Blog 76. A collection of claims, none amounting to a caveatable interest.

SJM v PMD & Anor [2023] VSC 349, Daly AsJ.

This case concerns a persistent user of the court system with sundry claims, none caveatable.  Interestingly Daly AsJ essays a definition of what is an estate or interest in land (this being the basis of a caveatable interest under the Transfer of Land Act s. 89).  Lawyers find it easier to say whether, in the particular circumstances of a case, an interest in land exists, than to define one.  Relying on Victorian authority her Honour stated –

“An estate or interest in land required to support a caveat must be an interest in respect of which equity would give specific relief against the land itself, either by way of requiring the provision of a registrable instrument or in some other way, for example, ordering a sale to enable a charge to be satisfied out of the proceeds.”

This is a comprehensive definition though not complete, because, for example it does not cover the interest of an adverse possessor, held caveatable in Nicholas Olandezos v Bhatha & Ors [2017] VSC 234 at [35], [37], nor rights of a legal not equitable nature.  In that case Derham AsJ stated at [18] –

“First, the Caveators must establish that there is a prima facie case – there is a probability on the evidence before the Court that the Caveators will be found to have the asserted legal or equitable rights or interest in the disputed land by adverse possession.”

Any general statement of what is an estate or interest in land also depends on context.  So in Stow v Mineral Holdings (Australia) Pty Ltd (1979) 180 CLR 295, which concerned the requirement that permitted objectors to the grant of a mining licence claim an estate or interest in land, Aickin J. stated at [21] –

“In my opinion the ordinary meaning of the compound expression “estate or interest in land” is an estate or interest of a proprietary nature in the land.  This would include legal and equitable estates and interests, e.g., a freehold or a leasehold estate, or incorporeal interests such as easements, profits a prendre, all such interests being held by persons in their individual capacity.  It does not embrace interests in which the person concerned has no greater claim than any other member of the public.”

  The facts were as follows –

  • The plaintiff and the first defendant (defendant) were in a de facto relationship for about a decade until 2010.  In 2003 the plaintiff purchased a property at Hoddles Creek of which she was sole registered proprietor and where they cohabited until she moved interstate in 2010, returning, she alleged, in 2012 to retake exclusive possession.  In 2012 the defendant caveated claiming an implied, resulting or constructive trust, the grounds of the claim being an alleged constructive trust.
  • On 15 August 2012 the Federal Magistrates’ Court made final consent orders in a proceeding commenced by the defendant including providing three alternatives for disposal of the property.  The first alternative (in paragraph 2 of the orders) was that the defendant pay the plaintiff $110,000 by 15 November 2012 in exchange for a transfer of her interest in the land with him discharging the mortgage and performing certain other obligations.  Failing this alternative being taken, the second alternative gave her an election to retain the property and to pay him $50,000 in exchange for withdrawal of the caveat.  Failing both the foregoing alternatives the property was to be sold and proceeds distributed in a particular manner.  Other orders included (in paragraph 5.2) that the parties would hold their respective interests in the land on trust pursuant to these orders.  The orders concluded that pursuant to s. 81 of the Family Law Act the parties intended them to, as far as practicable, finally determine their financial relationship and avoid further proceedings.
  • Due, the defendant alleged, to the plaintiff’s non-co-operation with his pursuit of the first alternative, he filed an application returnable on 31 October 2012 to enforce the final orders (the enforcement application) chiefly to require the plaintiff to give effect to the first alternative.  The case was not reached, but on that day the plaintiff’s solicitor deposed to holding the required completed Transfer document and that his client was ready, willing and able to settle the sale in accordance with the first alternative on 15 November.
  • Although the orders of 15 August required payment by 15 November the parties agreed to extend the time for settlement to 11.30am on 16 November.  The enforcement application was relisted at 10am on 16 November and stood down pending settlement of the transfer.  However, the transaction did not settle at 11.30am due to a discrepancy between the Transfer and a mortgage, the defendant’s lender Westpac requiring the parties to execute a new Transfer to conform with the terms upon which it had agreed to advance finance.  The defendant and his solicitors then took steps to remedy this and planned to be able to settle at 3:30pm.  However, at about 1.40pm the plaintiff elected to take the second alternative.  When the hearing resumed at around 2.30pm counsel for the defendant sought orders compelling the parties to attend settlement at 3:30pm.  The Federal Magistrate dismissed both this application and the enforcement application on the basis that both parties had complied with their obligations but the bank had prevented settlement, and that to order the parties to attend settlement at 3.30pm would conflict with the orders of 15 August.
  • In December 2012 and February 2014 the defendant refused the plaintiff’s tender of $50,000.
  • In January 2014 an application for leave to appeal against the dismissal of the enforcement application was itself dismissed but the judge commented in substance that instead of appealing the defendant should have commenced proceedings under s. 90SN(1)(c) of the Family Law Act which provided that if, on application by a person affected by an order in property settlement proceedings, the court was satisfied that a person had defaulted in carrying out an obligation imposed by the order and it was just and equitable, the court had a discretion to vary or set aside the order and if appropriate substitute another order.  An application to the High Court for special leave to appeal against the judge’s decision failed.
  • In February 2014 the defendant filed a contravention application in the Federal Circuit Court directed at the plaintiff and her solicitors.  This was dismissed in September 2014, and an application to the Family Court for leave to appeal against this dismissal was itself dismissed except as to a question of possession of chattels which was remitted to the Federal Circuit Court, and an application to the High Court for special leave to appeal against the Family Court decision was itself dismissed.  On the remitted question the defendant failed as did an appeal against this dismissal.
  • The plaintiff applied for removal of the caveat under the Transfer of Land Act s. 90(3), for an injunction restraining the defendant from further caveating, and for compensation under s. 118.  The defendant argued that he had an equitable interest in the land by reason of being the beneficiary of a trust created by the final orders dated 15 August 2012 and having the potential to bring an application to have the orders dismissing the enforcement application and/or the contravention application varied or set aside for fraud.  He also contended that failure of the transaction to settle at 11.30am on 16 November 2012 was not attributable to the action of his bank but to the plaintiff’s actions.

