal action against the facility, no staff member would want to have this on their conscience.

Not revealing information to anyone other than the storer and the ACP extends to confirming that you do or do not have a storer storing with you. It is not hard to imagine how complicated this might become. For example, what if a non-storer wants to pay the account for their brother/mother/girlfriend/daughter etc.? A strict compliance with privacy laws would result in the facility not being able to confirm that the storer was or was not storing there, and the only receipt that could be issued (should the payer still want to make a payment for a possibly non-existent account) would be a cash receipt or eftpos receipt not linked to a storer or space — just receipt of a payment to the facility. This is cumbersome, awkward and irritating for storer and payer!

To address this, the SSAA will include a new clause in the next edition of the agreements allowing the storer to nominate persons who are authorised to make payments on the account and be provided with a receipt and/or other account information. It will NOT allow that person to change address or contact details, terminate the storage, access the space or anything else, merely that they be able to enquire about the status of the account (ie. obtain any balance owing), make a payment and be issued with a full receipt.

What can I tell police? When can they access a unit?
Our members have had a bit of a run on police involvement lately. There are two types of police involvement — a request for information about storers, and access to the space.

Request for information
If you are using the SSAA’s Privacy Policy and PDS (Privacy Disclosure Statement) then you are free to answer police questions about whether or not a particular storer is storing with you. If the request is also for gate data logs or other information you have about the storer, you can also provide this without the need for a warrant. You should require the officer to provide you with a business card and, obviously, you should also check their police badge. Requests made over the phone should not be accommodated, as there is no way of checking if they are genuine police requests. 

Make a note on the storer’s file that information was requested and provided, and the name of the officer, and if possible scan and keep a copy of the business card with the file or in the case of a paper file, attach the card. There is no need to advise storers that such a request was made. This is not the same as a police officer’s request for a full list of a facility’s storers’ names. Such a request should only be complied with if there is a warrant.

Requests for access
A request to access a storer’s space should also be complied with ONLY if there is a warrant. Although there is a right in the storage agreement to force access to a space if you believe there is illegal activity, you should always insist upon a warrant and also insist that the police be the ones to break the lock, not the facility. This puts some distance between the facility and the police action, an important point if the storer takes issue with the fact that the space has been accessed. A request from police to NOT tell storers
that the police have accessed their space should NOT be agreed to. It is not the role of the facility to participate in crime investigation, and it is considered a dangerous practice to lie to storers who discover their lock has been changed. It is not difficult to imagine that such a storer might become angry with a staff member who cannot provide a satisfactory answer as to why the storer’s space now has a new, broken or no lock on it. There is, however, no need to call the storer and advise that the space has had a warrant issued on it.

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