Archive for category Property Law
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. 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…”.
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.
In Simcevski v Dixon (No 2)  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, 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.
 See: Workers Trust and Merchant Bank Ltd v Dojap Investments Ltd  AC 573; Kazacos v Shuangling International Development Pty Ltd (2016) 18 BPR 36,353.
 Workers Trust, 578-9.
 See, among others: Luu v Sovereign Developments Pty Ltd (2006) 12 BPR 23,629; Iannello v Sharpe (2007) 69 NSWLR 452.
  VSCA 161.
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.
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  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 :
“….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 :
“..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  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.
Where a tenant provides services from leased premises in accordance with the permitted use the lease is likely to be a “retail premises lease” and therefore governed by the Retail Leases Act 2003 (Vic).
In every case it is necessary to identify precisely the service being provided, consider what activity is permitted under the lease and whether the service provided accords with the permitted use.
The Act applies to a “retail premises lease”. “Retail’ is not defined; however, the expression “retail premises” is defined (s.4(1)):
“….premises, not including any area intended for use as a residence, that under the terms of the lease relating to the premises are used, or are to be used, wholly or predominantly for –
(a) the sale or hire of goods by retail or the provision of services;”
The authorities provide strong support for the ‘ultimate consumer’ test as the touchstone of retailing. In Wellington Union Life Insurance Society Limited  1 VR 333, Nathan J said at 336:
“The essential feature of retailing, is to my mind, the provision of an item or service to the ultimate consumer for fee or reward. The end user may be a member of the public, but not necessarily so.”
Wellington Union concerned the provision of a service: patent attorneys providing advice to large foreign chemical companies from rented premises. In some cases the advice passed through the hands of an intermediary to the ultimate consumer. Nathan J held that the premises were “retail premises”.
In Fitzroy Dental Pty Ltd v Metropole Management Pty Ltd  VSC 344 (which also concerned the provision of a service) Croft J referred to Wellington Union at :
“The fact that the advice of the patent attorneys may pass through the hands of an intermediary to the ultimate consumer or end user was not regarded as significant, provided it came into the hands of that person in a form that could not be amended and hence remained the product of the intellect of the deliverer. More generally, this highlights and emphasises the importance of characterising the nature of the “service” that is being provided. Thus, in the context of Wellington, it would follow that if the position was that the patent attorneys provided advice to, for example, a solicitor who would, in turn, provide advice to his or her client, the ultimate consumer, using the patent attorney’s advice merely as an “input” in his or her advice, wholly or partially with additions and modifications on the basis of his or her professional opinion, the position would be different. In those circumstances the patent attorney’s advice could not, in a relevant sense, be said to pass through the hands of an intermediary to the ultimate consumer. It does not, however, follow that in these circumstances the solicitor may not be regarded as the “ultimate consumer” of the service for the purposes of his or her own practice; as is likely to be the case with other “inputs” for the practice such as, for example, legal research services, stationary and office supplies.”
Most reported cases concern whether goods are being sold by retail. At  in Fitzroy Dental Croft J considered whether the sale of goods could be said to be “retail”;
“….. a sale of “widget type A” from premises by A to B who, in turn, “converts” the good “widget type A” to “widget type B for sale to C would not involve the sale of “widget type A” to C as the ultimate consumer of that type of good. Depending on the nature of the goods involved these transactions may involve sale by wholesale to B and a retail sale to C – or, alternatively, two retail sales of different goods, “widget type A” to B and “widget type B” to C.”
And at ;
“… that the fact that a good or a service is provided to a person who uses the good or service as an “input” in that person’s business for the purpose of producing or providing a different good or service to another person does not detract from the possible characterisation of the first person (and perhaps also the second person, depending on all the circumstances) as the “ultimate consumer” of the original good or service.”
In CB Cold Storage Pty Ltd v IMCC Group Pty Ltd  VSC 23 Croft J had to again consider whether rented premises were “retail premises”. The tenant conducted the business of a cold and cool storage warehouse storage from the premises which accorded with the permitted use under the lease. The tenant’s customers ranged from large primary production enterprises to very small owner operated businesses. VCAT held that the tenant’s rented premises were not “retail premises” on the basis that a “consumer” was a person who used goods or services to satisfy personal needs rather than for a business purpose and therefore the tenant’s customers were not consumers of the tenant’s services. The tenant appealed VCAT’s decision. Croft J allowed the appeal and held that the premises were “retail premises”. The Tribunal erred in holding that customers that used a tenant’s service for a business purpose were not “ultimate consumers”; the Tribunal treated the services provided at the premises as an “input” into the tenant’s customer’s business arrangements with the consequence that the tenant’s customers were not the ultimate consumers of the tenant’s services. The matter was not remitted to VCAT because the Tribunal had been satisfied of all other matters necessary to support a conclusion that the premises were “retail premises”: the premises were being used in accordance with the lease, were “open to the public” and there were no findings to support a conclusion that the premises were not “retail premises”.
CB Cold Storage highlights the importance of identifying the nature of the service being provided and the user or consumer of that service. In most cases the provision of a service will be “retail”.
