Archive for February, 2016

Vendor not entitled to interest on unpaid contract price where contract terminated

Vendors who terminate contracts for the sale of land on the ground of a default by the purchaser often claim interest on moneys that have not been paid calculated from the date of the breach to the date of termination. Clause 25 of the general conditions of the standard form of contract concerning the sale of land prescribed by the Estate Agents (Contracts) Regulations 2008 (Vic)  provides that:

“A party who breaches this contract must pay to the other party on demand:

…… ; and

(b)       any interest due under this contract as a result of the breach.”

Does clause 25(b) entitle a vendor to interest on the contract price from the date of a breach by a purchaser to the date the vendor terminates the contract?

Two cases in the Supreme Court of Victoria suggest that the answer to this question is “yes”. In Portbury Development Co Pty Ltd v Mackali [2011] VSC 69 the plaintiff sold a property for $1,600,000 with a deposit of $60,000, with the balance of purchase price payable on a nominated date. The defendant failed to complete and the plaintiff terminated the contract. The court accepted that the plaintiff’s termination was valid. The plaintiff’s claim included damages being, among other things, the difference between the contract price and the value of the property at the time of termination and “interest between default and rescission” based on a clause similar to clause 25. The court awarded the amount of interest claimed to the plaintiff, noting that such interest was under the terms of the condition payable on demand and remarking at [27]:

“By the notice of rescission the plaintiff made an appropriate demand for that interest. Accordingly, the plaintiff is entitled to judgment against the defendant for the sum of interest claimed by it.”

In Pettiona v Whitbourne [2013] VSC 205  the facts were similar to those in Portbury. The price of the property was $5,850,000. The purchaser failed to pay the balance of purchase price on the date nominated for settlement. A notice of default was served and the contract was terminated. The plaintiff claimed, amongst other things, interest on the unpaid balance for the period of default. The claim for interest, which was made under the terms of the contract, was not disputed by the defendant.

A recent case in the County Court of Victoria suggests that the answer to the question posed is “no”. In Yvonne Maria Van Der Peet Bill v Allan James Clarke [2015] VCC 1721 Judge Macnamara declined to follow Portbury and Pettiona in deciding that a vendor of land was not entitled to interest from the date of the breach to the date of the termination of the contract. At [77] His Honour analysed the issue as follows:

“To put it in a nutshell, how can interest be awarded upon an alleged principal sum that ultimately was never payable?”

In answering that question His Honour said it was necessary to go to “some fundamental principles of the law of vendor and purchaser” and “one of Sir Owen Dixon’s most celebrated judgments” in McDonald v Dennys Lascelles Limited (1933) 48 CLR 457 at 477-479. In McDonald the guarantors of a purchaser’s obligations under a terms contract contended that upon termination by the vendor the contract was cancelled as to the future and, because there would be no transfer of the property, the purchaser’s obligation to pay an outstanding instalment of the purchaser price came to an end. The High Court accepted the guarantors’ contention. Because the guarantors’ obligation was a secondary one their obligation was also terminated.

His Honour also considered the decision of the New South Wales Court of Appeal in Carpenter v McGrath (1996) 40 NSWLR 39 which he said accorded with the general principles that emerged from McDonald. In Carpenter the purchaser failed to complete a contract to buy land and the trial judge awarded damages to the vendor which included a claim for interest from default until termination. On appeal the Court of Appeal disallowed the claim for interest from default until termination. The Court’s reasoning was in effect that once the contract ended the vendor could not have sued for the purchase price and was relegated to a claim for the loss of the bargain. The interest operated to increase the amount payable on completion and because the purchase moneys were not payable interest could not be claimed.

Judge Macnamara said that while Portbury and Pettiona supported the award of interest, general principle flowing from the analysis in McDonald pointed away from an award being made and therefore the claim for interest failed.

A question that is unresolved is whether the position might have been different if the vendor had re-sold the land rather than retaining it because the vendor would, in determining the loss on any resale, arguably have been entitled to treat the purchase price as constituted both by the contract price and the interest payable under the contract.

 

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Unfair term provisions provide tenants with a new weapon

Tenants with less than 20 employees will soon have a new weapon in disputes with landlords as a result of amendments to the Australian Consumer Law: they will be able to challenge a term in a lease that is  “unfair”.

The legislation effecting the changes, the Treasury Legislation Amendment (Small Business and Unfair Contract Terms) Act 2015, has received Royal Assent but the changes do not come into force until November 2016. The changes will affect contracts (including leases) entered into or renewed on and from 12 November 2016. The changes will also apply to a provision in a contract that is varied on or after that date.

The legislation extends the existing unfair contract provisions available to consumers in Part 2-3 of the ACL to small businesses with less than 20 employees when the contract is entered into. Similar changes have been made to the Australian Securities and Investment Commission Act 2001.

In determining the number of employees casual employees are not counted unless the employee is employed “on a regular and systematic basis”. To be able to challenge an “unfair” term the “upfront price payable” must not exceed $300,000 (if the lease has a duration of 12 months or less) or $1,000,000 (if the lease has a duration of more than 12 months). Because payments under a lease are usually made monthly it is unclear how the “upfront price payable” is to be calculated.

A term of a lease will be void if the term is “unfair” and the lease is a “standard form contract”. A term is “unfair” only if it:

  • would cause a significant imbalance in the parties’ rights and obligations under the contract;
  • is not reasonable necessary to protect the legitimate interests of the advantaged party;
  • it would cause financial or other detriment to the business affected if it were applied or relied on.

A lease will be presumed to be a “standard form contract” if a party to a proceeding makes that allegation unless another party proves otherwise. In determining whether a lease is a standard form contract a court may take into account matters that it considers relevant but must take into account whether one party has all or most of the bargaining power, whether the leased was prepared by one party before any discussions occurred, whether a party was in effect required to accept or reject the terms and whether a party was given an effective opportunity to negotiate the terms.

If a term is declared void the lease will continue to bind the parties if it can operate without the unfair term.

To ensure that the legislation does not apply landlords should consider deleting lease terms that are not reasonably necessary for their protection and avoid “take it or leave it” type negotiations. Where it is unclear whether a prospective tenant is likely to have 20 employees a landlord might also consider including a term in the lease that requires the tenant to declare how many employees it does have.

 

 

 

 

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