36. Arguable case of constructive trust but caveat removed on balance of convenience due to conflict with pre-existing orders of Family Court – Undertaking as to damages should have been offered – Harvey v Emery & Ors [2020] VSC 153 (2 April 2020), John Dixon J.

 

CommentThis case is a good example of an arguable, but not strongly so, interest in the land being trumped by the balance of convenience – John Dixon J. engages in a careful balancing exercise against the background of existing Family Court orders.  Several further general principles emerge –

1.     Non-parties to a marriage claiming an interest in land the subject of Family Court proceedings should expeditiously intervene in those proceedings.

2.    An undertaking as to damages is not commonly required as the price of maintenance of a caveat.  Boensch v Pascoe [2019] HCA 49 at [113] (Blog 29) explains how caveats differ from interlocutory injunctions in this respect.  However, John Dixon J. states an exception, being that such an undertaking is invariably required when a caveat was not removed in circumstances where third party rights would be detrimentally affected. 

3.   The case illustrates that a registered proprietor taking the s. 89A procedure can subsequently take the s. 90(3) procedure.

In Harvey v Emery & Ors [2020] VSC 153 the facts were – 

•  The plaintiff was married to Daniel Emery who was the son of the defendants. In about early 2018 the plaintiff and Daniel entered a contract to acquire a property as their family home for $950,000. They agreed that it would be acquired solely in her name to protect it from his creditors. The price comprised: her contribution of $200,000; an advance by the defendants to her of $200,000; the balance by bank finance secured by first mortgage. The plaintiff became sole registered proprietor.

•  As noted by the judge, it could only be determined at a subsequent trial whether this advance (and any subsequent claimed expenditure) by the defendants was: a loan, and whether to the plaintiff or Daniel or both, and for what purpose, or; an equity contribution in the context of a broader joint enterprise to which the defendants were parties, with the ultimate purpose of providing accommodation to the plaintiff, Daniel, their children and the defendants.  Related to this, were the defendants either chargees or beneficiaries of a resulting or constructive trust?

•  After settlement of the sale the plaintiff briefly resided at the property, vacating due to conflict in the relationship with Daniel that led to its breakdown.  Daniel remained in possession of the property for a period before being placed in custody for undisclosed reasons.

•  In proceedings between the plaintiff and Daniel the Family Court made consent orders in March 2019 including to the effect that – 

•  the plaintiff would transfer the title to the property to him on him refinancing the bank loan to discharge her mortgage and release her from the debt obligation, and on payment by him of $200,000 into her solicitors’ trust account;  

•  if Daniel was unable to refinance the property was to be sold with net proceeds broadly being disbursed in varying proportions between the plaintiff and Daniel after payment of costs and discharge of the mortgage;

•  The parties held their respective interests in the property on trust, with Daniel having the sole right of occupancy and sole liability for mortgage payments and outgoings.  

•  Daniel was unable to refinance and so could not comply with this order, leading to further Family Court orders in October 2019 including – 

•  that plaintiff recover possession of the property to effect its sale, in accordance with the March orders, and Daniel was restrained from caveating or from encumbering the land;  

•  directions for the conduct of the sale and for the distribution of the proceeds. The direction in respect of the priority of distribution of the proceeds was in substance: (a) – (d) payment of the costs and expenses of sale and for discharge of the mortgage; (e) payment to the plaintiff in reduction of the amounts due to her pursuant to the March orders with interest; (f) payment of any remainder to Daniel in reduction of the amounts due to him pursuant to the March orders; a further order relating to the balance owing in respect of a truck and other minor orders.   

•  The defendants were not party to the Family Court proceedings and did not seek to intervene. The settlement of the Family Court proceedings assumed that the whole of the beneficial interest in the property was matrimonial property.

•  In November 2019 the defendants caveated claiming a freehold estate absolutely prohibiting all dealings on the grounds of an implied, resulting or constructive trust.

•  The plaintiff applied under s. 89A of the Transfer of Land Act for removal of the caveat.  In response the defendants commenced a Supreme Court proceeding against her seeking a declaration that the property was held on trust for them as to an amount equivalent both to the above advance of $200,000 and to $120,000 expended on renovations (“the trust proceeding”).

The plaintiff applied pursuant to s. 90(3) to remove the caveat.  Daniel was not a party to either proceeding although he appeared to be a necessary party to the trust proceeding.  He apparently expressed a strong interest in retaining ownership of the property.  The defendants alleged that after the plaintiff had vacated the property, but with her acquiescence, they invested labour and expended approximately $120,000 in renovations and improvements and to enhance its value, in furtherance of a joint endeavour to acquire and improve an extended family home.  The plaintiff disputed this.

John Dixon J. held –

1.   If the allegations in the trust proceeding were proved, the defendants’ beneficial interest ought to have been excluded from the matrimonial property available for division in the settlement reached between the plaintiff and Daniel. [15]

2.  If the defendants’ contentions were correct, they had been adversely affected by the Family Court’s orders. They could enliven the Family Court proceedings, either by applying to intervene and seek a rehearing or by appeal. There was potential for conflict between the resolution of the trust proceeding and the execution of the orders of the Family Court. There were compelling reasons to cross-vest the trust proceeding to the Family Court to be dealt with in conjunction with a reopening of the property settlement orders. This application under s. 90(3) was not the appropriate forum for determination of issues between the parties. [25]-[27]

3.  The defendants had demonstrated some probability that they may be found to have an equitable right or interest in the land as asserted in the caveat, ie a freehold estate in the land based on a joint endeavour giving rise to a constructive trust. And if the renovation expenditure was added the defendants’ percentage claim to the beneficial interest would correspondingly increase. However, although there was a serious question for trial of such a constructive trust the claim did not appear to be strong. It was more probable that the defendants would establish an equitable lien or charge limited to the initial $200,000 advanced, this not being the interest claimed in the caveat. [4], [13], [28], [31], [32], [43], [45]

4.  A relationship existed between the strength of the case establishing a serious question to be tried and the extent to which the caveator must establish that the balance of convenience favoured maintenance of the caveat. Because the constructive trust claim was not strong the balance of convenience obligation fell more heavily on the caveators. There were significant negative practical consequences for the plaintiff if the caveat was maintained, being –

(a) Frustration of the sale ordered by the Family Court, in circumstances where none of the material facts affecting that order were, or since had been, placed before that court at the material time;

(b) The plaintiff would breach the contract of sale, affecting the purchaser’s rights in a manner with adverse consequences for the plaintiff, which could culminate in her reopening the Family Court proceedings to adjust the value of the pool of matrimonial assets underlying their resolution;

(c) Other than belatedly, the defendants had not offered any undertaking as to damages, notwithstanding that this undertaking was invariably required when a caveat was not removed in circumstances where third party rights would be detrimentally affected. Having regard to the belatedness of the offer it was not deserving of weight in the absence of evidence of its worth;

    There was insufficient evidence that the plaintiff had sold at an undervalue, and if the property market was falling the sale should proceed. [5], [33], [39], [45]-[52]

5.  The course that carried the lower risk of injustice, if it should turn out that his Honour was wrong, was to order that the caveat be removed on the following conditions –

a) amendment of the trust proceeding and it being transferred to the Family Court;

(b) relief of the plaintiff of the obligation to comply forthwith with the orders of the Family Court, and in lieu order that the proceeds of sale be distributed in accordance with paragraphs 7(a) – 7(f) of the order of October 2019 and that the balance remaining be deposited into an interest bearing account and not be disbursed save by further order of the Family Court. [53]-[59]

 Philip H. Barton

Owen Dixon Chambers West

19 May 2020