Controversy resolved – but more tenants under 15 year leases lose protection of Retail Leases Act 2003 (Vic)
Leased premises that are “retail premises” within the meaning of s.4(1) of the Retail Leases Act 2003 are excluded from the operation of the Act where the lease term is 15 years or longer and other conditions are met. See: ss.5(1)(c) and 4(2)(f) and the Ministerial Determination dated 23 August 2004.
The Ministerial Determination has the effect of removing premises from the operation of the Act where:
“Premises which are Leased under a Lease:
(a) the term of which (excluding any options for renewal) is 15 years or longer; or
and which contains any provisions that –
(d) impose an obligation on the tenant or any other person to carry out any substantial work on the Premises which involves the building, installation, repair or maintenance of:-
(i) the structure of, or fixtures in, the Premises; or
(ii) the plant or equipment at the Premises; or
(iii) the appliances, fittings or fixtures relating to a gas, electricity, water, drainage or other services; or
(e) impose an obligation on the tenant or any other person to pay any substantial amount in respect of the cost of any of the matters set out in sub-paragraphs (d)(i), (ii) or (iii); or
(f) in any significant respect disentitles the tenant or any other person to remove any of the things specified in paragraph (d) at or at any time after the end of any of the leases to which paragraphs (a), (b) or (c) apply.
The purpose of the Determination is unclear. Apart from statements by the Small Business Commission, there are no public documents that explain its purpose. The SBC says that the “purpose of the Determination is to exempt long term leases which impose substantial obligations on the tenant from the operation of the Act, where such exemption would be beneficial to both the landlord and the tenant”; the SBC refers, as an example of such a lease, to long term Crown leases for a low or peppercorn rent where substantial works are imposed on the tenant. See: the SBC “Guidelines to the Retail Leases Act 2003 – What are ‘retail premises’” dated 1 December 2014.
But it is unclear why the Determination applies only where it benefits both the landlord and the tenant. The application of the Determination is not restricted to where the lease provides for a low or peppercorn rent: rent is not mentioned. Why should a tenant under a 15 year lease lose the protection of the Act where the tenant is required by the lease to undertake substantial work or pay for substantial work? Why should a tenant lose the benefit of the Act where it does substantial work and the lease disentitles the tenant from removing the work?
There has long been a debate about whether the “or” that appears between (e) and (f) should be read as an “and”. The issue is important because if “or” is the correct interpretation the number of leases excluded from the operation of the Act will increase. The SBC has said that the “or” should be read as an “and” and that this interpretation had been confirmed by the Victorian Government Solicitor’s Office. See: the SBC’s Guidelines referred to above. Croft, Hay and Virgona in Retail Leases Victoria take a contrary view and say at [30,080.15] that (d), (e) and (f) “are clearly and expressly cast in the alternative…”.
The “or”/”and” controversy was considered and determined by VCAT in Luchio Nominees Pty Ltd v Epping Fresh Food Market Pty Ltd [ 2016] VCAT 937. In that case the tenant argued that for the Determination to apply (d) and (f) had to apply or (e) and (f) had to apply. Member Edquist rejected the tenant’s arguments saying at :
“I do not agree that sub-paragraph (f) in the Determination assumes the prior application of either sub-paragraph (d) or sub-paragraph (e). This is because sub-paragraph (f), which defines the breadth of the prohibition against removal of things, is expressed to relate back to ‘any of the things specified in paragraph (d)’, rather than ‘any of the things specified in paragraphs (d) or (e)’.
As to the purpose of the Determination, the Tribunal held
 …..The purpose of the Determination is, in my view, to clarify that certain long term leases or retail premises are to be deemed not be covered by the RLA…..
 …..a construction of the Determination which requires the existence of both a provision of the type identified by sub-paragraph (d) and sub-paragraph (f), or both a provision of the type identified by sub-paragraph (e) and sub-paragraph (f), would necessarily reduce, potentially substantially, the number of leases caught by the Determination. Such a construction would, in my view, be inconsistent with the presumed purpose of the Determination.”
The real puzzle is why long term leases should be excluded from the Act.
VCAT recently held that a tenant had not breached a lease by permitting users of AirBnB to stay in the tenant’s apartment. The landlord argued that the tenant had breached the lease by subletting the apartment in breach of the lease. The landlord sought possession of the apartment. The cornerstone of a lease is that the tenant has “exclusive possession” of the premises. The landlord’s case failed in VCAT because the Tribunal held that the AirBnB guests did not have exclusive possession of the apartment and therefore did not occupy the apartment under a sublease. VCAT held that the nature of the legal relationship between the tenant and the AirBnB guests was a licence to occupy, rather than a lease.
The landlord applied for leave to appeal. The application was determined this morning by Justice Croft. See: Swan v Ueker and Greaves  VSC 313. Justice Croft granted leave to appeal and granted the landlord’s appeal. His Honour held that VCAT either identified the wrong legal test concerning exclusive possession or applied the correct legal test wrongly. The judgment contains a detailed analysis of what is meant by “exclusive possession”.
