Archive for category Contract Law

High Court affirms traditional test for enforcing oral contracts based on acts of part performance

The High Court has resisted an invitation to expand the grounds on which a party can enforce an oral contract for the sale of the land on the ground of part performance.

Legislation in each State and Territory requires that contracts for the sale of land meet certain formal requirements if they are to be enforceable. The legislation is the modern iteration of s 4 of the Statute of Frauds 1677. In Victoria, s 126(1) of the Instruments Act 1958 says:

“An action must not be brought to charge a person upon a special promise to answer for the debt, default or miscarriage of another person or upon a contract for the sale or other disposition of an interest in land unless the agreement on which the action is brought, or a memorandum or note of the agreement, is in writing signed by the person to be charged or by a person lawfully authorised in writing by that person to sign such an agreement, memorandum or note.

The Statute of Frauds can be avoided where the party seeking to enforce the contract has undertaken acts of part performance. Australian courts have ordered specific performance of oral contracts for the sale of land of land where there have been acts of part performance that are, in words of the Earle of Selbourne LC, “unequivocally, and in their own nature, referrable to some such agreement as that alleged”[1].

In Leon Pipikos v Trayans [2018] HCA 39, which considered the South Australian equivalent of s 126, the appellant submitted that test referred to above was unduly demanding of a party seeking specific performance of an oral contract for the sale of land and urged the adoption of a more relaxed approach. The appellant argued that a court should ask whether a contracting party has knowingly been induced or allowed by the counterparty to alter his or her position on the faith of the contract. The court unanimously rejected the appellant’s arguments.

The court held that the reference to “some such agreement” in the above quote suggested that the requirement was not concerned with the particular contract in question, but with dealings between the parties which in their nature established that the parties were in the midst of an uncompleted contract for the sale or other disposition of an interest in land. The equity to have the transaction completed arises where the acts that are proved are consistent only with partial performance of a transaction of the same nature as that which the plaintiff seeks to have completed by specific performance.

The acts of part performance should be sufficient to indicate a change in the respective positions of the parties in relation to the land that is the subject of the oral contract. The mere payment of money is unlikely to amount to part performance because such payment could also be consistent with a loan, whereas a defendant putting a plaintiff into possession of land is likely to be a sufficient act of part performance.

Acts of part performance must be acts by the party seeking to enforce the contract; it is not necessary for a plaintiff to prove detrimental reliance on its part to establish an equity to relief.

Once there are sufficient acts of part performance, regard may be had to the terms of the oral contract in order to ascertain the appropriate orders by way of specific performance.

In summary, it is necessary first to determine whether the acts performed establish the equity and then to refer to the terms of the oral agreement in order to ascertain the terms in which the equity is to be enforced.

[1]In Maddison v Alderson (1883) 8 App Cas 467 the Earle of Selbourne LC said at 479 that “the acts relied upon as part performance must be unequivocally, and in their own nature, referrable to some such agreement as that alleged”.

 

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Error in earlier post

In the post of earlier today I referred to the Justice Legislation Miscellaneous Amendment Bill 1990; the reference should have been to the Justice Legislation Miscellaneous Amendment Bill 2018.

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Estate agents’ commission fiasco to be fixed

The Victorian government has revealed its “fix” for the problems that emerged from the Victorian Court of Appeal’s decision in  Advisory Services Pty Ltd v Augustin [2018] VSCA 95. That decision was the subject of an earlier blog. The consequence of the decision was that estate agents faced claims by vendors for recovery of commissions that had been paid despite the agent’s engagement or appointment containing rebate statements in a form approved by the Director of Consumer Affairs Victoria. The decision also prevented agents who had not been paid from seeking to recover commissions.

The “fix” is contained in the Justice Legislation Miscellaneous Amendment Bill 2018 which has been introduced into the Victorian Legislative Assembly. The Bill provides for amendments to the Estate Agents Act 1980 which will protect agents who have used a rebate statement in a form approved by the Director but,  by reason of the decision in Advisory Services, does not contain the statement referred to s.49A(4)(a) of the Act or the statement referred to in s.49A(4)(c) of the Act. However, the protection will apply only where the rebate statement is contained in an engagement or appointment entered into before the date after the day on which the Justice Legislation Miscellaneous Amendment Act 2018 receives the Royal Assent.

The amendments to the Estate Agents Act  will not assist the unfortunate estate agent in Advisory Services.

Estate agents and their advisors should ensure that the correct rebate statements are being used.

 

 

 

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Real estate agents face claims for recovery of commissions

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 [2018] 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

…; and

(c) the engagement or appointment contains –

  (i) details of the commission and outgoings that have been agreed; and

         …; and

(iii) a rebate statement that complies with subsection (4).

(emphasis added)

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;

….; and

(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.

(emphasis added)

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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Real estate agent not authorised to accept termination notice given under s.31 of Sale of Land Act 1962

A purchaser of land in Victoria may terminate the contract “at any time before the expiration of three clear business days” after signing the contract. See: s.31(2) of the Sale of Land Act 1962 (Vic). The termination notice must be “given to the vendor or his agent” or left at an address specified in the contract. See: s.31(3). Termination entitles the purchaser to the return of most of the moneys paid under the contract. See: s.31(4).

In Eng Kiat Tan and Cheng Lo v Thomas Russell [2016] VSC 93 the Supreme Court of Victoria had to decide whether the vendor’s real estate agent was an “agent” for the purpose of being given a termination notice.

