29. A rare High Court foray into caveats – a claim for compensation under the equivalent of the TLA s. 118 – in what circumstances a trustee in bankruptcy has a caveatable interest – whether the interest claimed was correctly stated in the caveat – why maintenance of a caveat does not require an undertaking as to damages.

Boensch v Pascoe [2019] HCA 49 (13 December 2019) concerned the interaction between bankruptcy law and NSW caveats law, materially identical to Victorian law.  The following provisions of the Bankruptcy Act 1966 were relevant:

Upon a person becoming bankrupt, s 58(1) vests in the trustee in bankruptcy property then belonging to the bankrupt that is divisible among the bankrupt’s creditors together with any rights or powers in relation to that property that would have been exercisable by the person had the person not become a bankrupt.  Excluded by s. 116(2)(a) from the divisible property is property held in trust by the bankrupt for another person.  However where the person who becomes bankrupt is a trustee of property who has incurred liabilities in the performance of the trust, such entitlement as the person has in equity to be indemnified out of the property held on trust gives rise to an equitable interest in the property held on trust taking that property outside the exclusion in s 116(2)(a) (on the basis that the exclusion is limited to property held by the bankrupt solely in trust for another person).

Notwithstanding the foregoing, where the property held on trust by the bankrupt out of which the bankrupt had an entitlement in equity to be indemnified comprised legal title to land registered under the Real Property Act 1900 (NSW) (“the NSW Act”) (ie the equivalent of the Transfer of Land Act 1958), what was vested in the trustee in bankruptcy until the trustee could obtain legal title by registration was only the equitable estate (s. 58(2)).

The NSW Act provided:

any person who, “by devolution of law or otherwise, claims to be entitled to a legal or equitable estate or interest in land” under the provisions of the Act “may lodge with the Registrar-General a caveat prohibiting the recording of any dealing affecting the estate or interest to which the person claims to be entitled” (s. 74F(1));

a caveat must be in the approved form and specify “the prescribed particulars of the legal or equitable estate or interest … to which the caveator claims to be entitled” (s. 74F(5));

failures strictly to comply with the formal requirements for caveats are to be disregarded by a court in determining the validity of a caveat (s. 74L);

upon application by the registered proprietor the Registrar-General was required to serve a notice on the caveator that it would lapse unless within 21 days from service the caveator obtained and lodged a Supreme Court order extending the caveat (s. 74J(1));

any person who is or claims to be entitled to an estate or interest in the land described in a caveat may apply to the Supreme Court for an order that the caveat be withdrawn by the caveator (s. 74MA(1));

any person who, “without reasonable cause” lodges or after request refuses to withdraw a caveat is liable to pay compensation to any person who sustains pecuniary loss attributable to the lodging of the caveat, or the refusal or failure to withdraw it (s. 74P(1)).

