Chan & Anor v Liu & Anor  VSCA 28 (25 February 2020) was a successful appeal from a decision of Forbes J  VSC 650 upholding a caveat. The facts were –
- By a contract dated 21 July 2018 the first respondent Zhenzhu Liu agreed to purchase a property in Burwood Highway, Burwood, from the applicants for $2,450,000 with settlement due on 22 July 2019.
- Most of the discussions concerning the sale were between Mr Liu’s wife Yumei Feng and Xuehang Cheng who was a sales consultant employed by the selling agents. Soon after the contract was entered into she asked through him whether the vendors would agree to extend settlement to 15 September 2019 without penalty. After speaking to the second vendor he conveyed that the vendors would only agree to an extension to 22 August 2019. Ms Feng again sought an extension to 15 September, Mr Cheng again sought the vendors’ consent and again confirmed that the vendors would extend settlement to 22 August 2019. Further interaction to similar effect then occurred between the purchaser’s solicitors and the agents, and on 10 August 2018 the agents again stated that the vendors had agreed to extend the settlement date to 22 August 2019.
- Mr Liu deposed that he and Ms Feng believed that the extension to 22 August 2019 was confirmed and that only the further request to extend settlement to 15 September 2019 was not, and that they were preparing their finances for settlement on 22 August 2019 in reliance on the agent’s representation.
- On 10 August 2018 Mr Liu caveated claiming an interest in the property pursuant to the contract of sale.
- In late 2018 the vendors requested the purchaser to temporarily ‘lift’ the caveat so that they could refinance. The caveat was accordingly withdrawn and on 21 December 2018 a second caveat was lodged.
- Between 12 June and 22 July 2019 the solicitors for both parties engaged in manoeuvres and negotiations including: the purchaser’s solicitor asserting that the vendors had previously agreed to a penalty free extension to 22 August 2019 and the vendors’ solicitor disagreeing; the vendors’ solicitors seeking more money; the purchaser’s solicitor stating his client had difficulty obtaining finance and asking that the vendors consider an extension of the settlement date and a deferred payment of part of the price.
- On 22 July, following no settlement by 4.00 pm, the vendors’ solicitor at 5.19 pm served a 14 day notice of default and rescission.
- On 9 August the vendors’ solicitor wrote to the purchaser’s solicitor confirming termination of the contract and forfeiture of the deposit. No response was received.
- On 20 August the vendors’ solicitor wrote again noting that as a result of the purchaser’s default his clients needed to re-sell and demanding withdrawal of the second caveat. In response, on 22 August the purchaser withdrew the second caveat and his solicitor advised the vendors’ solicitor of this. However, next day the purchaser’s solicitor wrote again stating that the withdrawal of the caveat was ‘without prejudice to any of the [respondent’s] rights under the contract or at all, which rights are fully reserved’. The vendors’ solicitor responded that day stating that his clients were attempting to re-sell quickly and requesting that the purchaser not jeopardise or delay this re-sale.
- On 27 August the vendors entered into a contract of re-sale to a third party.
- On 3 September 2019 the purchaser lodged a third caveat claiming an interest in the property pursuant to the (original) contract of sale and next day his solicitor sent a notice to complete by 19 September 2019. The vendors subsequently disputed the validity of these actions. They subsequently applied under the Transfer of Land Act s. 90(3) to remove the caveat.
The court (Beach, Kyrou and Kaye JJA) gave leave to appeal and allowed the appeal, holding –
- The power of the court under s. 90(3) was discretionary and so to obtain leave to appeal the applicants must establish material error by the judge in the exercise of that discretion of the kind described by the High Court in House v The King (1936) 35 CLR 499. 
- The principles applicable under s. 90(3) were as stated by Warren CJ in Piroshenko v Grojsman  VSC 240, (2010) 27 VR 489, ie that the caveator must persuade the court that:
(1) there is a probability on the evidence before the court that he or she will be found to have the asserted equitable rights or interest; and
(2) that probability is sufficient to justify the caveat’s practical effect on the ability of the registered proprietor to deal with the property in accordance with normal proprietary rights.
But that these propositions were qualified by the fact that the discretion conferred by s. 90(3) was expressed broadly and enjoined the court to make such order as it thinks fit, and so the test adopted by the court ought not to restrict the statutory power. Further, (1) and (2) are not mutually discrete: the exercise of the court’s discretion ultimately involved a synthesis of the Court’s conclusions on each. , , , 
- Where a purchaser had a right, in equity, to specifically enforce a contract of sale the purchaser thereby had an interest in the land, akin to an equitable interest, which may be protected by a caveat. 
