17. An application for costs by registered proprietors against a caveator, and a consequential application for costs by all against the caveator’s solicitor, and his application for costs against them

 

Sekhon & Anor v Chandyoke and Ors [2018] VSC 327 (19 June 2018) T Forrest J.

The plaintiffs were a married couple.  The first defendant was the wife’s mother who caveated over a property owned by the couple.  The first defendant’s solicitor was separately represented on an application that he personally bear costs.  The judge had previously ordered removal of the caveat.  The first defendant had been advised by previous counsel that she had no caveatable interest and by her solicitor that there were issues with the caveat, including that there was significant doubt about the caveatable interest and her right to impugned funds.  The defendant conceded that there was no proper basis on which she could have defended the application for removal of the caveat but blamed her solicitor.

His Honour held –

1.      The defendant was made aware on numerous occasions, by both counsel and her solicitor, that she probably had no caveatable interest over the property, but refused to instruct her solicitor to remove the caveat.  Her conduct in the litigation was obstructive and sharp – she demonstrated contemptuous disregard for the litigation.  She persisted with a near hopeless case for the collateral purpose of recovering funds she believed to have been stolen from her but which she knew or ought to have known were unrelated to the property.  There were special or unusual circumstances sufficient to warrant an order that she pay the plaintiff’s costs of the litigation on an indemnity basis. [39]-[40], [42]

2.      To justify an order that the solicitor bear the costs it was unnecessary to establish dishonesty, obliquy or similar – misconduct, default or serious or gross negligence sufficed.  Although the solicitor was at times dilatory he acted for a very difficult client, who directly or indirectly obstructed the fair hearing of the caveat withdrawal application.  The solicitor on several occasions advised the client in effect that it was very likely she would lose and warning of the consequences.  It was also doubtful that the defendant would have taken advice no matter how forceful.  The principles applying to the application, whether under r 63.23 of the Supreme Court Rules or s 29 of the Civil Procedure Act showed that a non-party costs order was prima facie unjust, required caution and should only be made in a clear case.  This was not such a case. [41]

 

Sekhon & Anor v Chandyoke and Ors [2018] VSC 435 (7 August 2018) T Forrest J

 

This case was related to the previous application by the plaintiffs and the first defendant that the first defendant’s solicitor pay costs, which failed in the case referred to above.  The solicitor sought indemnity costs based on two offers before the costs hearing: 

(a) An offer to the plaintiffs on 23 March 2018 open for five days that the solicitor pay the plaintiffs’ costs of the proceeding fixed in the sum of $7500 within two business days;

(b) An offer to the plaintiffs and the defendant on 14 May 2018 open for five days that the application for costs against the solicitor be dismissed and the plaintiffs and defendant pay his costs of the application fixed in the sum of $6000 with a stay of 30 days.

His Honour held –

1.      The general rule that costs followed the event applied and so the plaintiffs and the first defendant were liable to pay the solicitor’s costs on a standard basis.  These costs would be awarded against the plaintiffs alone from 28 March, being from when it was reasonable for the solicitor to commence preparations for his defence, to 5 April, and against the plaintiffs as to half and the first defendant as to half from 6 April, being the date the first defendant filed a notice of waiver and intention to participate in the costs proceedings.   Notwithstanding that the solicitor was dilatory at times this did not justify application of any exceptions to the normal costs rule.  His Honour noted – “Solicitors cannot pick and choose their clients and ought not be judged too harshly when the sins of their clients are sought to be visited upon them”. [9]-[11], [16]-[18]

2.     Indemnity costs would not be awarded because rejection of the:

(a)   first offer was not unreasonable because it preceded any affidavit from the solicitor explaining his conduct; [13]

(b)   second offer was not unreasonable because, being an offer to undertake joint liability, neither party could accept the offer alone: they were an unlikely coalition and it would be unfair to penalise one for the unreasonableness of the other. [14]

 

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.