The facts were –

  • Mr and Mrs Boensch were registered proprietors of a property.  He claimed that in 1999 they had reached a matrimonial property settlement under which she agreed for consideration to transfer her interest in the property to him.  He also claimed that in 1999 they had executed a Memorandum of Trust which included that she would cause her share of ownership to be transferred to him to hold the whole of land in trust, in substance for their children, and would arrange for a professionally drafted trust document.
  • In October 2003 he was served with a bankruptcy notice.
  • He claimed that in March 2004 they had executed a deed of trust confirming the settlement upon him as trustee in the 1999 Memorandum of Trust, constituting “the Boensch trust”and creating their children as First Group Beneficiaries.
  • On 23 August 2005 a sequestration order was made against him.  The trustee in bankruptcy was legally advised that there were strong prospects of defeating the trust claim.  Documents produced by the bankrupt did not lead the trustee to a contrary view.  On 25 August 2005 the trustee lodged a caveat claiming a “Legal Interest pursuant to the Bankruptcy Act 1966”.
  • Documents and evidence subsequently produced by the bankrupt were for a long time unconvincing.   However in December 2007 a court held that the Memorandum of Trust was not a sham and that it manifested a sufficient intention to constitute a trust.   Appeals failed.
  • The caveat lapsed on 15 September 2009.
  • The bankrupt took proceedings claiming compensation under s. 74P(1).  The primary judge concluded that, because the bankrupt had not proven that the trustee in bankruptcy lacked a caveatable interest it could not be said that the trustee had lodged or maintained the caveat without “reasonable cause”, but that even if the trustee had not had a caveatable interest he nevertheless had an honest belief based on reasonable grounds that he had a caveatable interest and thus reasonable cause to lodge and maintain the caveat within the meaning of s. 74P(1).
  • An appeal by the bankrupt failed but he obtained special leave to appeal to the High Court.  The appeal was unanimously dismissed.  There were two judgments: by Bell, Nettle, Gordon and Edelman JJ.; by Kiefel CJ, Gageler and Keane JJ.  Unless otherwise stated references below are to the judgment of the plurality.  The following propositions emerge from the judgments –
  1. Provided the bankrupt had a valid beneficial interest in the trust property, the trust property vested in the trustee in bankruptcy subject to the equities to which it was subject in the hands of the bankrupt.  For these purposes, a valid beneficial interest meant a vested or (subject to applicable laws as to remoteness of vesting) contingent right or power to obtain some personal benefit from the trust property. [15]
  2. Notwithstanding s. 58(1), a legal estate or interest in land subject to the Real Property Act could not pass to the bankrupt’s trustee in bankruptcy unless and until the trustee applied and subsequently became registered as proprietor of the land.  After this the trustee still held the estate or interest subject to the equities to which it was subject in the hands of the bankrupt. [94]
  3. The onus was on Mr Boensch to establish that he had lacked any valid beneficial interest in the property.  However, the evidence established that he had a beneficial interest in the property – to the extent of his right to retain the property as security for satisfaction of his right of indemnity as trustee of the Boensch trust.  By reason of that beneficial interest, an estate in the property vested forthwith in equity in the trustee in bankruptcy pursuant to s. 58 of the Bankruptcy Act 1966, subject to a subtrust on the terms of the Boensch Trust but permitting the trustee to exercise the right of indemnity.  On that basis, the trustee in bankruptcy was entitled to be registered as proprietor and that was a sufficient basis to sustain his caveat. [102], [116] (Similarly Kiefel CJ, Gageler and Keane JJ at [2]).
  4. There was a division of opinion on whether the interest claimed in the caveat, ie “Legal Interest pursuant to the Bankruptcy Act 1966”, was adequate.  On the one hand, expressing themselves very cautiously, the plurality stated that ([107]) “Generally speaking” it was to be doubted that this claimed interest was adequate to describe an equitable estate vested in a trustee in bankruptcy pursuant to s. 58(2) by reason of the bankrupt’s right of indemnity.  While noting that NSW statutory provisions did not require the caveat to specify whether the interest claimed was legal or equitable, their Honours gave reasons why this wording was inadequate, stating that ([107]) it “may be accepted that a court would not ordinarily make an order under s. 74K(2) of the NSW Act extending the operation of a caveat which employed that description”; and stating in a footnote that it was unnecessary to determine whether the court would have power to order amendment of the caveat in those circumstances referring to Percy & Michele Pty Ltd v Gangemi [2010] VSC 530 at [92]- [102] per Macaulay J.On the other hand Kiefel CJ, Gageler and Keane JJ held that the equitable estate vested in the bankrupt was adequately described in the caveat [11].
  5. The trustee in bankruptcy also had good reason to believe, as he did, that the Boensch Trust was not validly constituted.  However, the possibility that the trust might have been set aside under the Bankruptcy Act would not have been sufficient to sustain the caveat.  The interest asserted in the caveat must be in existence at the time of its lodgment.  The assertion by a caveator, who at the time of the lodgment did not have an estate or interest in the land, that he had commenced proceedings which may result in such an interest being vested in him did not suffice. [103] – [104]
  6. The test for liability under s. 74P(1) was established in Beca Developments Pty Ltd v Idameneo (No 92) Pty Ltd (1990) 21 NSWLR 459 at which time the statutory words were “wrongfully without reasonable cause”.  This test was that the claimant for compensation must establish that the caveator had neither a caveatable interest nor an honest belief based on reasonable grounds that the caveator had a caveatable interest (and thus “without reasonable cause”), and that the caveator acted deliberately, knowing that he or she had no interest in the land (and thus “wrongfully”).  Notwithstanding the repeal of “wrongfully” this remained the correct test. [110], [111] (Similarly Kiefel CJ, Gageler and Keane JJ at [12]).
  7. The plurality noted that the Beca Developments test had been substantially followed by intermediate courts in other States including in Edmonds v Donovan [2005] VSCA 27;  (2005) 12 VR 513 at 548 per Phillips JA (Winneke P and Charles JA agreeing at 516 [2], [3]).  The High Court however left open whether, if that test is not satisfied, a person may still be liable under s. 74P(1) by reason of acting with an ulterior motive or where the only interest supporting a caveat is de minimis in terms of legal content or economic value. [114]
  8. Accordingly provided the caveat was lodged on the basis of an honest belief on reasonable grounds that the bankrupt had an extant beneficial interest in the property (including a beneficial interest by way of right of indemnity) the trustee in bankruptcy had reasonable cause to do so.  In fact there was a caveatable interest here.  Further the trustee honestly believed on reasonable grounds that the property vested in him either because the trust was void or because of the bankrupt’s right of indemnity [105], [108], [116] (Similarly Kiefel CJ, Gageler and Keane JJ at [12]).
  9. Even if, as the plurality had held, there was a mere technical deficiency in the statement of the interest claimed this did not of itself demonstrate the absence of a “reasonable cause” to lodge and not withdraw the caveat, at least where the caveat did not overstate the interest sought to be protected. [108]
  10. The plurality noted that, although a caveat was “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 have to be supported by an undertaking as to damages.  Their Honours justified this on the ground that the holder of an unregistered interest in land under the Torrens system is more vulnerable to inconsistent dealings. [113].

