Three County Court Cases

Today’s blog looks at three County Court cases from 2017, one on whether a contractual right to caveat created a charge/caveatable interest, one on whether a contract of sale existed so giving rise to an equitable and thus caveatable interest, the third on costs.

  • A mere contractual right to caveat, insufficient in this case: Tannous and Anor v Abdo [2017] VCC 304 (31 March 2017) Judge Macnamara.

The plaintiffs alleged that they agreed with Mr Abdo to purchase an interest in a bakery and paid money towards this, which went into the purchase of land by Mrs Abdo. At one point in the litigation to recover the sum paid towards the bakery the parties entered a document which included an undertaking by the Abdos not to sell this land and to permit the plaintiffs to lodge a caveat over it. They caveated claiming “an equitable interest as chargee”. His Honour held that whether, absent an express charging clause, an equitable interest in the nature of a charge was created by a contractual entitlement to lodge a caveat depended on the interpretation of the particular contractual provision: there was no principle establishing what implication must be drawn in all cases from authority to lodge a caveat in connection with an obligation to pay money. No charge was created here: for the plaintiff to succeed here there must be implied not just a charge but also a guarantee by Mrs Abdo of Mr Abdo’s alleged debt. The contractual language did not support creation of a charge. The agreement created at best a negative covenant not the deal with the property, creating no caveatable interest. 

  • No contract, no caveatable interest: Matthews v Knight & Anor [2017] VCC 1537 (27 October 2017) Judge Anderson.

 The facts of this case could be used in a University Exam Paper on whether or not a contract existed. The facts broadly were: delivery by an agent of three contracts (one for each of three properties) to a prospective purchaser; receipt by the agent of $1,000 partial deposit for each contract; the creation of three further contracts, partially reusing the former contracts, signed by the parties, requiring payment of a full 10% deposit by 15 September 2017, if necessary enforceable by reason of part performance; the solicitors acted as though there were enforceable contracts; the purchaser caveated; the balance of deposit was not paid; the vendor’s solicitors rejected a proposal to vary the contract and issued a rescission notice which was not complied with; the erstwhile purchaser engaged in an “opportunistic ploy” to suggest that contracts were still on foot; a further caveat.

The caveats were removed under TLA s. 90(3). The purchaser failed to satisfy the onus of demonstrating a serious issue to be tried that a contract and so an equitable interest in the land existed. There was no contract following the second contracts because: the second contracts were not intended as offers but if they had they were revoked or had lapsed; the purchaser’s purported acceptance of an alleged offer constituted by the delivery of the second contracts (ie the “opportunistic ploy”) did not accept the terms offered but proposed variation which variation the vendor never accepted.

  • Indemnity costs: Hooi & Anor v Lim & Anor [2017] VCC 949 (13 July 2017) Judge Cosgrave.

The first defendant caveated over land of which the plaintiffs were registered proprietors.  He alleged a constructive trust.  He subsequently stated that the basis of the caveat was wrongful diversion of monies and work from a partnership, but also acknowledged that he had no evidence that these monies (or what monies) had been used to purchase the land.  The plaintiffs requested removal of the caveat, asserted that the caveator had no caveatable interest, and foreshadowed indemnity costs.  Subsequently they applied for removal under the TLA s. 90(3).  The first defendant removed the caveat on day before hearing.    

Judge Cosgrave reiterated the legal principles for caveatable removal in conventional terms (roughly as set out in Blog 1) and noted that there was never any serious question to be tried that the defendant had the interest in land claimed.  As to costs his Honour held:

1. Awarding costs involved a discretionary exercise of the court’s powers. The relevant factors to consider in this context included: :

·   whether the caveat was maintained in circumstances where the defendant, properly advised, should have known there was no chance of success;

·    whether the caveat was being used as a bargaining chip;

·    whether the party lodging the caveat was a lawyer.

2.  Indemnity costs would be awarded for several reasons:

·  The first defendant had lodged the caveat without any proper basis, and knew or should have known this;

·  Unjustified allegations of fraud, in this case that land had been purchased with allegedly misappropriated funds, attracted liability for indemnity costs.  One solicitor should not make such an allegation against another without proper basis, exacerbated here because the defendant believed that the plaintiffs had to consent to the lodgment yet had lodged unilaterally.  This increased the likelihood that lodgment was for a collateral or improper purpose; 

·   The first defendant had ignored warnings to remove the caveat; 

·    The interest claimed in the caveat was exaggerated.  

 

Caveatable Interests

  • Charges giving rise to caveatable interests.

  • The indirect ability of the Court of Appeal to remove a caveat.

  • A competition between cash in a solicitor’s bank account and a caveat supporting a charge for potentially a greater amount.

Sim Development Pty Ltd v Greenvale Property Group Pty Ltd [2017] VSC 335 (16 June 2017) Sifris J.

Sim Development Pty Ltd v Greenvale Property Group Pty Ltd [2017] VSCA 345 (17 November 2017) Tate and McLeish JJA.

The plaintiff/appellant (“Sim”) provided services under a consultancy and management agreement for a proposed development on land of which the defendant/respondent (“Greenvale”) was registered proprietor.  Greenvale notified Sim of its intention to terminate the agreement at a specified date.  Sim caveated to secure moneys allegedly owed under the agreement and sued to recover $380,280 and for other relief.  Greenvale counterclaimed and commenced a separate proceeding under the TLA s. 90(3) seeking removal of the caveat.

