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.