The High Court has said that the employment of a real estate agent to find a buyer of property does not necessarily create any authority to do anything which will affect the legal position of the employer; an agent does not even have implied authority to receive the purchaser money. See: Peterson v Maloney (1951) 84 CLR 91. In Brien v Dwyer (1978) 141 CLR 378 Gibbs J said that the expression “agent”, when used in relation to a real estate agent, was misleading because “Such so-called agents do not have a general authority to act on behalf of a vendor in relation to a contract.”

In Eng Kiat Tan the purchasers gave the termination notice to the real estate before the expiration of three clear business days after signing the contract. The vendor refused to accept that the contract had been terminated pursuant to the Act. The sale price was $4,480,000. The vendor resold the land to another purchaser for $4,070,000. The purchasers commenced a proceeding seeking recovery of the deposit and the vendor counterclaimed seeking the balance of the deposit and the loss suffered on the resale of the property. The purchasers claim failed and the vendor’s claim succeeded.

The purchaser argued that s.31 was remedial legislation and that the expression “agent”in s.31 must extend to the vendor’s real estate because, among other things, the purchaser had only three days to make inquiries as whether a person was or was not an “agent” with authority to accept the termination notice. The purchaser also referred to Lloyd and Rimmer’s Sale of Land Act Victoria where the authors say that for the purpose of s.31 “agent” includes but is not limited to the estate agent engaged by the vendor in connection with the sale.

The vendor argued that s 31 did not create a statutory authority to receive a termination notice: the purchaser had to establish that the vendor’s real estate had actual or ostensible authority to accept the termination notice and there were no facts which established any authority in the vendor’s real estate agent beyond that usually granted to real estate agent.

The trial judge held that s.31 did not create a statutory authority in a real estate agent to accept a termination notice.

Purchasers need to ensure that the sale contract identifies the person or persons upon whom a termination notice under s. 31 can be given or the place where a notice can be left.

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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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Wife’s title as joint proprietor with husband not defeasible by reason of husband’s fraud

In Cassegrain v Gerard [2015] HCA 2 the High Court of Australian had to decide whether a wife’s title as a joint proprietor with her husband was defeasible by reason of the husband’s fraud. The case contains an interesting discussion about when the fraudulent acts of an agent can be attributed to the principal and also the nature of a joint tenancy.

Section 42(1) of the Real Property Act 1900 (NSW) provides that the estate of a registered proprietor is paramount. It provides that, subject to some exceptions:

“Notwithstanding the existence in any other person of any estate or interest which but for this Act might be held to be paramount or to have priority, the registered proprietor for the time being of any estate or interest in land recorded in a folio of the Register shall, except in case of fraud, hold the same, subject to such other estates and interests and such entries, if any, as are recorded in that folio, but absolutely free from all other estates and interests that are not so recorded“. (emphasis added)

Section 118(1) provides that:

“Proceedings for the possession or recovery of land do not lie against the registered proprietor of the land, except as follows:

(d)       proceedings brought by a person deprived of land by fraud against:

(i)        a person who has been registered as proprietor of the land though fraud; or

(ii)       a person deriving (otherwise as a transferee bona fide for valuable consideration) from or through a person registered as proprietor of the land through fraud.”

The vendor transferred the land to the husband and wife as joint tenants for consideration to be satisfied by debiting the husband’s loan account with the vendor. The husband knew that the vendor did not owe him the amount recorded in the loan account. The husband then transferred his interest in the land to his wife for a nominal consideration. The questions were whether the wife’s title, first as joint proprietor with her husband, or second deriving from or through her husband under the subsequent transfer, was defeasible by the vendor.

Much attention was given in argument to whether the husband was the wife’s “agent”. In Assets Company Ltd v Mere Roihi [1905] AC 176 at 210 Lord Lindley that:

“the fraud which must be proved in order to invalidate the title of a registered purchaser for value … must be brought home to the person whose registered title is impeached or to his agents. Fraud by persons from whom he claims does not affect him unless knowledge of it is brought home to him or his agents.” (emphasis added)

The argument was about whether the fraud was “brought home” to the wife because the husband was fraudulent and was her “agent”. It was not disputed that the husband acted fraudulently in both the first and second transfers.

The court rejected the contention that the husband’s fraud could be sheeted home to the wife as a matter of agency. The court referred to the statement by Street J in Schultz v Corwill Properties Pty Ltd 1969] 2 NSWR 576 where his Honour said :

“It is not enough simply to have a principal, a man who is acting as his agent, and knowledge in that man of the presence of a fraud. There must be the additional circumstance that the agent’s knowledge of the fraud is to be imputed to his principal. This approach is necessary in order to give full recognition to (a) the requirement that there must be a real, as distinct from a hypothetical or constructive, involvement by the person whose title is impeached, in the fraud, and (b) the extension allowed by the Privy Council that the exception of fraud under s 42 can be made out if ‘knowledge of it is brought home to him or his agents’.”

There was no evidence that the wife was knowingly engaged in the husband’s scheme to deprive the vendor its land for nothing.

The majority (French CJ, Hayne, Bell and Gaegler JJ) held that the wife’s title as joint tenant was not defeasible by showing that the husband had acted fraudulently because the fraud had not been brought home to her.

Keane J dissented on this issue. His Honour decided that the land was acquired by the wife and the husband as joint tenants and as joint tenants they acquired a single estate. The title was acquired by fraud “sheeted home” to the wife, not because the wife claimed the title through her husband, but by virtue of the joint tenancy of the single estate to which they were entitled.

The vendor succeeded in recovering the land because the whole court  decided that s.118(1)(d)(ii) applied: the wife had acquired an interest as tenant in common as to half from the husband who had been registered as proprietor through fraud.

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Tenants should dispute rent nominated by landlord within time period specified in the lease

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 [[1978] AC] at 936, and per Lord Salmon [[1978] 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  [2014] 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.

 

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