Settlement agreements must be genuine compromises

Care needs to be taken in resolving disputes in which an allegation is made that an act or proposed act is prohibited by the Retail Leases Act 2003: settlement agreements must be genuine compromises or bona fide settlements and not merely attempts to avoid the Act.  On 24 January 2014 I posted a summary of Spirovski v Univest Asset Merchant Syndicators Pty Ltd [2013] VSC 728 in which Justice Croft refused an appeal against a determination by Deputy President Lulham in VCAT that terms of settlement made at a mediation conducted by the Small Business Commissioner were caught by the prohibition against the payment of “key-money” contained in s.23 of the Retail Leases Act 2003. See: Spirovski v Univest Assett Merchants Syndicators Pty Ltd [2013] VCAT 66. The Deputy President at [76] said that “Terms of Settlement are a form of contract. As such they are subject to the principles and requirements of contract law”.  A provision in a lease or an agreement is void to the extent that it is contrary to or inconsistent with the Act. See: s.94. Thus, terms of settlement that seek to avoid the Act’s provisions are void. When VCAT made its decision a number of practitioners expressed surprise that agreements made at or arising out of a mediation should be open to scrutiny.  Section 86 of the Act prevents statements or admissions made in the course of a mediation from being admitted in a proceeding; however, terms of settlement  made at mediations are not protected from scrutiny.  Provided a settlement agreement is bona fide a court will not re-open a settlement agreement merely because the dispute that has been settled involved legislation that the courts will not allow to be evaded. See: Binder v Alachouzos [1972] 2 QB 151. In Binder the compromise concerned a dispute about whether a party was acting as a money lender in contravention of the Money Lenders Acts. The parties settled the dispute with the settlement including a provision whereby the defendant admitted that the Money Lenders Act did not apply to the transactions.  While the English Court of Appeal  accepted that it was a policy of the courts not to allow the Money Lenders Acts to be evaded, it  held that it was also the policy of the court to encourage compromises and the settlement agreement was bona fide involving an agreement for good consideration and was therefore enforceable.  Justice Croft in Spirovski considered Binder and said at [76]  that:

“….it cannot be said that the evidence in the VCAT hearing indicates that the Terms and the Contract that arose out of the mediation were the fruits of a bona fide compromise, such as might attract the principles in Binder….”

At [79] His Honour said:

“The increasing role that the alternative dispute resolution techniques now play in the justice system cannot be overstated given that both courts and tribunals seek to encourage parties to identify and reach agreement on as many issues as possible to avoid the need for a trial, or to reduce its length and complexity where a hearing is needed. However, none of these considerations provide any basis for courts or tribunals to give effect to agreements that are rendered void or illegal, either by virtue of statute or common law….” (underlining added and citations removed)

In Spirovski, following the mediation, the parties entered into the terms of settlement, a lease and a contract of sale whereby the business allegedly conducted on the premises by the landlord was sold to the tenant. The purpose of the contract of sale was to take advantage of exceptions to the prohibition on the payment of “key-money” in circumstances where  goodwill is claimed from the tenant in relation to the sale of a business operated from the premises by the landlord immediately before its sale (s.23(3)(c)) and where plant, equipment, fixtures or fittings are sold by the landlord to the tenant (s.23(3)(f)).  Deputy President Lulham held at [70] that there was in fact no business to be sold so that the lease was not granted in the course of a sale and therefore the applicant’s “device of preparing for execution a Contract of Sale of Business was a sham”.

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