Daly AsJ ordered removal of the caveat on condition that on any sale or refinancing $50,000 be set aside to meet the defendant’s entitlements under the final orders, holding –

  1. An estate or interest in land required to support a caveat must be an interest in respect of which equity would give specific relief against the land itself, either by way of requiring the provision of a registrable instrument or in some other way, for example, ordering a sale to enable a charge to be satisfied out of the proceeds. [67]
  2. The allegation that there was fraud arising from the solicitor for the plaintiff’s affidavit sworn on 31 October 2012, or by counsel’s statements during the hearing on 16 November, was untenable. However, any claim to set aside an order for fraud, which in the case of the orders in the enforcement and contravention applications was accordingly very weak (the strength of the caveator’s claim being relevant to whether the caveat should be maintained), was a mere equity, not a proprietary interest, and so did not found a caveatable interest. [72]-[74], [86]-[90]
  3. Section 91(1) of the Evidence Act 2008 provided that evidence of a decision, or a finding of fact in another proceeding was inadmissible to prove the existence of a fact that was in issue in that proceeding. However, it was doubtful that s. 91(1) excluded evidence contained in reasons for judgment of admissions or concessions made by a party in the course of the other proceeding. The defendant had made such admissions or concessions to the effect that the plaintiff’s bank could discharge its mortgage by the scheduled date.  And the defendant or his counsel had in previous proceedings repeatedly acknowledged that the defendant’s bank was responsible for the failure to settle on 16 November 2012. [82]-[84]
  4. Any claim under the Family Law Act s. 90SN(1) was a statutory claim incapable of giving rise to an equitable interest. [90]
  5. The interpretation of the final orders and of the plaintiff’s entitlement to elect to take the second alternative had been litigated extensively. The defendant was estopped from further litigating either his entitlements under the final orders or the validity of this election.  Even if the question of the alleged fraud had not yet been expressly raised in previous court proceedings, then they should have been so raised having regard to the principles of Port of Melbourne Authority v Anshun (1981) 147 CLR 589.  It was unreasonable for the defendant not to have raised allegations of fraud in the actual enforcement and contravention applications. [90], [93]
  6. The court had considered whether the defendant had any caveatable interest, not just that claimed in the caveat (a claim to the constructive trust having been subsumed in the final orders). And, although in the final orders of 15 August 2012 paragraph 2 gave the defendant an equitable interest in the property akin to that of a purchaser (which alternative had not however been taken) and paragraph 5.2 created a trust, that trust did not survive one of the alternatives in the orders being taken. [71], [94]-[96], [99]
  7. The balance of convenience overwhelmingly favoured removal of the caveat because of the plaintiff’s financial circumstances. [100]
  8. Given the history of litigation and circumstances of the case the defendant was restrained from lodging any further caveats over the land. [103]

Philip H. Barton

          Owen Dixon Chambers West

        Wednesday, August 30, 2023

Leave a Reply