Justice Croft said that this was not a case about the merits of AirBnB’s arrangements but rather the legal character of the arrangement. His Honour also said that a broad prohibition in the lease on sub-leasing, assigning the lease, granting any licence to occupy all or part of the premises or otherwise parting with possession without the landlord’s prior consent would avoid the need to characterise the nature of the arrangement as a sub-lease or a licence.
I will be writing further about this judgment.
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  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 :
“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  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  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  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.
Today I commented on an advisory opinion given by the President of VCAT, Justice Garde, in which His Honour decided that:
(a) a landlord could not recover from a tenant the costs of complying with essential safety measure requirements imposed on the landlord under the Building Act 1993 and its regulations;
(b) a landlord could not recover from a tenant as outgoings the costs that the landlord incurs in complying with s.52 of the Retail Leases Act 2003.
The effect of the decision is that landlords are likely to require tenants to enter into ‘gross leases’. Landlords are also likely to ask tenants to apply for a certificate from the Small Business Commissioner under s.21(5) of the RLA; the giving of a certificate enables a retail premises lease to have a term of less than five years.
That part of the opinion concerning the recovery of the cost of complying with essential safety measures will prevent a landlord under both a retail premises lease and a commercial lease from recovering the costs incurred in complying with the essential safety measure requirements.
Landlord cannot recover essential safety measure costs or the costs of complying with s.52 of Retail Leases Act 2003 (Vic)
Landlords cannot require tenants under retail premises leases to undertake and pay for the work that a landlord must perform to comply with the essential safety measure requirements contained in the Building Act 1993 (BA) and its regulations. Nor can a landlord require a tenant to pay as an outgoing the costs that the landlord has incurred in complying with s.52 of the Retail Leases Act 2003 (RLA).
The BA and its regulations impose obligations on landlords to maintain buildings in a manner that complies with safety requirements that are commonly known as “ESM requirements”.
Section 52 of the RLA implies into a retail premises lease a requirement that the landlord maintain in a condition consistent with the condition of the premises when the lease was entered into the structure of, and fixtures in the premises and plant together with plant and equipment in the premises.
In a decision that will upset landlords and delight tenants the President of VCAT, Justice Garde, resolved long standing controversies in deciding that:
(a) a requirement in a retail premises lease that a tenant perform ESM requirements that the landlord must perform under the BA or its regulations is void;
(b) a requirement in a retail premises lease that a tenant pay for ESM requirements that the landlord must perform under the BA or its regulations is void;
(c) if the obligation relating to the ESM is that the landlord must ensure that a result is achieved or a standard met the landlord may agree with the tenant to achieve that result, or meet the standard, and the tenant will be obliged to perform the lease at the landlord’s expense;
(d) in the circumstances referred to in (c), the tenant can deduct the costs incurred in the performance of the term from the rent or recover the costs of from the landlord;
(e) a landlord cannot recover as outgoings the cost incurred by the landlord in complying with s.52 of the RLA.
The decision will have major consequences for tenants and landlords. In particular, tenants are likely to seek to recover from landlords any EMS costs that have been paid by the tenant together with costs that the landlord has incurred under s.52 and required the tenant to pay as outgoings.
I will be writing more about this decision.
The question of whether the “profits method” of determining rentals for hotel premises contravenes s.37(2) of the Retail Leases Act 2003 (Vic) has finally been determined by the Supreme Court of Victoria.
Under the “profits method” the valuer estimates the income and expenses of the business with the difference between the two estimates being the net profit. The method entails the cost of fitting out and similar work being brought into the calculation since it is a cost which will be born by the lessee in order to make a profit. The usual means of doing this is to estimate the capital cost involved and “rentalise” it over the period of the expected life of the equipment with the “rentalised” sum being an item of expenditure to be put into the notional accounts. See: Hill and Redman’s Law of Landlord and Tenant.
Uncertainty has surrounded the use of the “profits method” because s.37(2) directs the valuer to determine the current market rent as the rent that would be reasonably be expected to be paid for the premises if they were unoccupied and also directs the valuer “not to take into account the value of goodwill created by the tenant’s occupation or the value of the tenant’s fixtures and fittings”.
In the important decision of Epping Hotels Pty Ltd v Serene Hotels Pty Ltd  VSC 104 (which was an appeal from VCAT) Croft J decided that the valuer’s use of the “profits method” in determining the rent of a hotel and gaming venue did not infringe s.37(2).
His Honour agreed with the Tribunal that the critical question was whether the valuer had taken into account the value of the sitting tenant’s fixtures and fittings contrary to s.37(2).
The valuer had excluded the acquisition costs of the sitting tenant’s gaming machines and gaming entitlements from the rent determination but had taken into account the fittings and fixtures that the hypothetical future tenant owned.
His Honour held that while the valuer had not followed strictly the methodology referred to above, the valuer had not taken the sitting tenant’s fixtures and fittings into account and had properly assumed that the premises were unoccupied. Therefore the valuation did not breach s.37(2).
The decision will be a great relief for valuers of hotels and similar premises.
His Honour also decided that the Tribunal had erred because it had not taken into account a supplementary report by the valuer: the supplementary report formed part of the valuer’s reasoning in the rental determination.