Blog 56. No contract of sale, no caveatable interest – Undertaking as to damages?

Wright & Ors v Insert Pty Ltd & Ors [2022] VSC 1, M. Osborne J (11 January 2022)

In this case M. Osborne J. comprehensively dispatched a caveat based on an alleged contract of sale.  His Honour’s thorough reasoning was: no arguable case of a contract (Holdings 1 – 3); non – compliance with s. 126 of the Instruments Act (Holding 4); no part performance (Holding 5); no estoppel (Holding 6); even if there was a prima facie case of an enforceable contract, there was not a prima facie case that a court would grant specific performance of that contract, because the vendors had, after the alleged contract with the caveator, entered a contract with an innocent purchaser, and the caveator arguably would have lost priority to that innocent purchaser (Holdings 7, 8, 10); the caveator would not have been defeated by the doctrine of laches (Holding 9); if the caveator had established a sufficient prima facie case the court would, in assessing the balance of convenience, have required an undertaking as to damages of substance (Holding 11); in any event the caveator failed on the balance of convenience (Holding 12).

This case is interesting for two reasons.  First, where there is no prima facie case of a contract of sale, a court will normally cease its analysis at this point.  M. Osborne J. went further, stating ([87])–

“It is also something of an oversimplification to characterise the critical question as whether the Purchaser has a prima facie case that it has an enforceable contract of sale; in fact, the Purchaser must establish that it has a prima facie case that it has an enforceable contract of sale in respect of which the Court will order specific performance.

The second interesting point is that, if the balance of convenience had been decisive, his Honour would have required, as part of the caveator attaining a credit balance, an undertaking as to damages.  As part of the exercise of judicial discretion the court can require such an undertaking from a caveator – his Honour notes this in footnote 22 of his judgment.  However, whereas undertakings as to damages are universally required from applicants for interlocutory injunctions, they are uncommon in caveat cases.  In Boensch v Pascoe [2019] HCA 49, the subject of Blog 29, the plurality of the High Court noted that, although a caveat was conceived as “a statutory injunction to keep the property in statu quo until [the caveator’s] title shall have been fully investigated”, unlike an application for interlocutory injunction it did not at least in the first place have to be supported by an undertaking as to damages.

 Footnote 22 to M. Osborne J.’s judgment continues that “invariably such an undertaking is required” citing a 1995 text and Harvey v Emery [2021] VSC 153.  That this statement is limited to where there are third party rights is elucidated by the following passage in Harvey v Emery (the subject of Blog 36) at [48] –

“Thirdly, neither by their affidavit, nor their submissions, did the defendants offer any undertaking as to damages, notwithstanding that such an undertaking is invariably required when a caveator is permitted to maintain a caveat in circumstances where third party rights will be detrimentally affected.”

