International News  Woman battles unfair rental practices
Booklet published to encourage cheated lessees to file small claims suits
By Kenzo Moriguchi, Staff Writer
The Japan Times


SHINGU, Hyogo Pref. -- When Suzuko Miura learned in March she would be returned only 34,181 yen of the 98,000 yen deposit she had paid on her son's Kyoto apartment, she refused to go down without a fight.

Considering that the room was still in good condition when her son moved out, the 51-year-old felt an unfair sum had been deducted and set about getting the correct amount back. When the real estate agency failed to comply, she decided to take her case to court.

Although a consultant at the Hyogo Prefectural Consumer Information Center with six years of experience behind her, she was a complete novice when it came to legal procedure for small claims suits. Nevertheless, she successfully retrieved her money.
To help others having similar problems with housing deposits, she published a free booklet about her experience.

In the booklet, Miura tells how and why she got involved in the suit and how she dealt with the maintenance company that charged 35,364 yen for renovating the room and the estate agency that paid for it with her deposit.

She said that when she lodged a protest with the agency, it told her that everything was taken care of by the maintenance company. She then contacted the maintenance company and was informed that that was how they always did business and that there was no room for negotiating the return of the money.

What was worse, in addition to the 35,364 yen renovation fee, 28,455 yen was levied for cleaning, bringing the total deduction to 63,819 yen.

When Miura sent a letter to the agency advising them of her intent to take legal action if the money was not repaid, she said an agency official then called her, saying, "How much do you want? How about half (the deposit)?"

More angry with the agency for taking its liberties with her money than the size of the loss, Miura filed the small claims suit with a local summary court.

Disputes over housing deposits and repair problems are nothing new. According to the National Consumer Affairs Center of Japan, the number of complaints regarding housing deposits has been increasing annually, reaching more than 6,500 cases last fiscal year.
In an attempt to prevent deposit disputes, the Construction Ministry issued guidelines in March 1998 concerning the restoration of rooms after tenants have vacated. It says tenants should not be charged for damages incurred by normal usage of a living space because the expense of repairing such damage is supposed to be covered by the rent.
The guidelines also provide concrete examples of which kinds of damage should be paid for by tenants and which by property owners. However, more than 2 1/2 years since their release, the guidelines are not as widely recognized as expected because they contain no enforceable laws, according to a ministry official.

"Because of the principle of free contracts, we cannot enforce the guidelines. But as use of the guidelines are prevalent among estate agencies, they need to change their practice of charging tenants for renovation expenses," the ministry official said.
Miura thinks that the existence of the guidelines should be more widely publicized to consumers.

She also believes that the general public should be educated about court procedures. While daunting, the process of filing a small claims suit is simple enough, she said.
"Without prior knowledge, you would feel at a loss," Miura said. "(But) all you have to do is fill in a complaint sheet and submit it to a summary court. A ruling is given after a one-day court session."

She added, however, that "it took me several days to write down the reasons for the complaint on the form."

In the end, Miura was more than satisfied with the ruling, which ordered the landlord to pay back 58,884 yen of the original deposit, plus an additional 7,660 yen in court expenses.

"The courts are useful for many kinds of disputes. But ordinary people simply do not know that they are available . . . nor how to utilize them," she said.

The small claims system was introduced in January 1998 so that plaintiffs seeking damages worth less than 300,000 yen could receive a court ruling following a one-day session. Last year, more than 10,000 small claims suits were filed with the summary courts.

Miura said that more people should use the small claims system as a means of dispute settlement and that she hopes her booklet helps those who find themselves in predicaments similar to her own.

"Once you know what to do with a small claims suit, it is not as difficult as it seems," she said. "And it is a wonderful feeling when the court recognizes your right to a claim."




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