Comment: The equivalent Victorian provision to s. 74P(1) is the TLA s. 118 which provides –

“Any person lodging with the Registrar without reasonable cause any caveat under this Act shall be liable to make to any person who sustains damage thereby such compensation as a court deems just and orders”.

Accordingly the two provisions are materially the same and the High Court’s decision applies in Victoria.  The test in Victoria has however been the same as in NSW, or virtually so, as illustrated in Blogs 9 and 24.

The case is also instructive on –

  1. whether the interest claimed in the caveat was correct.  The comment in paragraph 4 above that the NSW statutory provisions did not require the caveat to specify whether the interest claimed was legal or equitable applies equally in Victoria – the TLA s. 89 simply requires that caveator be a person “claiming any estate or interest in land”;
  2. the interest claimed in the caveat must be in existence at the time of its lodgment – it is not enough that the caveator has commenced proceedings which may result in such an interest being vested in him – paragraph 5 above;
  3. why an undertaking as to damages is not normally required – paragraph 10 above.

13. Caveat lodged to protect priority of equitable mortgage but badly expressed – Caveat not amended but interlocutory injunction granted to protect priority

TL Rentals Pty Ltd v Youth on Call Pty Ltd and Ors [2018] VSC 105 (8 March 2018) Derham AsJ.

This interesting case demonstrates that a badly drawn caveat can be rescued

– not under the TLA caveat provisions but by an interlocutory injunction.

The case is also a good discussion of general caveat principles and priorities

between equitable interests

Katherine and Damian Shannon were the joint proprietors in equal shares of land mortgaged to a bank.

