No easy answers to whether premises are “retail premises”

It is often difficult to determine whether premises are “retail premises” within the meaning of s 4 of the Retail Leases Act 2003 Act. Section 4(1) provides that “retail premises” means premises that:

“under the terms of the lease relating to the premises are used, or are to be used, wholly or predominantly for –

(a)    the sale or hire of goods by retail or the retail provision of services.”

One difficulty that arises is that the definition excludes premises that are “intended for use as a residence” with the result that it is not always clear  whether premises such as motels, serviced apartments and caravan parks are “retail premises”.  In the recent decision of String v Gilandos Pty Ltd [2012] VSC 361 Croft J highlighted that there are no easy or broad brush answers: in each case the terms of the lease and the nature of the premises needs to be examined carefully.

His Honour was required to decide whether leases by owners of units in an apartment/resort  complex to the operator of the resort were “retail premises leases” within the meaning of the Retail Tenancies Act 1986, the Retail Tenancies Reform Act 1998 and the 2003 Act. The operator paid rent to the owners and rented the units to members of the public. The units were used as “serviced apartments” and the members of the public did not know who the owners were. From at least 2007 to January 2012, no member of the public had stayed at the units on a permanent or semi-permanent basis and members of the public had only occupied the units for a day or few days at a time. His Honour determined (at [42]) that the units were used for short-term holiday accommodation in a manner difficult to distinguish in any meaningful way from the manner in which motel and hotel rooms were used.

At [47] His Honour considered the meaning of “serviced apartments” and said:

The term or description “serviced apartments” seems to be a relatively modern one; which probably accounts for the lack of assistance from dictionaries. Thus it cannot be assumed that this term or description has any settled meaning. Consequently it is only a term or description that derives meaning – other than in a very general sense – from the particular circumstances in which it is used; and, in most cases with respect to particular premises. This is, in my view, clear from the cases in which the term or description has been considered.

After reviewing the authorities, Croft J said at [52]:

Thus these cases indicate that there may be very fine distinctions between use of premises as a motel on the one hand or as a serviced apartment or serviced apartment complex on the other hand. The observations by the various courts and tribunals with respect to motels and serviced apartments indicate that the characteristics of both types of premises can overlap, thus adding to difficulties in characterising the mode of usage. A clear example is to be found in St Kilda City Council v Perplat Investments Pty Ltd [(1990) 72 LGRA 378] where Young CJ observed that, while it was open to the Tribunal to make a finding of fact based on the evidence before it that the proposed building would be used as serviced apartments, in his view, the proposed buildings looked more to be a motel.

Following Wellington v Norwich Uniton Life Insurance Society Limited [1991] 1 VR 333 and similar cases (at [58]), His Honour held that that the “ultimate consumer” test was the “touchstone of retailing, whether goods or services” and (at [65]) that members of the public were ultimate consumers for fee or reward (being fees paid for accommodation) and the units were used “wholly or predominantly for the carrying on of a business involving the sale or hire of goods by retail or the retail provision of services”.  Thus, each of the leases were “retail premises leases”.

At [65] His Honour said:

Motels, hotels or resort complexes, generally speaking, provide retail services for fee or reward, including the hiring out of rooms. They may also sell food, liquor and other beverages, by retail, at any restaurant faculty provided. In any event, the hiring out of rooms or units for fee or reward to members of the public clearly constitutes the provison of retail services.

His Honour stressed that in each case the nature of the premises had to be analysed together with the manner in which the occupancy was provided. His Honour said at [68]:

I should, however, sound a note of caution in relation to this finding by emphasising that whether or not premises described as “serviced apartments” is to be characterised as “retail premises” depends upon the particular circumstances, including the nature of the premises, the manner in which occupancy is provided and the nature of that occupancy (see Meerkin v 24 Redan Street Pty Ltd [2007] VCAT 2182 (Deputy President Macnamara); though see Bradfield & Ors v QOB Tenancy Pty Ltd (Retail Tenancies) [2012] VCAT 755 (Senior Member Davis) where the parties took the common view that the serviced apartments ought to be considered as retail premises for the purposes of the 2003 Act (see paragraph [82]) .  As I have said, the term or description, “serviced apartments”, is not a term of art. Rather, it is a term or description of premises which connotes a range of possibilities. At one end of the range one would find premises managed and occupied in a manner indistinguishable from a motel or hotel and at the other end premises indistinguishable from long term residential accommodation, separately let but with the attribute of being serviced. In the former case it would be expected that the Acts would apply on the basis that the premises are “retail premises” and in the latter case they would not, any more than they would to any block of residential units. In between there are a range of possibilities each of which may have different consequences in terms of the application of the Acts.

As to the exclusion from the definition of “any area intended for use as a residence”, His Honour said at [64]:

For the sake of completeness I observe that the Retail Leases (Amendment) Act 2005 amended the 2003 Act to include the words “not including any area intended for use as a residence” in the provisions defining the meaning of “retail premises”. In my view, the expression residential accommodation connotes accommodation of this type which is occupied with a degree of permanence. I observe that, consistent with this view, the Full Federal Court of Australia said, in Marana Holdings Pty Ltd v Commissioner of Taxation (2004) 141 FCR; 214 ALR 190; [2004] FCAC 307 (“Marana Holdings”) that: [citation omitted]

“It may be that the expression “residential accommodation” is sometimes used to describe short-term accommodation in an hotel or a motel. We are not sure that any such usage is as common in Australia as the Court of Appeal in Owen v Elliott [(Inspector of Taxes) [1900] 1 Ch 786] considered it to be in England. We would have thought that such accommodation is more often described as “temporary accommodation”, “holiday accommodation” or perhaps as “hotel accommodation” or “motel accommodation””.

Although Marana Holdings was not a retail leases case this statement is, in my view, one of general application. In the present case the agreed facts are that the Plaintiffs’ Units have been used as only temporary accommodation by its occupants,[citation omitted] so no issue arises with respect to the possibility of residential use.

The agency exception

His Honour also considered a claim by the operator the units were not “retail premises” because the employee or agency exception applied. Section 4(2)(b) of the 2003 Act exempts premises where the tenant is “carrying on” a business “on behalf of the landlord as the landlord’s employee or agent”. After a comprehensive consideration of the terms of the leases His Honour at [69] – [95] rejected the operator’s claim that it was carrying on a business as the landlord’s agent.  Helpfully, His Honour at [94] said:

….in my view, the agency exception only applies if the tenant and landlord relationship is merely incidental to the agency relationship. So even if I am wrong in finding that there is no agency relationship, it cannot be said that the landlord and tenant relationship between the Plaintiffs and the Defendant is incidental to the agency relationship.

(italics added)

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