Archive for category Robert Hay QC

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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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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‘Ultimate consumer test” remains one of the indicia of the retail provision of services

The CB Cold Storage and IMCC Group saga has ended. This morning the High Court of Australia refused the landlord’s application for special leave to appeal. The consequence is that the Court of Appeal’s decision in IMCC Group (Australia) Pty Ltd v CB Cold Storage Pty Ltd [2017] VSCA 178 stands and practitioners can draft leases and give advice confident that the so-called “the ultimate consumer test” remains one of the main indicia in determining whether premises are “retail premises” and therefore governed by the Retail Leases Act 2003. The saga began as a preliminary question in VCAT – the question being whether the Act applied to the premises. The lease permitted CB Cold Storage to operate the premises as “Cold and cool storage warehouse and transport facility” and also contained a clause that precluded CB Cold Storage from operating the premises as “retail premises”. The prohibition on the tenant operating the premises as “retail premises” was irrelevant because the landlord agreed that that the tenant’s actual use of the premises accorded with the permitted use; this meant that  the only question was the premises should be characterised as “retail premises” under the Act. Premises are “retail premises’ where:

“under the terms of the lease…the premises are used, or are to be used, wholly or predominantly for –

(a)   the sale or hire of goods by retail or the retail provision of services” (s.4(1))

In Wellington v Norwich Union Life Insurance Society Ltd [1991] 1 VR 333 Nathan J said that:

“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.”

His Honour’s statement has been applied many times. Where a service is provided there will be few instances where the service is not “consumed” or used in the leased premises. In CB Cold Storage the service was “consumed” or used in the premises by the ultimate consumer, being the tenant’s customers. While the tenant’s customers ranged from large primary production enterprises to very small owner operated businesses, any person could store goods in the premises. VCAT held that the premises were not ‘retail premises’ on the basis that the tenant’s customers were using the tenant’s service for business purposes rather than for personal use. In CB Cold Storage Pty Ltd v IMCC Group (Australia) Pty Ltd [2017] VSC 23 Justice Croft held that the premises were “retail premises” and the Court of Appeal agreed with His Honour. The Court of Appeal held that the “ultimate consumer test” was one of the indicia of the retail provision of services. In all cases it is necessary to consider whether the premises are “open to the public”  – that is there are no restrictions on access to the service and who can use it. The characteristics of the user – that is whether the use is an individual or a business is not relevant. At [50] the Court of Appeal said:

“In summary, the services were used by the Tenant’s customers who paid a fee. Any person could purchase the services if the fee was paid. The Tenant’s business was open during normal business hours. The Tenant’s customers have not passed on the services to anyone else. They were the ultimate consumers of the Tenant’s services. In isolation, none of these features would suffice to constitute the premises as retail premises. Conversely, the absence of one or more of them, would not necessarily result in a finding that the premises were not retail premises. However, in the circumstances of this case, when all of those features are taken together, the conclusion must be that the premises are retail premises.”

Where the parties intend that premises not be governed by the Act the permitted use should make that clear. A good example is Sofos v Coburn [1994] 2 VR 505 where the permitted use was “wholesale and export fish supply”. The tenant was undertaking retail sales. Nathan J held that the tenant could not rely on what it was actually doing when that contradicted the express terms of the lease.

 

 

 

 

 

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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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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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