Archive for November, 2017

When does a deposit become a penalty?

Deposits hold a special place in contracts for the sale of land and do not fall within the general rules about penalties. Where a purchaser defaults the deposit (customarily 10 per cent) can be forfeited even though the amount of the deposit bears no reference to the anticipated loss to the vendor flowing from the breach of contract[1]. The vendor can forfeit the deposit as a minimum sum even if it makes a profit on the resale. On the purchaser’s breach, a vendor is also not limited to recovering the amount of the deposit; but may recover any deficiency on resale (after taking into account the forfeited deposit).

The special treatment afforded to deposits “derives from the ancient custom of providing an earnest for the performance of a contract in the form of giving either some physical token of earnest (such as a ring) or earnest money…”[2].

Where the principles governing deposits and the law governing penalties interact is where the contract provides, for example, for a deposit of less than 10 per cent to be paid and, in the event of a default, for the whole of the 10 per cent deposit to be paid. In such cases the requirement to pay the additional amount on default has been held to be a penalty[3].

In Simcevski v Dixon (No 2) [2017] VSC 531 Riordan J considered a contract for the sale of land that provided for the payment of a deposit equivalent to 5 per cent of the purchase price. Upon default by the purchaser, the vendor sought payment of a further 5 per cent of the purchase price relying on clause 28.4 of the contract which provided that:

‘If the contract ends by a default notice given by the vendor:

(a) the deposit up to 10% of the price is forfeited as the vendor’s absolute property, whether the deposit has been paid or not; and”

While His Honour accepted that the anomalous position of deposits in the law of penalties protected them in most circumstances, he held that the obligation in cl 28.4 to pay further sum of 5% of the price was void as a penalty because:

  • the obligation to pay a further sum of 5% of the purchase price did not purport to be by way of a deposit because the words in cl 28.4, being ‘the deposit up to’, had been deleted; and
  • the further sum of 5% was only payable ‘[i]f the contract ends by a default notice given by the vendor’.

His Honour said:

“In my opinion, the circumstances of this case lead to the position, described by the Court of Appeal, in Melbourne Linh Son Buddhist Society Inc v Gippsreal Ltd[4], as:

[t]he irresistible inference that arises from [the] evidence and the inherent circumstances of the … transaction is that the [payment is to be made] in order to punish the [breaching party] for the inconvenience its conduct caused to the [innocent party] … rather than to protect any legitimate commercial interest of the [innocent party] arising from a breach … by the [breaching party].

His Honour also held that cl 28.4 was not a penalty simply because it was not a liquidated damages clause (ie a clause that refers to a sum fixed by the contract as a genuine pre-estimate of damage in the event of breach), but rather because it imposed an obligation to pay without any limit on the vendor’s right to claim damages to the extent that they exceed that payment.

Drafters of contracts must make it clear what is and what is not a deposit and provide for that sum to be paid without any reference to a breach. The case contains an extensive discussion of all the relevant caselaw.

[1] See: Workers Trust and Merchant Bank Ltd v Dojap Investments Ltd [1993] AC 573; Kazacos v Shuangling International Development Pty Ltd (2016) 18 BPR 36,353.

[2] Workers Trust, 578-9.

[3] See, among others: Luu v Sovereign Developments Pty Ltd (2006) 12 BPR 23,629; Iannello v Sharpe (2007) 69 NSWLR 452.

[4] [2017] VSCA 161.

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New edition of Commercial Tenancy Law

The long awaited fourth edition of the leading text on leasing law, Commercial Tenancy Law, will be published in mid December 2017 by LexisNexis.  The authors of the fourth edition are Justice Croft, Robert Hay QC and Luke Virgona of the Victorian Bar.  The third edition was published in 2009. As was the case with the third edition, Commercial Tenancy Law considers the law governing leases throughout Australia including the various State and Territory statutes concerning retail and shop leases.

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Content of default notices under s27 of Retail Leases Act

At general law the question of whether a tenant has validly exercised an option for a further term depends upon whether the tenant has met the conditions contained in the lease for the exercise of the option. The general law has been altered by the Retail Leases Act 2003. Section 27(2) provides that:

” If a retail premises lease contains an option exercisable by the tenant to renew the lease for a further term the only circumstances in which the option is not exercisable is if –

(a)the tenant has not remedied any default about which the tenant has been given written notice; or

(b)the tenant has persistently defaulted under the lease throughout is term and the landlord has given the tenant written notice of the defaults.

Section 27 raises a number of questions: what does a notice need to say to be be a “notice” of default (ss.27(2)(a) and (b)) and how many defaults must there be for the defaults to be “persistent” and when in the term of the lease do they need to occur to be defaults “throughout the term”  (s.27(2)(b)).

In Leonard Joel Pty Ltd v Australian Technological Approvals Pty Ltd [2017] VCAT 1781 VCAT had to consider s.27(2)(a). The dispute concerned whether the tenant was in default by not furnishing the landlord with “as built” plans following alterations to the premises and whether the purported notices of default constituted “notice” of the default.  After deciding that the tenant had not been in default at the time it exercised the option, the Tribunal went on to consider whether the purported default notices given by the landlord constituted “notice” of the default. The landlord’s letters requesting “as built” plans made no mention of a “default” under the lease or a “breach” of the lease.

In determining that the landlord’s letters were not “notices” of a default, Member Josephs said [140]:

“….the potential consquences to the tenant of the landlord not being required to grant the option to renew are significant and serious and as such I find that a more narrow interpretation has to be applied to the sufficiency of the notice any default under the lease “about” which the landlord has given. It is necessary therefor that the landlord applies some rigour in its giving of notice which should make it expressly clear that a breach by the tenant is alleged and should be clear and consistent in its description of the nature of the breach, all of which is alleged to constitute the default.”

And at [142]:

“..the landlord’s letters do not in any way refer to the possible consequence of the landlord not granting the renewal option if the alleged default is not remedied.”

While the latter statement could be interpreted as requiring that a notice refer to a possible consequence of the breach as being that any option might not be exercisable, the Member does not appear to have intended that outcome because he refers to the notice given in Computer & Parts Land Pty Ltd v Property Sunrise Pt Ltd [2012] VCAT 1522 as being an example of “a very appropriate example of a notice”; the notice in that case did not refer to the possibility that an option might be exercisable.

What the decision does highlight is that for a notice to constitute “notice” of  a default under s.27 it must communicate with “obvious clarity and sufficiency” that there is a default or a breach which must be rectified. The default or breach should be identified clearly,  the relevant lease provision referred to and a request made to rectify the default. The notice should be given as soon as possible after the landlord becomes aware of the default.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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