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Retail Leases Act 2003 (Vic) likely to apply where tenant provides a service

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;”

(underlining added).

The authorities provide strong support for the ‘ultimate consumer’ test as the touchstone of retailing. In Wellington Union Life Insurance Society Limited [1991] 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 [2013] VSC 344 (which also concerned the provision of a service) Croft J referred to Wellington Union at [16]:

“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 [17] 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 [18];

“… 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 [2017] 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”.

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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 [52]:

“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

[58]      …..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…..

[59]      …..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.

 

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AirBnB guests occupied apartment under a lease

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 [2016] 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.

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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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Landlords likely to consider gross leases

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.

See: In the matter of the referral of matters to VCAT for an advisory opinion pursuant to s.125 of the VCAT Act 1998 [2015] VCAT 478.

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.

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“Profits method” of rental valuation does not breach s.37 of Retail Leases Act 2003

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 [2015] 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.

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Lessor’s purpose for demolishing leased building is irrelevant

Leases commonly permit a landlord to terminate a lease if the landlord intends to demolish the building located on the leased premises. Section 56 of the Retail Leases Act 2003 (Vic) implies terms into a retail premises lease that provides for the termination of lease on the grounds that the building is to be demolished. Section 56(2) of the Act says:

The landlord cannot terminate the lease  on that ground unless the landlord has—

(a)        provided the tenant with details of the proposed demolition that are sufficient to indicate a genuine proposal to demolish the building within a reasonably practicable time after the lease is to be terminated; and

(b)       given the tenant at least 6 months’ written notice of the termination date.

Tenants often claim that a proposal is not a “genuine proposal” because the landlord intends to demolish the building so that the new building constructed on the site can be used for the landlord’s own purpose or for the purpose of leasing to a new party. However, the claim is misconceived because the purpose for which a landlord wishes to “demolish” leased premises is irrelevant to the question of whether there is a “genuine proposal”.

Assuming that enough detail is provided in the notice of termination concerning the proposed demolition, the only question is whether there is a genuine proposal to demolish. The term “demolish” is widely defined in s.56(7). In Blackler v Felpure Pty Ltd (1999) 9 BPR 17,259 Bryson J said at [31] that the lessor “should have a genuine proposal to demolish the building within a reasonably practical time after the lease is to be terminated.” Blackler concerned s.35 of the Retail Leases Act 1994 (NSW) which contained a demolition clause in similar terms to s.56 of the Act. Bryson J identified the question for determination as whether the notice itself provided sufficient details to indicate a genuine proposal.

At [37] His Honour said:

The requirement to provide details is not merely a formal step imposed in the lessor’s path, but the details are to be provided so that the lessee can come to a conclusion about whether the termination will be effective, and whether the lessee should accept that it will be effective or dispute it. The sufficiency of details provided should be tested in relation to that purpose. The question is whether the details provided are sufficient to indicate a genuine proposal to demolish the building; if they are not the termination cannot take place and if they are it will be effective no matter what other details of the proposed demolition exist or could have been provided.

And at [61]:

It is not in my view open to contention by the lessee whether the lessor’s decision to demolish, repair, renovate or reconstruct the building is reasonable or appropriate; it is sufficient if there is a genuine proposal. Nor in my opinion is it open to debate whether the lessor could in some way modify the lessor’s proposal so as to continue to accommodate the lessee after the premises have been demolished, repaired, renovated or reconstructed. The opportunity to break a lease, retake possession of take advantage of the demolition clause is a contractual opportunity made available to the lessor by the terms of the lease itself, ……, it is not injurious to the lessor’s position whether the lessor has decided to take advantage, and it is not relevant that the lessor has in view occupying the premises itself, or selling them after reconstruction, or leasing them again, even if the lease should be a business similar to the lessee’s. The demolition clause is a reality of the party’s relationship, and so is its potential operation to end the lease.

See also [62].

In Skiwing Pty Ltd v Trust Company of Australia [2006] NSWCA 276 the Court of Appeal held that a proposed “refurbishment redevelopment or extension” did not lose the character of a “genuine proposal” because the commercial motivation of the lessor was to attract a tenant or particular kind of tenant. See: Skiwing at [22] (Spigelman CJ (with whom Hodgson JA and Bryson JA agreed). Skiwing concerned a relocation notice given under s.34A of the Retail Leases Act 1994 (NSW) which provision was described at [22] as a “parallel formulation” to that considered by Bryson J in Blackler. The Court of Appeal at [22] said that Bryson J in Blackler was “correct”.

In Blackler Bryson J also accepted at [32] that there was an implied duty of good faith in the exercise of the contractual right to terminate the lease. However, the duty of good faith was not breached where the landlord had an intention to occupy the premises itself or lease them out to an identified person after the works had been carried out. His Honour said at [32]:

The defendant can exercise its power to terminate the lease with a view to its own advantage; it is for purposes of that kind that contractual entitlements generally exist.

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“Claw back” of lease incentives thrown into doubt

Landlords often offer incentives to a tenant to encourage the tenant to enter a lease. Common incentives are rent free periods and contributions to the fit out. The logic behind the inducement is that landlord will benefit because the tenant will occupy the premises for the term of the lease. Landlords sometimes require a “claw back” provision in the lease so that if the landlord terminates the lease before the expiry of the term the lease incentive (or part of the lease incentive) must be repaid.