In the instant case the facts were –

  • The four plaintiffs were the registered proprietors of a residential property.  The sole director of the first defendant (Insert) was Shaw.  In 2020 the plaintiffs entered into a contract of sale with Shaw.  He did not pay the balance of purchase monies, the vendors rescinded in July/August 2021 and the deposit was forfeited.
  • Although the vendors had an estate agent, one vendor, Nicholas Wright (Wright), continued with their authority to negotiate directly with Shaw, generating a proposed sale with settlement on 4 October 2021.  However, between 1 and 4 October Wright requested Shaw to do various things, with little response.
  • On 7 October Wright texted Shaw asking whether he was in or out and that a sale could occur possibly that day.  Shaw replied within 30 minutes ‘In’.  Some hours later Wright texted that he was taking it that Shaw was out “unless I get a commitment today”.  A conversation then occurred in which Shaw assured Wright that he was serious about purchasing and had finance, to which Wright responded that there was no contract until a deposit was paid and a contract signed.
  • At 3:50pm on 7 October a conveyancing clerk (the conveyancer), associated with the solicitors acting for Insert and Shaw, emailed the vendors’ solicitor stating her understanding that the clients had been communicating, that the purchase by Shaw was to proceed, and requesting that the vendors’ solicitor advise his clients’ instructions.
  • On 8 October at 6.51pm the vendors’ solicitor emailed in substance that: no contract existed but his client would enter a new contract if put in the same position as if the previous contract had been substantially performed; a draft contract and vendor statement prepared by him could be downloaded from the internet; ‘Our client is prepared to consider entering into a contract with your client on the following terms’ then setting out a price of $4,838,500 and how it was calculated, the deposit and when payable, settlement date, and that a director’s guarantee was required; and ‘this email is not an offer capable of acceptance’.
  • Between 11 and 22 October the parties communicated, including as to clarification of the email of 8 October and communication between Shaw and his financier (the financier).   On 19 October the financier offered a 6 month loan of $3,881,250 subject to verification by it and due diligence.
  • Shaw deposed that on 25 October he stated to Wright that Insert accepted the terms contained in the 8 October email, that the purchase would proceed on that basis, and that Wright agreed that if the financier accepted those terms the financier would issue a PEXA invitation for settlement on 28 October.
  • Shaw also deposed that later on 25 October the financier informed him that it would fund the purchase on the terms of the 8 October email.  He also deposed that later that day he informed Wright that the financier had confirmed finance, and Wright replied that if a PEXA settlement appointment was not set up that day he would sell to someone else next day, and in consequence he (Shaw) requested the financier to open a PEXA transaction that day for settlement on 28 October.  (In fact a PEXA workspace was established on 26 October by Insert’s lawyers).  Wright deposed that he had one telephone discussion with Shaw that day in which Shaw promised that a PEXA transaction would be set up, but he denied that he agreed to sell the property to Shaw in the event that the financier accepted the terms and he denied that Shaw said that a PEXA workspace would be set up for settlement on 28 October.
  • On 25 October, after emails about the terms of any contract, the conveyancer at 3:33pm advised that Shaw was agreeable to proceed on the terms set out in the 8 October email, and she sought a written contract and vendor statement.  At 4:21pm the vendors’ solicitor replied asking when Shaw proposed to settle, noting that the proposed settlement date in the 8 October email was that very day.  The email also stated the solicitor’s statement of the process to be followed, including that he would provide a contract of sale once the details of Shaw’s proposal were confirmed, and that on receipt of the signed contract and a 5% deposit he would submit the ‘offer’ to his client, and that a contract would be formed when he returned the fully signed contract to the conveyancer by way of exchange.
  • On 27 October Insert executed a mortgage to the financier and a PEXA invitation was given for a settlement proposed for 28 October.  The vendors’ solicitor did not accept the invitation and on 27 October advised that the vendors had signed a contract of sale with a third party.  This contract was due for settlement on 17 January 2022.
  • On 28 October Insert caveated on the ground that it had an interest as purchaser pursuant to a contract dated 25 October.
  • Following an application by the vendors under Transfer of Land Act s. 89A(1) Insert commenced, but did not serve, a County Court proceeding seeking a declaration that it had an equitable interest in the property under a contract of sale.  The vendors commenced a proceeding under s. 90(3).

Although the caveat stated that the contract was made on 25 October counsel for the caveator argued that it was made on 7 October 2021.

The vendors deposed that the extent of authority given by them to Wright was to negotiate on their behalf, not to bind them to sell.  The caveator argued that any non-compliance with the Instruments Act s. 126 was overcome by part performance, namely: it executing the mortgage to the financier; it incurring liability to pay the financier $330,878 for fees and prepaid interest; and the opening of the PEXA transaction workspace.

Shaw deposed that if he did not obtain specific performance he would lose the ability to make a profit of $4.2m. in developing the land.