The chronology was –

12 October 2016  Plaintiff (TL) leases equipment to first defendant whose obligations are guaranteed by Katherine.  Guarantee provides that she mortgaged her interest in the land and would on request execute a registerable mortgage. 

12 December 2017 Lessee in default.  TL serves notices on it and Katherine seeking payment. 

21 December 2017 TL lodges caveat claiming a “freehold estate” pursuant to an agreement with the “registered proprietor(s)” dated 12 October 2016.

7 January 2018   Permanent Custodians Limited (PCL) enters loan agreement with the Shannons. 

22 January 2018  Relying on an old title search predating the caveat, PCL advances the funds due by paying out the existing mortgage with the balance to the Shannons.  Mortgage lodged for registration. 

23 January 2018  Pursuant to the Transfer of Land Act (TLA) s. 90(1) Registrar gives notice to TL of lodgment of an inconsistent dealing and that its caveat would expire in 30 days.

20 February 2018 TL commences proceeding claiming a declaration that it had an equitable mortgage or charge over Katherine’s interest in the land securing payment of the sum owed. 

21 February 2018 TL applies the court pursuant to TLA s. 90(2) for an injunction directing the Registrar to maintain the caveat until registration of a mortgage in favour of the plaintiff or further order.

22 February 2018 Interim court order directing the Registrar to delay registration of any dealing.  TL foreshadows application to amend caveat to limit it to a claim for an equitable mortgage over Katherine’s interest in the land.  

2 March 2018      Hearing.  TL abandons argument for amendment and maintenance of caveat but seeks amendment of summons to claim an interlocutory injunction to protect the priority of its mortgage against defeat by registration of PCL’s mortgage.

The TLA s. 90(2) in substance provided, a notice under s. 90(1) having been given, that if within a particular period the caveator appeared before a court, the court may direct the Registrar to delay registering any dealing with the land or make such other order as was just.  Section 90(3) provided that any person adversely affected by a caveat may bring proceedings for the removal of the caveat and the court may make such order as it thought fit.

Derham AsJ  held –

1.     An application under s. 90(3) was in the nature of a summary procedure and analogous to the determination of an interlocutory injunction.  The caveator had the burden of establishing a serious question to be tried that it had the estate or interest in land as claimed and that the balance of convenience favoured maintenance of the caveat until trial.  In an application under s. 90(2) the same burden rested on the caveator. [29]-[30]

2.     The interest or estate claimed in a caveat could probably be amended but only in special or exceptional circumstances, as it effectively substituted a different caveatable interest.  In this case it would have been substitution of a claim to a freehold estate in respect of the registered interests of both proprietors with a claim to an interest under an equitable mortgage granted by one proprietor. Although TL’s mortgage was not in registerable form it was entitled to an unregistered (equitable) proprietary interest over Katherine’s share of the land that was capable of supporting a caveat.  Whilst remaining unregistered it was an agreement to mortgage.  [9]-[10], [20], [31]

3.     TL was granted leave to amend its summons to claim an interlocutory injunction.  The caveat procedure was essentially a statutory injunction granted upon consideration of the same factors applied when granting interlocutory injunctions in equity. [34]-[36] 

4.     PCL was entitled by subrogation to the rights of the mortgagee (NAB) whose mortgage it had paid out.  This gave PCL priority over TL for this part of its loan.  Otherwise approximately $130,000 was secured by TL’s equitable mortgage and $271,000 by PCL’s equitable mortgage. The interest first in time would prevail but that may change where the prior equitable interest holder had so acted that it would be unconscionable if its interest were to prevail. However, mere failure by the prior holder to caveat was insufficient to postpone that interest, even where the subsequent interest has been acquired bona fide and for value without notice and on faith of the title.  The latter interest holder must show a change of position and prove detriment as a necessary element of any claim for postponement. [21]-[22], [44]

5.     It was not unconscionable for TL’s equitable mortgage to be afforded its usual priority.  PCL should have conducted title searches later than six weeks before advance of funds.  Further, having regard to evidence that the market value  of the property sufficed to cover all monies secured against it, PCL had not proved detriment if postponed. [23]-[25]

