Tenants should dispute the rent specified by a landlord at a rent review date within the time specified by the lease. Dire consequences can follow if the time periods are ignored . The rent review process for setting the market rent commonly provides for:
- the landlord to propose the new rent and, if the tenant does not object within a specified period of time, the rent proposed by the landlord is the new rent;
- the rent to be determined by a valuer if the tenant objects to the rent proposed by the landlord.
The question often arises whether time is of the essence in the construction of clauses concerning rent reviews.
The starting point is the House of Lords decision United Scientific Holdings Ltd v Burnley Borough Council (1978) AC 904. In Mailman & Associates Pty Ltd v Wormald (Aust) Pty Ltd (1991) 24 NSWLR 80 (CA) Gleeson CJ referred with apparent approval to a summary of the effect of United Scientific in the judgment of Slade LJ in Trustees of Henry Smith’s Charity v AWADA Trading and Promotion Services Ltd (1983) 47 P & CR 607, 619 as follows:
“(1) Where a rent review clause confers on a landlord or tenant a right for his benefit or protection, as part of the procedure for ascertaining the new rent, and that right is expressed to be exercisable within a specified time, there is a rebuttable presumption of construction that time is not intended to be of the essence in relation to any exercise of that right.
(2) In a case where the presumption applies, the other party concerned may, if he wishes to bring matters to a head after the stipulated time for the exercise of the right has expired, give to the owner of the right a notice specifying a period within which he requires the right to be exercised, if at all; the period thus specified will if it is reasonable then become of the essence of the contract …
(3) The presumption is rebuttable by sufficient ‘contraindications in the express words of the lease or in the interrelation of the rent review clause itself and other clauses or in the surrounding circumstances.’ …
(4) Though the best way of rebutting the presumption is to state expressly that stipulations as to the time by which steps provided for by the rent review clause are to be taken is to be treated as being of the essence (see United Scientific Holdings Ltd v Bunley Borough Council per Lord Diplock [ AC] at 936, and per Lord Salmon [ AC] at 947), this is not the only way. Any form of expression which clearly evinces the concept of finality attached to the end of the period or periods prescribed will suffice to rebut the presumption. The parties are quite free to contract on the basis that time is to be of the essence if they so wish.”
The authorities make it plain that it is a question of construction of a lease whether there is express or implied rebuttal of the presumption that time is not of the essence
In Mailman the rent review provision the lease allowed the tenant a specific time to dispute the lessor’s assessment of the market rent and spelt out the consequence of failing to dispute the assessment within than time. There was no clause stating that time was of the essence. The relevant clauses were as follows:
“Prior to the expiration of fourteen (14) days…[from the service of the lessor’s notice], the Lessee may, by notice in writing, dispute the amount set out..[in the Lessor’s notice}…(clause 2.02(b))”
Another clause provided that if the lessee did not serve a notice of dispute within the prescribed time it was deemed to have agreed that the amount set out in the notice was current market rental.
The Court of Appeal held unanimously that the lease evidenced an intention that the 14 day time stipulation was of the essence. The decisive factor was the deeming of the tenant to have agreed to the rent if it failed to serve the notice of dispute.
The issue of whether time periods in rent review clauses are of the essence was revisited recently in Sentinel Asset Management Pty Ltd v Primo Moratis  QSC 200. The tenant failed to serve a notice disputing the rent specified by the landlord within the time prescribed by the lease with the consequence that iff time was of the essence the rent would increase by 22%. The critical clause provided that:
“Unless the Tenant gives the Landlord a notice stating that the Tenant’s assessment of the current annual market rent of the Premises at the relevant Market Review Date within 30 days after the Landlord gives the its notice, the Rent on and from the relevant Market Review Date is the current annual market rent in the Landlord’s notice.”
The lease also said that if “the Tenant gives a notice…. on time” (underlining added) the parties must attempt to agree the rent in writing failing which a valuer could be be appointed to determine the market rent.
The court found that time was of the essence with the consequence that the rent specified by the landlord applied.
The court also rejected an argument that the rent specified by the landlord had to be “reasonable”. The rent specified by the landlord in its notice was higher than the rent contained in an expert valuation obtained by the landlord.
The lesson is that it is critical for tenants to respond within the time prescribed by the lease.