Archive for category Aust Consumer Law
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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The High Court has rejected the notion that the onus of proof in relation to detrimental reliance can shift to the party said to be estopped. In Sidhu v Van Dyke  HCA 19 0the Court had to consider the sufficiency of proof of detrimental reliance required to given rise to an equitable estoppel (proprietary estoppel).
The appellant and his wife owned land as joint tenants.
The trial judge found that the appellant had promised to give the respondent part of the land owned by him and his wife once that land was subdivided.
The appellant and the respondent formed a relationship which resulted in the respondent’s husband leaving her.
The respondent did not seek a property settlement from her husband because of the promises made by the appellant.
The trial judge accepted that respondent had worked on the land and gave up opportunities for employment and that these activities might be sufficient to amount to detrimental reliance for the purpose of an equitable estoppel; however, Her Honour concluded that the respondent may well have done all or most of those things in any event.
This conclusion was based on answers given by the respondent in the course of cross-examination. The trial judge also held that it was not reasonable for the respondent to rely on a promise of a transfer of land when performance depended on the land being subdivided and the consent of the appellant’s wife.
The Court of Appeal upheld the respondent’s contention that the trial judge erred in holding that it was unreasonable to rely on the promises.
The Court of Appeal also held that the onus of proof in relation to detrimental reliance shifted to the party said to be estopped (ie the male appellant) where inducement by the promise could be inferred from the conduct of the claimant (ie the respondent).
The Court of Appeal held that an award of equitable compensation measured by reference to the value of the respondent’s disappointed expectation was the appropriate form of relief, being the value of the land at the date of judgment.
The High Court rejected the notion that the onus of proof in relation to detrimental reliance shifted: reliance was a fact that had to be found and not imputed on the basis of evidence that fell short of proof of the fact; the respondent at all times bore the legal burden of proving that she had been induced to rely upon the appellant’s promises.
The Court said that the real question was the appropriate inference to be drawn from the whole of the evidence. The Court also held that the evidence established reliance.
As to the relief, the High Court said that “this category of equitable estoppel serves to vindicate the expectations of the represented against a party who seek unconscionably to resile from an expectation he or she has created”. See: French CJ, Keifel, Bell and Keane JJ at .
Had the respondent been induced to make a relatively small, readily quantifiable monetary outlay on the faith of the appellant’s assurances, then it might not be unconscionable for the appellant to resile from his promises to the respondent on condition that he reimburse her for the outlay.
However, the Court decided that this case was one to which the observations of Nettle JA in Donis v Donis (2007 19 VR 577, at 588-589 were apposite:
“[H]ere, the detriment suffered is of a kind and extent that involves life-changing decisions with irreversible consequences of a profoundly personal nature…beyond the measure of money and such that the equity raised by the promisor’s conduct can only be accounted for by the substantial fulfillment of the assumption upon which the respondent’s actions were based.”
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There is a translation key (widget) on the mirrored blog for ease of reading for non-English speaking members of the public or professionals. The mirrored blog can be found at http://roberthaybarrister.blogspot.com.au/
Landlords need to be very careful about what they say when negotiating leases because s.243 of the Australian Consumer Law provides a wronged tenant with a powerful weapon.
That section permits the court to make an order declaring the whole or any part of a contract void or to vary a contract.
The most famous case concerning the sections’s predecessor (s.87 of the Trade Practices Act 1974) was Kizbeau Pty Ltd v WG & B Pty Ltd (1995) 184 CLR 281 where the High Court varied a lease.
The Supreme Court of Queensland recently used s.243 of the ACL to set aside a lease and a guarantee. In that case the tenant and guarantors of the tenant’s obligations alleged that they were induced to enter into a 30 year lease by representations that if the tenant paid rent at a rate of $180,000 per annum for three years and had not purchased the freehold after three years the landlord would cancel the lease and enter into a new lease at a rental of about $120,000 per annum.
The court found that the representation had been made and relied upon and that the tenant and the guarantor had suffered detriment as a result of the conduct of the defendants. The Court declared the lease and the guarantee void ab initio under s 243. The case is Morgo’s Leisure Pty Ltd and others v Morgan v Toula Holdings Pty Ltd and others  QSC 325.
Postcript: the decision referred to above was reversed by the Court of Appeal in Toula Holdings Pty Ltd v Morgo’s v Dante (NQ) Pty Ltd  QCA 201. Thanks to George Tsogas for alerting me to the result of the appeal.
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