6.     There was accordingly at least a prima facie case that TL’s mortgage had priority.  Whether this prima facie priority would justify the restraint sought depended on: (a) the practical consequences likely to flow from the interlocutory order sought; (b) whether if the injunction was not granted the plaintiff would be likely to suffer injury for which damages would not be an adequate remedy; (c) whether the balance of convenience favoured the granting of an injunction, as to which the strength of the case on serious question to be tried was relevant; (d) whether other discretionary considerations militate against the grant of the injunction.  TL met these tests.  The grant of an injunction until trial carried the lower risk of injustice if it should turn out to have been wrong. [26], [33], [37]-[38], [46]-[48]

7.     Due to doubt whether TL could satisfy the undertaking as to damages required for an interlocutory injunction, it would be made a condition of the grant of the injunction that the ultimate holding company or another company in the same group join in giving the usual undertaking as to damages. [53]-[54]

3. Principles applicable to application to remove caveat under s. 90(3) of TLA

  • Absolute prohibition

  • Circumstances in which entitlement to payment for work on land caveatable

  • Injunction against future caveat

  • Amendment of caveat

  • Costs

  • Interest claimed being “implied, resulting or constructive trust”

  • Commentary

Yamine v Mazloum [2017] VSC 601 (3 October 2017) John Dixon J.

The timeline was –

Undated                         Plaintiff registered proprietor asks caveator to assist him to prepare property for sale.  Caveator subsequently alleges that in substance: the plaintiff asked him to work to finish his house and prepare it for auction; the caveator replied that a tremendous amount of work was involved which he could not even put a figure on, asked how he would be paid, and said that he would not help unless assured he could be paid; the plaintiff replied that he would be paid for his work from the proceeds of sale. 

March – 23 June 2017  Caveator moves into the property and allegedly fixes it for sale. 

8 July                               Property sold, settlement date 6 September, rescission notice served in September. 

26 July                             Caveat lodged, grounds of claim “implied, resulting or constructive trust”, estate or

interest claimed is a “freehold estate”, all dealings prohibited.

18 September                Following provision of information by caveator’s solicitors and inconclusive negotiations plaintiff foreshadows application to remove caveat, caveator offers withdrawal in return for $45,000 to be held in caveator’s solicitor’s trust account pending resolution of the dispute.

The plaintiff applied for removal of the caveat under the Transfer of Land Act 1958 s. 90(3). John Dixon J ordered removal of the caveat with costs. His Honour reasoned –

1. His Honour first recited certain standard principles, namely –

(1) The power under s. 90(3) was discretionary.

(2) Section 90(3) was in the nature of a summary procedure and analogous to the determination of interlocutory injunctions.

(3) The caveator bore the onus of establishing a serious question to be tried that the caveator had the estate or interest claimed. The caveator must show at least some probability on the evidence of being found to have the equitable rights or interest asserted in the caveat.

(4) The caveator must further establish that the balance of convenience favoured maintenance of the caveat until trial.

(5) As to the balance of convenience generally the court should take the course appearing to carry the lower risk of injustice if the court should turn out to have been wrong in the sense of declining to order summary removal where the caveator fails to establish its right at trial or in failing to order summary removal where the registered proprietor succeeds at trial.

(6) The stronger the case that there was a serious question to be tried, the more readily the balance of convenience might be satisfied. It was sufficient that the caveator showed a sufficient likelihood of success that in the circumstances justified the practical effect of the caveat on the registered proprietor’s ability to exercise normal proprietary rights. [15]

2. His Honour also noted authority for the proposition that “a caveat may only be lodged in a form commensurate to the interest it is designed to protect”. [16]