Sifris J held Sim to be entitled to payment of $152,600.03 and Greenvale to be entitled to some payment on the counterclaim.  His Honour dismissed the caveat proceeding on the ground of a clause providing that on termination of the agreement before completion of the project Greenvale gave Sim “the right to register a charge over the property … and any other property owned by [Greenvale] and such charge is to be applied to the payment in full of any money owed to [Sim Development]”.  Sifris J held that the contractual right to register a charge, in the event of termination, supported the existence of a caveatable interest; and while the clause did not specifically adopt the language of lodging a caveat, its reference to the concept of registration, and lack of sufficient indication to the contrary, supported the conclusion that it gave rise to a caveatable interest.

Sim applied for leave to appeal, seeking orders in substance as sought at first instance. Greenvale did not seek leave to appeal against the caveat proceeding order.  However, desiring to be rid of the caveat, it made an interlocutory application in the application by Sim for leave to appeal, seeking an order directing Sim to withdraw its caveat on Greenvale paying $152,600.03 into an interest-bearing account of Greenvale’s solicitors and undertaking not to sell the land pending determination of the application for leave to appeal and any appeal.

Tate and McLeish JJA held:

  1. The application by Greenvale was competent, being permitted by s. 10(3) of the Supreme Court Act 1986.
  2. Sim would not be ordered to withdraw its caveat, because:
  • the caveat was supported by its right under the agreement to a charge over the land. The withdrawal of the caveat would in effect remove the protection of the security interest the parties provided for in the agreement;
  • if Sim succeeded in any appeal Greenvale may be ordered to pay $380,280. In those circumstances, the amount offered, $152,600.03, would be inadequate and Sim would have lost the protection of the caveat supporting its entitlement to monies owed.  This could render any appeal effectively nugatory;
  • Greenvale had not adequately specified how the caveat would impede the development’s progress. Accordingly, applying a test of balance of convenience, Sim had discharged its onus of establishing that the prejudice that would flow to it from an order directing it to withdraw the caveat outweighed any demonstrable prejudice to Greenvale.

Commentary: A novel case of a creative attempt to get rid of a caveat pending an appeal.  As to caveats supporting charges see also: Evans v Advertising Department Pty Ltd [2009] VSC 587; West Coast Developments Pty Ltd v Lehmann [2013] VSC 617, also [2014] VSC 293.

Antidotes to repeat caveats: enjoining the caveator and Registrar of Titles.

Andrews Family Holdings Pty Ltd v Yellow Tractor Pty Ltd [2017] VSC 682 (8 November 2017); Andrews Family Holdings Pty Ltd v Yellow Tractor Pty Ltd (No 2) [2017] VSC 695 (14 November 2017).  Ginnane J.  

Mr Annesley entered a contract to purchase land from the plaintiff (“Andrews”).  In purported payment of the balance of price he tendered a document entitled ‘Promissory Note’ which was neither a permitted method of payment nor indeed in law a promissory note.  Andrews rescinded the contract.  The defendant (“the company”), of which Annesley was a director and which he had intended to nominate as purchaser, subsequently caveated, the caveatable interest being based on the rescinded contract.  The company was subsequently deregistered.  Andrews applied to remove this caveat under the TLA s. 90(3).  Ginnane J:

  1. Found no serious question to be tried that the company, even if still registered, had a caveatable interest: it was not a party to the contract and had no legal or equitable interest in the property.
  2. Also enjoined Annesley from lodging further caveats in respect of the land without leave. He noted that there was both authority for this course in the caveat context, ie Maryvell Investments Pty Ltd v Velissaris [2008] VSC 19, and the general curial power to grant injunctions given by the Supreme Court Act 1986 s. 37.  This case merited an injunction because Annesley had already lodged two caveats and did not foreswear lodging more.

Undaunted, on the day after this decision Annesley caveated in his own name claiming a purchaser’s lien.   The Titles Office had a copy of the court order but accepted the caveat albeit apparently issuing a requisition requiring Annesley to establish within 14 days that he had the court’s leave.   On an application for removal if this caveat Land Use Victoria argued that it had justifiably given Annesley ‘the benefit of the doubt’, the Registrar having a duty to accept a caveat for lodgment.   Ginnane J:

  1. Held this practice of giving the benefit of the doubt inappropriate for caveators whose previous caveats had been removed or had lapsed or were now subject to injunction. The Registrar’s statutory obligations included giving effect to directions of the Supreme Court (TLA s. 103).
  2. Permanently enjoined Annesley from lodging caveats in respect of the property, with indemnity costs.
  3. Enjoined the Registrar of Titles so that must forthwith reject and not record any caveat by Annesley over the property.

Commentary: This case is a rare case of the Registrar registering a caveat after an injunction was granted.  Otherwise, it succeeds previous cases such as where: the court orders the Registrar not to register any caveat without its leave or further order (Westpac Banking Corporation v Chilver [2008] VSC 587), or any caveat by any person other than a purchaser from the successful plaintiff without its leave for a certain period (Lettieri v Gajic [2008] VSC 378) or enjoins the lodging of further caveats (Marchesi v Vasiliou [2009] VSC 213; Wells v Rouse & Ors [2015] VSC 533).

 

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