- The parties had agreed that the specified settlement date be extended to 22 August 2019. Even if the vendors had insisted that the agent Mr Chan impose a condition on the extension of time, which he failed to do, for the purpose of the summary application under s. 90(3) it was appropriate to proceed on the basis that he had, at least, ostensible if not actual authority to enter into such an extension arrangement on behalf of the applicants. Accordingly there was a serious issue to be tried that that ‘arrangement’ did not constitute a formal variation of the contract of sale (which would have been required to comply with s. 126 of the Instruments Act) but, rather, was a waiver of the stipulated settlement date of 22 July 2019 or founded an estoppel precluding the vendors relying on that date (instead of 22 August 2019). , 
- However, as to whether there was a serious issue to be tried that the purchaser, when he lodged the third caveat, had and continued to have the right to specifically enforce the contract, notwithstanding failure to pay the balance of purchase monies on 22 July 2019, as a consequence of which the vendors purported to rescind the contract –
(a) Under the doctrine of election, a party confronted by two truly alternative or inconsistent rights or sets of rights (such as the right to avoid or terminate a contract and the right to affirm it and insist on performance of it) may lose one of those rights by election by acting in a manner which is consistent only with that party having chosen to rely on the other alternative or inconsistent right; 
(b) Ordinarily, a caveat removal application, being in the nature of an application for an interlocutory injunction, was not an occasion for the final determination of disputed factual issues, or of the substantive claims which the caveat sought to protect, and so it was not appropriate or necessary for the court to determine conclusively whether there was a binding election. In the circumstances of the case, it was sufficient that there were strong grounds for concluding that the purchaser had made an unequivocal election not to retain his right to specific performance but, rather, to treat the contract of sale at an end, and pursue a claim for damages (, , , , ) for the following reasons –
(i) the purpose of the lodgement of the second caveat was to protect the right of the purchaser to specific performance; 
(ii) on 9 August the purchaser was placed on clear notice that the vendors took the position that the contract had been terminated. Then, in the context of neither seeking to rebut nor respond to that position, he on 22 August withdrew the second caveat in response to the demand that he do so that the vendors could re-sell. At this point it was strongly arguable that, in those circumstances, the purchaser’s conduct in withdrawing the caveat was an election no longer to claim a right to specific performance, which was an essential pre-condition to maintaining the second caveat. That proposition was reinforced by the email of 23 August reiterating that the vendors were attempting to re-sell the property. There was no assertion by the purchaser at any time before the re-sale on 27 August that the vendors were precluded from doing so because the purchaser had a right to specific performance; 
(iii) the context in which the purchaser’s solicitor emailed on 23 August stating that the withdrawal of the caveat was done ‘without prejudice’ etc militated strongly against the proposition that the purchaser thus preserved his right to specific performance. The only purpose served by the removal of the second caveat was to enable the applicants to re-sell the property, which re-sale would be directly inconsistent with any potential right of the purchaser to specific performance, and the email of 23 August did not suggest that the rights sought to be preserved included a right to specific performance or that the vendors could or should not re-sell. 
(c) For the same reasons there was a strong basis for concluding that the purchaser, by his conduct between 9 August and 27 August 2019, was estopped from contending that he continued to have a right to seek specific performance of the contract of sale. He represented that he did not seek to maintain a caveatable interest in the property, so implying that he no longer sought to pursue a right to specific performance; by his withdrawal of caveat on 22 August, and his conduct at that time, he enabled the vendors to re-sell; if he was now permitted to depart from this representation the vendors would suffer detriment, namely, the loss of the contract of re-sale and exposure of them to a claim in damages (or other relief) by the new purchaser. , 
6. The degree of likelihood of success in the proceeding was relevant to evaluation of the balance of convenience. The above conclusions on election and estoppel were of critical significance in an assessment of the balance of convenience against the fact that retention of the caveat would prevent completion of the contract of re-sale. The balance of convenience accordingly favoured removal of the caveat. , , 
7. The vendors’ further argument that, insofar as the parties had arranged, in August 2018, for the settlement date to be extended to 22 August 2019, nevertheless the conduct of the respondent between June 2019 and 22 August 2019 in some way rendered the extension of time nugatory, raised a question of fact which the court could not determine. -
This case is interesting for the following reasons –
1. In cases of contracts of sale the caveator/purchaser will often win or lose depending on whether there was a contract at all or if there had been whether it had been repudiated. In this case the caveator lost because by the withdrawal of the second caveat he had given up the right to specific performance by affirmation or by estoppel.
2. The court (paragraph 3 above) states that the right to specific performance is an “interest in land, akin to an equitable interest”. The words “akin to” are interesting and are based mainly on Tanwar Enterprises Pty Ltd v Cauchi (2003) 217 CLR 315 at 332–3. Older cases simply said that a specifically enforceable contract of sale confers an equitable interest on the purchaser (eg Bunny Industries Ltd v FSW Enterprises Pty Ltd  Qd. R. 712, based on earlier authorities).
3. The principle that on a caveat removal application it is not appropriate or necessary for the court to determine conclusively whether a particular legal event would happen (see paragraph 5(b) above) is normally applied in favour of caveators, ie that the caveator has only to show a serious question to be tried. In this case the Court of Appeal turned this principle on its head by applying it in favour of the registered proprietor, ie it was sufficient that the registered proprietor showed only “strong grounds” for there being a binding election.
Philip H. Barton
Owen Dixon Chambers West
7 April 2020