3. The argument that the caveator’s entitlement to be paid for his work on a quantum meruit was enforceable in equity by a constructive trust was invalid. The plaintiff did not accept any intention to charge or secure the land with the obligation to repay the cost of the work or to create any beneficial interest in it. The concept of salvage, deriving from Re Universal Distributing Co Ltd (1933) 48 CLR 171 at 174 – 5 per Dixon J, was inapplicable: the current case concerned property rights, not rights in insolvency and the property was preexisting and not converted into a fund for the benefit of claimants. There was only an oral agreement for services on a quantum meruit. [19], [24], [26] – [32]

4. If the caveator now evinced an intention to lodge a further caveat claiming an interest as chargee, an injunction would likely lie. [33]

5. No application to amend the caveat was made, and the discretion to amend would not have been exercised because:

(1) The application would have been to amend the interest claimed ie to chargee or equitable lienee, an amendment of interest claimed “not usually be[ing] permitted”, not merely to amend the grounds of claim or scope of protection. [35]

(2) The circumstances the grounds or interest claimed were erroneously stated was were relevant: the caveat was lodged not by an unrepresented person but by a solicitor certifying that he had taken reasonable steps to verify the identity of the caveator and had retained the evidence supporting the claim. [36]

(3) The court should not encourage the belief that caveats could be imprecisely formulated and then fixed up later: a caveat was in effect an interlocutory injunction by administrative act with possible serious consequences. Wrongly formulated caveats should not easily be tolerated. Caveats should not be used as bargaining chips. [37]-[38]

(4) The court should have regard to all of the considerations that arise on applying for removal of the caveat in the terms of the amendment sought. If this caveat was amended the caveatable interest claimed would still lack merit because even if the caveator’s version of the oral agreement was proved it would not create a charge or an equitable lien. [39] – [40]

6. His Honour not merely awarded costs but also reserved liberty to the plaintiff to make any application pursuant to r 63.23 as it may be advised against the first defendant’s solicitors. [44]

7. His Honour noted in passing that use of the phrase “implied, resulting or constructive trust”, which identified three different forms of trust, was “usually evidence of a degree of loose thinking”. [20]

Commentary –

1. His Honour deals with the principles applicable to s. 90(3) and amendment of caveats at length and touches on other interesting points now expanded on.

2. The stress on a caveat not imposing an absolute prohibition if inappropriate is expanded on in Lawrence & Hanson Group Pty Ltd v Young [2017] VSCA 172 to be the subject of a future Blog.

3. Other cases related to whether works on land will create a caveatable interest are –

• Walter v Registrar of Titles [2003] VSCA 122 at [18] – mere work and labour done not caveatable;

• Depas Pty Ltd v Dimitriou [2006] VSC 281 – a builder was found to have at most a contractual right to, and perhaps even an equitable interest in, half a joint venture’s net profit, but not a half interest in the land;

• An equitable lien will give rise to a proprietary and so caveatable interest, a foundational statement on equitable liens being that of Deane J in Hewett v Court (1983) 149 CLR 639 at 668. Caveat cases where no lien was established are: Western Pacific Developments Pty Ltd (in liq) v Murray [2000] VSC 436 and HG & R Nominees Pty Ltd v Caulson Pty Ltd [2000] VSC 126;

• In Popescu v A & B Castle Pty Ltd [2016] VSC 175 Ginnane J held that the only Romalpa clause conferring an equitable interest in land was one entitling the holder to enter upon the land to sever and remove the fixtures, and accordingly removed a caveat based on a clause simply providing that all materials used in a contract remained the supplier’s property until paid in full.

4. As to injunctions against future caveats, or the similar order that the Registrar not register any caveat without its leave or further order see also Westpac Banking Corporation v Chilver [2008] VSC 587, Lettieri v Gajic [2008] VSC 378, Marchesi v Vasiliou [2009] VSC 213; Wells v Rouse & Ors [2015] VSC 533.

  1. 5. The reservation of liberty to apply for costs against the solicitors ties in with an increasing judicial tendency to so order, eg Gatto Corporate Solutions Pty Ltd v Mountney [2016] VSC 752.