Vendors of properties who have paid commissions to real estate agents are gearing up to recover the commissions on the ground that they were paid by mistake following the Court of Appeal’s decision in Advisory Services Pty Ltd v Augustin  VSCA 95. Agents are in turn likely to take action against the party that drafted the standard form real estate agent’s authority which was found not to comply with the Estate Agents Act 1980.
Advisory concerned an appeal from the County Court where the trial judge decided that a real estate agent’s authority from its client (the vendor of land) did not contain the precise wording of s.49A(4)(c) of the Act with the consequence that the authority was unenforceable pursuant to s.50.
Section 50(1) provides, among other things, that an estate agent is not entitled to sue for or recover or retain any commission or money in respect of any outgoings unless the agent has complied with s.49A(1) with respect to the engagement or appointment.
Section 49A(1) says:
(a) An estate agent must not obtain, or seek to obtain, any payment from a person in respect of work done by, or on behalf of, the agent or in respect of any outgoings incurred by the agent unless:the agent holds a written engagement or appointment that is signed by the person (or the person’s representative); and
(c) the engagement or appointment contains –
(i) details of the commission and outgoings that have been agreed; and
(iii) a rebate statement that complies with subsection (4).
Section 49A(4) says:
A rebate statement complies with this subsection if it is in a form approved by the Director and it contains-
(a) a statement of whether or not the agent will be, or is likely to be, entitled to any rebate in respect of –
(i) any outgoings;
(c) a statement that the agent is not entitled to retain any rebate and must not charge the client an amount for any expenses that is more than the cost of those expenses.
Section 48A(1) says that an estate agent is not entitled to retain any amount the agent receives from another person as a rebate in respect of –
(a) any outgoings; or
(b) any prepayments made by the client in respect of any intended expenditure by the agent on the client’s behalf; or
(c) any payments made by the client to another person in respect of the work.
Section 48B(1) says:
An estate agent must not seek to obtain from the client an amount for any outgoings or proposed outgoings (the expenses) that is more than the amount paid, or payable, by the agent for those expenses.
The agent’s authority provided for the agent to be paid a commission but did not require the client to pay outgoings. However, the authority did not contain a statement in the exact words set out in in s.49A(4)(c). The language used in the authority was based on one of the two forms approved by the Director of Consumer Affairs Victoria and available for download by real estate agents. One of the forms contained the words used in s.49A(4)(c) and the other did not. In accordance with the latter form, the authority stated:
Item 6: Rebate Statement – No Rebate will be received
“The Agent will not, or is not likely to be, entitled to any rebate. A rebate includes any discount, commission or other benefit, and includes non-monetary benefit, and includes non-monetary benefits.”
(*If entitled to a rebate, complete and attach the rebate statement approved by the Director of Consumer Affairs Victoria, at the time of signing this Authority. The statement can be downloaded at www.consumer.vic.gov.au)
Item 8 of the authority provided, under the heading “Agent’s role”, that the “Agent will advertise, market and endeavour to sell” the property.
In the Particulars of Appointment that formed the front page of the authority, there appeared a section headed “Marketing Expenses” which included spaces for “Advertising”, “Other Expenses” and “Total” which were filled in with a dashe that the parties agreed meant that there were no Marketing Expenses payable by the client.
The trial judge held that whether or not an agent was entitled to a rebate, s.49A(c) applied but that substantial compliance with the section would suffice. However, the judge held that the authority did not comply with s.49(4)(c) because it did not convey the information that the estate agent was not entitled to retain any rebate and must not charge the vendor an amount for any expenses that is more than the cost of those expenses. The judge also rejected an argument that a rebate statement would comply with s.49A(4) if it was in a form approved by the Director. The Authority did not make it clear that no rebate could arise.
The Court of Appeal held that ss48A and 48B were explicit prohibitions on certain conduct by estate agents and viewed in that light, the requirement in s.49A(1)(c) that the statement be contained in the engagement or appointment could be seen as ensuring that the client was advised as to the existence of the prohibitions. The Court said that the relevant question was whether the Act required notice to the client in circumstances where the prohibitions could not, by virtue of the arrangement between the estate agent and the client, be breached in any event? The Court answered this question “yes”. The Court said that that it was apparent that Parliament intended the client be aware of the prohibitions in the context of being able to negotiate the terms of commission and payments in respect of outgoings. The Court held that the correct construction of s.49A(4)(c) was that the statement it describes must be contained in the rebate statement required by s.49A(1) irrespective of whether the agent would be, or likely to be, entitled to any rebate or charge any amount by way of expenses.