The enforceability of “claw back” clauses has been thrown into doubt by the decision of the Queensland Supreme Court in GWC Property Group Pty Ltd v Higginson [2014] QSC 264.

In GWC the tenant and the landlord entered into a lease and on the same day entered into an incentive deed. The incentive deed was recited to “supplement the lease” and recited that the landlord had agreed, among other things, to contribute to the tenant’s fit-out and grant a rent abatement. The lease did not require the tenant to undertake a fit-out. The incentive deed also provided for repayment of part of the landlord’s contributions if the lease was terminated (other than by expiry of the term or the lessor’s default) or if the tenant parted with possession without the landlord’s consent. The obligation to repay was guaranteed by guarantors.

The landlord terminated the lease after the leased premises were abandoned by the tenant. The court decided that:

  • the lease and the incentive deed had to be construed as if they were one document;
  • the obligation to repay only arise if there a termination;
  • the tenant could be obliged to repay the landlord’s contributions for reasons other than the tenant’s breach – for example where the tenant went into liquidation or following a natural disaster;
  • the repayment obligation should not be viewed as a restitutionary payment;
  • in addition to contractual damages for breach of the lease, the landlord was entitled, by the repayment clauses, to recover substantial additional payments;
  • the repayment obligation were not a genuine pre-estimate of damage.

The court decided that the obligation to repay landlord’s contributions was a penalty and was therefore not enforceable.

The case contains a good discussion about the law of penalties. Thanks to Tony Burke of Burke & Associates Lawyers Pty Ltd for alerting me to GWC.

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Mortgagee lender does not have duty of care to ensure that a loan is appropriate for borrower

 

There is a translation key(widget)  on this blog for ease of reading for non-English speaking members of the public or professionals. http://roberthaybarrister.blogspot.com.au/

 

Defaulting mortgagor borrowers defending court proceedings by the mortgagee lender often allege that the lender owed them a duty to investigate their income and assets and liabilities to determine whether the loan could be serviced. The legal basis for such a claim was recently rejected by the Supreme Court of New South Wales in Westpac Banking Corporation v Diagne [2014] NSWSC 822.

 

Among the many claims made by the defaulting mortgagor borrowers was that the lender had a duty to “[prudently investigate the income, assets and liabilities of [the borrowers] and the proposed business plan of [the borrowers] in order to determine serviceability” and “[t]o take reasonable remedial action when the loans fell into arrears, including investigating the causes of the arrears, working with [the borrowers] to remedy the problems identified and continuing to monitor the ability of the borrowers and guarantors to adequately service the facilities”. Included in the alleged duty was a duty “to appropriately set and alter limits on overdraft facilities”.

 

Ball J rejected the borrower’s claims. His Honour applied Tai Hing Cotton Mill Ltd v Liu Chong Hing Bank Ltd [1986] AC 80  and held that the lender did not have a duty of care to investigate the borrower’s circumstances to determine whether the loan that was made was appropriate for them.

My clerk can be contacted via this link for bookings  http://www.greenslist.com.au/

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Landlord’s consideration of proposed assignment must be “reasonable”

 

There is a translation key(widget)  on this blog for ease of reading for non-English speaking members of the public or professionals. http://roberthaybarrister.blogspot.com.au/

 

Section 60 of the Retail Leases Act 2003 prescribes when a landlord can withhold consent to a proposed assignment of a retail premises lease. The most significant provision is sub-section 60(1)(b) which provides that:

“(1)           A landlord is only entitled to withhold consent to the assignment of a retail premises lease if one or more of the following applies –

….

(b)             the landlord considers that the proposed assignee does not have sufficient financial resources or business experience to meet the obligations under the lease;”

 

On its face s.60(1)(b) appears to give the landlord unfettered power to withhold consent – that is the landlord’s subjective view is all that matters. Despite the wording of the section VCAT has implied a requirement that the landlord must act “reasonably” in undertaking its consideration. In AAMR Hospitality Group Pty Ltd v Goodpar Pty Ltd [2009] VCAT 2782 Deputy President Macnamara held at [45] that:

“With the utmost hesitation however I consider that the words ‘reasonably’ or ‘acting reasonably’ should be read into section 60(1)(b)……. The overriding policy evident in the Retail Leases Act is to provide special protection to a limited class of commercial tenants, namely those who are tenants of small retail tenancies and do not have the clout that say a listed corporation would have. The provisions of the statute are aimed at providing protection to this class of tenant and constraining and restricting a largely unrestricted power which landlords of these premises at common law and before the enactment of special retail tenancies legislation had available. To construe a provision such as section 60(1)(b) such that one of the protected class of tenants was to be at the mercy of the purely subjective determination of a lessor would not be conducive to the statute’s overall policy, per contra it would tend to subvert the wider policy of the statute, …”

In a recent decision Member Farrelly said  that he agreed with Deputy President Macnamara’s reasoning and construed s.60(1)(b) as if it the word “reasonably” appeared before “considers”. See: Villa v Emaan Pty Ltd [2014] VCAT 274 at [47]- [48].

 

My clerk can be contacted via this link for bookings  http://www.greenslist.com.au/

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