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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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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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Hopeless proceeding can result in a cost order under Retail Leases Act 2003 (Vic)

The weakness of a party’s case in a retail tenancy dispute can be taken into account in determining whether or not it has “conducted” a “proceeding in a vexatious way” that would entitle the other party to a cost order under s.92(2) of the Retail Leases Act 2003 (Vic).

Part 10 of the Act contains the dispute resolution provisions. Except as provided in s.92(2) the Act requires each party to a retail tenancy dispute  to bear its own costs of the proceeding. See: s.92(1). Costs may be awarded in a retail tenancy dispute under s.92(2) if:

“…the Tribunal is satisfied that it is fair to do so because;

(a)   the party conducted the proceeding in a vexatious way that unnecessarily disadvantaged the other party to the proceeding; or

(b)   the party refused to take part in or withdrew from mediation or other form of alternative dispute resolution under this Part.”

(underlining added)

Judge Bowman in State of Victoria v Bradto Pty Ltd and Timbook Pty Ltd [2006] VCAT 1813 referred to the distinction in s.92(2)(a) between a proceeding which is conducted in a vexatious way and the bringing or nature of the proceeding being vexatious. His Honour held that a proceeding is conducted in a vexatious manner “if it is conducted in a way productive of serious and unjustified trouble or harassment, or if there is conduct which is seriously and unfairly burdensome, prejudicial or damaging”.

In 24 Hour Fitness Pty Ltd v W & B Investment Group Pty Ltd [2015] VSCA 216 the Court of Appeal considered an appeal from a decision by VCAT in which costs had been awarded on an indemnity basis pursuant to s.92(2)(a). The Tribunal’s decision was based in part on a finding that the applicant had commenced an action for damages in circumstances where the applicant, properly advised, should have known it had no chance of success and persisting in what should, on proper consideration, have been seen to be a hopeless case. The applicant contended that there was a difference between instituting a proceeding that was vexatious, or making a claim that fails, and the conduct of the proceeding which is vexatious. It argued that the Tribunal focused more on what were perceived to be the prospects of success than on the actual conduct of the proceeding.

The Court of Appeal rejected the applicant’s contentions holding that the Tribunal had considered the conduct of the proceeding in addition to the “hopelessness of the applicant’s claim” and that there was no error in also considering the hopelessness of the claim because “the strength of the applicant’s claim for damages was a relevant factor to take into account”.

At [29] the Court of Appeal said:

“It would be artificial to attempt to evaluate the manner in which the proceeding was conducted without having regard to the strength of that party’s case. In the present circumstances, it was relevant that the applicant pursued the damages claim, in circumstances where it was bound to fail.”

If it appears that a proceeding is hopeless the applicant should be notified at an early stage that the application is hopeless and should be withdrawn.

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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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Franchisees beware of arbitration clauses

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

 

Prospective franchisees should be cautious about agreeing to the inclusion of arbitration clauses in franchise agreements. It is common for a franchisee to enter into an ‘occupancy’ or ‘licence’ agreement with an entity associated with the franchisor which entity is the lessee of the premises from which the franchisee will conduct its business.

 

At the sane tine the franchisee usually enters into a franchise agreement with the franchisor. The so-called ‘occupancy’ or ‘licence’ agreement commonly has all the characteristics of a lease with the consequence that the agreement is a lease. In Victoria, if the ‘occupancy’ or ‘licence’ agreement is a lease any dispute will constitute a  ‘retail tenancy dispute’ governed by Part 10 of the Retail Leases Act 2003 (2003 Act).

 

VCAT has exclusive jurisdiction to hear and determine ‘retail tenancy disputes’.  If the dispute resolution provisions in the franchise agreement require that disputes under that agreement be referred to arbitration the franchisee could be in the difficult position of having to prosecute or defend two proceedings at the same time – one  in VCAT and another before an arbitrator.

 

This is the consequence of the Court of Appeal’s decision in Subway Systems Australia v Ireland [2014] VSCA 142. In that case the franchisee conducted its business from premises in Doncaster, Victoria.  The arbitration clause in the franchise agreement required the arbitration to take place in Queensland. VCAT held that the “licence” agreement was a sub-lease with the consequence that that dispute will be determined as a ‘retail premises dispute” in VCAT in Victoria under the 2003 Act.

 

VCAT also decided that it  could hear and determine the dispute under the franchise agreement. The Court of Appeal held that VCAT did not have jurisdiction to hear and determine the dispute under the franchise agreement which will have to be heard and determined by an arbitrator in Queensland.

 

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

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Section 243 of Australian Consumer Law gives tenants a powerful weapon

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

 

Landlords need to be very careful about what they say when negotiating leases because s.243  of the Australian Consumer Law provides a wronged tenant with a powerful weapon.

That section permits the court to make an order declaring the whole or any part of a contract void or to vary a contract.

The most famous case concerning the sections’s predecessor (s.87 of the Trade Practices Act 1974)  was Kizbeau Pty Ltd v WG & B Pty Ltd (1995) 184 CLR 281 where the High Court varied a lease.

The Supreme Court of Queensland recently used s.243 of the ACL to set aside a lease and a guarantee. In that case the tenant and guarantors of the tenant’s obligations alleged that they were induced to enter into a 30 year lease by representations that if the tenant  paid rent at a rate of $180,000 per annum for three years and had not purchased the freehold after three years the landlord would cancel the lease and enter into a new lease at a rental of about $120,000 per annum.

The court found that the representation had been made and relied upon and that the tenant and the guarantor had suffered detriment as a result of the conduct of the defendants. The Court declared the lease and the guarantee void ab initio under s 243. The case is Morgo’s Leisure Pty Ltd and others v Morgan v Toula Holdings Pty Ltd and others [2013] QSC 325.

Postcript: the decision referred to above was reversed by the Court of Appeal in Toula Holdings Pty Ltd v Morgo’s v Dante (NQ) Pty Ltd [2014] QCA 201. Thanks to George Tsogas for alerting me to the result of the appeal.

 

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

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