When does a caveat lapse and can the effect of lapse be avoided?

Tawafi v Weil [2017] VSC 643 (21 August 2017) Digby J.

Section 90(1)(e) of the Transfer of Land Act 1958 provides that, subject to certain exceptions, a caveat lapses as to land affected by a transfer upon the expiration of thirty days after notice by the Registrar that a transfer has been lodged for registration.  If within this period the caveator appears before a court and gives an undertaking or security the court may direct the Registrar to delay registration for a further period, or may make such other order as is just (s. 90(2)).  If the Registrar is of opinion that the doing of any act is necessary or desirable, then, if the act is not done within such time as the Registrar allows, the Registrar may refuse to proceed with any registration (s. 105(a)).

The timeline was –

11 April 2017         Plaintiff enters contract to purchase certain land. 

30 May                  Defendant caveats on the grounds of “part performed oral agreement” et cetera with the registered proprietor. 

26 June                  Settlement of the purchase without the caveat being removed. 

28 June (about)   Lodgment of the instrument of transfer (Transfer) for registration. 

29 June                 Registrar notifies caveator that pursuant to s. 90(1) the caveat would lapse on 31 July unless the caveator obtained an order pursuant to s. 90(2).  No order was obtained. 

2 August               Caveator commences a proceeding against registered proprietor inter alia claiming declarations of a proprietary interest in the land and for other relief in substance supporting the existence of the caveat and preventing registration of the Transfer.  An
agreement with the registered proprietor proprietor in early 2016 is alleged whereby the caveator agreed to lend $86,000 on security of this land, followed by that loan.  The second defendant was the conveyancer acting for both sides and the third defendant was the purchaser.  

3 August               The Registrar accordingly issues a Notice of Action prohibiting registration of further dealings until withdrawal of that notice or further order. 

16 August             Purchaser files Originating Motion seeking order for registration and Summons for dismissal of the caveator’s proceeding. 

 

Digby J ordered the Registrar to register the Transfer and remove the Notice of Action.  His Honour reasoned –

  1. The counting of days under s. 90(1) commenced from 30 June, being the day after the notice, thirty days elapsed on Sunday 30 July, and so the expiry date was 31 July. Accordingly the caveator was out of time.  It was irrelevant that s. 105(1) might have achieved a similar result in suspending the progress of registration. [24]-[25]
  2. The judicial approach to caveat removal applications was analogous to that in applications for injunction, ie the burden of proving the caveatable proprietary interest and maintaining the caveat was upon the caveator who must also establish on the balance of convenience that the caveat should be maintained until the trial of the contested proprietary interest. However, because the caveat had lapsed this case was not the usual caveat removal contest. [17]-[19]
  3. In any event the caveator had not raised a sufficient prima facie case of or arguable triable issue concerning the asserted proprietary interest. Further, the balance of convenience heavily favoured the purchaser because: the asserted triable issue was palpably weak; and the purchaser would be prejudiced by deferral of registration, particularly having entered a building contract to improve the property which could not be financed until the financier could register a mortgage. [28], [35]-[38]
  4. Indemnity costs were awarded against the caveator, particularly because of her very weak case, the purchaser having previously asked the caveator in writing to identify an arguable caveatable interest, without proper response, and given appropriate warning to the caveator. [43] – [59]

Caveats in Victoria – the basic requirements

On the evening of 5 July, I gave a paper entitled “Questionable Caveats – To lodge or not to lodge?” at Leo Cussen Centre for Law.  Over 50 persons attended in weather mildly reminiscent of that described in Love’s Labour’s Lost in words commencing “When icicles hang by the wall”.  This indicated the concern in the Victorian profession about this topic.  I intend to deal with Victorian cases as they are decided, but commence with the basic tests under the Transfer of Land Act 1958 s. 90(3).

 

1.                  Power to lodge a caveat over land is given by s. 89(1) which materially provides –

“(1)  Any person claiming any estate or interest in land under any unregistered instrument or dealing or by devolution in law or otherwise or his agent may lodge with the Registrar a caveat in an appropriate approved form forbidding the registration of any person as transferee or proprietor of and of any instrument affecting such estate or interest either absolutely or conditionally ….”

A caveat as a “statutory injunction to keep the property in statu quo until the court has an opportunity of discovering what are the rights of the parties” (Kerabee Park Pty Ltd v Daley [1978] 2 NSWLR 222 at 228).  A caveat or failure to caveat may well also affect priorities between unregistered interests: eg Mimi v Millennium Developments Pty Ltd [2003] VSC 260 at [39].

 

2.                  The methods of instigating removal of caveats: to lodge certain transfers or dealings for registration (ss. 90(1), (2)); to apply to the Registrar for a notice requiring the caveator to commence proceedings (s. 89A); or to proceed in the Supreme Court or County Court against the caveator for removal, the Court being empowered to make such order as it thinks fit.  This blog will deal with s. 90(3) as cases under s. 89A tend to resolve into full trials in which the caveat issue recedes.

 

3.                  In Nicholas Olandezos v Bhatha [2017] VSC 234 at [16] Derham AsJ sets out the summary of principles by Elliott J in Sylina v Solanki [2014] VSC 2 at [43].  These with embellishment are:

(1) The court’s power under s. 90(3) is discretionary.

(2) A caveator bears the onus of establishing a serious question to be tried that it has the “estate or interest in land” claimed (Elliott J).  Derham AsJ expands this [17] by noting that the “serious question to be tried test” was often used interchangeably with the “prima facie case test” and that the latter was preferable: this did not mean that caveators must show that it was more probable than not that at trial they would succeed, but must show a prima facie case with sufficient likelihood of success to justify the maintenance of the caveat and the preservation of the status quo pending trial.  As to the interplay between serious question and prima facie case see further Nicholas Olandezos at [18] and the foundational case of Piroshenko v Grojsman [2010] VSC 240 at [22] (Warren CJ).   Ordinarily the final determination of disputed factual issues or of the claimed interest is unnecessary and inappropriate; but that an exception may be where there is no substantial issue of fact: Nicholas Olandezos at [19].

(3) The caveator must also establish that the balance of convenience favours the maintenance of the caveat until trial (Elliott J).  The court (as in an interlocutory injunction case) takes whichever course appears to carry the lower risk of injustice if it should turn out to have been “wrong”, in the sense of maintaining the caveat in favour of a party who fails to establish his right at trial, or in removing the caveat of a party who succeeds at trial: Piroshenko.

(4) The stronger the case in establishing a serious question/prima facie case, the more readily the balance of convenience might be satisfied.  It is sufficient that the caveator show a sufficient likelihood of success that, in the circumstances, justifies the practical effect which the caveat will have on the ability of the registered proprietor to deal with the property in question in accordance with its normal proprietary rights (Elliott J).

Finally, in Saafin Constructions Pty Ltd v Vidak & Anor [2015] VSC 441 at [21] Warren CJ stated that the two-stage test (ie in (2) and (3) above) “informs, but does not subsume, the exercise of the Court’s discretion”.

 

 

Philip. H. Barton

Owen Dixon Chambers West

Wednesday, September 20, 2017