M. Osborne AsJ held –

  1. No contract was made on 7 October 2021.  At its highest, Shaw’s evidence that he was ‘in’ evidenced that he wanted to purchase.  To determine whether an agreement had been reached it was permissible to have regard to subsequent communications: those post 7 October were all inconsistent with such an agreement – in particular the conveyancer’s emails of 11 and 25 October and the caveat itself. [73]
  2. The email chain did not evidence a contract made on 25 October, and in fact contradicted it, particularly the emails of 8 October at 6:51pm and 25 October at 3:33pm and 4:21pm. [70]
  3. As to Shaw’s evidence that, notwithstanding these emails, by their conversations on 25 October he and Wright agreed on a sale for $4,838,500, with no deposit, and with settlement on 28 October subject to the financier agreeing to finance the purchase on the terms of the 8 October 2021 email:
    1. although on an interlocutory application the court would not definitively reject this evidence yet an assessment of it was relevant to whether there was a prima facie case;
    2. in this regard Shaw’s evidence was: disputed by Wright’s evidence; in disconformity or inconsistent with emails that day; uncorroborated in any significant way by contemporaneous documentary evidence; not adverted to by Insert’s solicitors in their email of 29 October; and entailed (notwithstanding Shaw having defaulted under the 2020 contract) Wright agreeing to sell subject to a condition wholly for Shaw’s benefit, which was then satisfied by establishment of a PEXA settlement appointment three days later with no deposit or signed contract, with the consequence that the property was taken off the market despite negotiations with other purchasers. [71]
  4. Even if there was an agreement, s. 126 of the Instruments Act was not complied with.  Even if (which the court did not decide) the co-vendors had cloaked Wright with ostensible authority to bind them to sell on terms negotiated by him, this was not in writing and so did not comply with s. 126. [75]-[77]
  5. Non – compliance with s. 126 was not in this case overcome by part performance.   The doctrine of part performance permitted enforcement of an oral contract where there were acts undertaken which of their own nature were unequivocally referable to a contract of the kind alleged.  Such acts must be such as to change the relative positions of the parties in relation to the subject matter of the contract.   Each act relied on here, particularly the mortgage and opening of the workspace, was a unilateral act of the supposed purchaser, readily explicable as preparatory to the making of an agreement and not changing the purchaser’s relative position to the property.  It was also difficult, the loan not having been drawn down, to accept that Insert had incurred a liability of $330,878.  The evidence at most suggested possible payment of a non-refundable application fee of $5,000. [78], [79], [81]-[83]
  6. For related reasons the purchaser’s argument that the vendors were estopped from denying the enforceability of the alleged contract was rejected.  Even on the most favourable view of the evidence for the purchaser, there was no clear and unequivocal representation that a legally binding contract of sale existed, no detrimental reliance (unless, of which the court was not satisfied, substantial fees had been incurred to the financier), and no evidence of the vendors knowing that such fees were being incurred on the faith of a representation by them.  Moreover, the period of any detrimental reliance was two days at most, such that the equity said to arise was wholly disproportionate to the minimum equity necessary to ameliorate the detrimental reliance. [84]-[86]
  7. It was an oversimplification to characterise the critical question as whether the purchaser had a prima facie case of an enforceable contract of sale of land: it must establish such a case in respect of which the court would order specific performance.  Ordinarily such a prima facie case sufficed to establish a prima facie case for specific performance, land being of a sufficiently unique character as to make damages an inadequate remedy, even land purchased as part of the business of a property developer. [87], [89]
  8. However, here the basic position (set out in the holding 7) was complicated by the third party contract, rendering this in essence a priority dispute between Insert and that purchaser (there being no evidence of that purchaser having notice of any interest of Insert’s in the land).  As to this –
    1. priority was accorded to the competing equitable interest created first in time, save where conduct by the holder of the prior interest rendered this inequitable;
    2. the failure to lodge a caveat may in certain circumstances constitute postponing conduct;
    3. although Insert alleged that the contract was made on 7 or 25 October, the caveat was not lodged until 28 October, being the day after the third party contract, and from 7 October onwards not only, while knowing that vendor’s agent was negotiating with other parties from at least 4 October, did Insert fail to assert that it had an enforceable agreement, the solicitors’ communications were to the contrary effect.  If Insert had made this assertion there was every reason to believe that the vendors would not have entered into the third party contract.  There might therefore have been considerable force in the proposition that any interest of Insert was postponed to that of the third party, in which case, specific performance would not have been ordered. [90]-[93]
  9. Further, the doctrine of laches required that those seeking equitable remedies, such as specific performance, use due diligence, where on notice or otherwise knowing that prejudice could arise to a defendant or third party if the claim was not pursued.  However, mere delay not occasioning prejudice was insufficient.  Any prejudice here was most likely to have occurred in the periods from 7 October onwards and from 25 October onwards.   Accordingly, the delay in initiating legal proceedings and prosecuting the claim for specific performance was insufficient to establish laches (but was relevant to the balance of convenience). [94]-[96]
  10. For the foregoing reasons, the caveator had not established a prima facie case of the existence of a legally enforceable agreement for sale with sufficient likelihood of specific performance to justify the maintenance of the caveat and the preservation of the status quo pending trial. [97], [105]
  11. In assessing the balance of convenience, had the court been minded to maintain the caveat this would have only been on the basis of an undertaking as to damages of substance, ie by Shaw not Insert. [99]
  12. Even if the caveator had established a prima facie case it would have failed on the balance of convenience because:  Shaw was open to a monetary solution; Insert’s pursuit of the claim for specific performance was marked by lack of urgency; Insert could sue for damages.  This was particularly so when assessed in light of the weakness of Insert’s claim and (as the effect of not removing the caveat would be to equivalent to enjoining the vendors from settling the third party contract) interference with the third party’s rights. [96], [100]-[105]

   Philip H. Barton

          Owen Dixon Chambers West

        Wednesday, May 25, 2022


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