Blog 45. Getting your priorities straight.

This Blog deals with two recent caveat cases also involving priorities between interests in land, one simple, one complex. 

In Capital One Securities Pty Ltd v Lesic & Anor [2020] VSC 781, Ginnane J, 13 November 2020, the facts were –

  • Vongsa and Suzana Soch were registered proprietors of a property subject to a first mortgage to a bank and a second mortgage to the plaintiff securing a claimed debt of about $149,000.
  • A mortgagee’s auction had occurred.  The sale was not yet completed.
  • On 27 March 2020 the first defendant lodged a caveat claiming an implied resulting or resulting trust.  On 29 October 2020 he obtained a County Court judgment for $349,163.62 against Vongsa Soch for default in making discovery and in not attending a mediation, including a declaration that he had an equitable interest in the property and was entitled to maintain a caveat over the title. 

The plaintiff applied under the Transfer of Land Act s. 90(3) to remove the caveat.  Its director deposed to loan advances and that it would suffer a shortfall at settlement of the sale.   Ginnane J. removed the caveat and ordered the first defendant to pay costs on a standard basis.  Although there was a prima facie case that the first defendant had an equitable interest in the land, the plaintiff’s interest as second mortgagee had priority and the balance of convenience favoured removal of the caveat because it was impeding settlement of the mortgagee’s sale.

Roberts Gray Pty Ltd v Brunner & Ors [2021] VSC 76, Daly AsJ, 9 March 2021.

The facts were –

  • The first defendant (Brunner) owned a disused mining site at Yandoit Creek Road Franklinford worth about $320,000 (‘the land’). 
  • In 2016 a company (‘Vesterdix’) entered a rental agreement with TL Rentals Pty Ltd (‘TL Rentals’).   Brunner guaranteed Vesterdix’s obligations and as security agreed to mortgage the land to TL Rentals.  On 30 March 2017 TL Rentals caveated over the land based on this mortgage.  Vesterdix subsequently defaulted and TL Rentals eventually claimed a debt of about $96,000. 
  • On 11 April 2017 the fourth defendant (‘PG Walton’) registered a mortgage over the land to secure a short term advance. 
  • On 23 June 2017 it was agreed between the third defendant (Kellam) and Brunne that Kellam lend Brunner $30,000 and Brunner charge any freehold land he owned in favour of Kellam (‘June 2017 agreement’).  A copy of this document was in evidence but there was no direct or documentary evidence of the actual advance of monies.
  • Kellam also alleged that in August 2017 he acquired the debt (then standing at $188,065.50) and first mortgage held by PG Walton and made a further advance to Brunner.  There was, however, no direct or documentary evidence of payment to PG Walton.   However, PG Walton’s solicitors subsequently sent to Kellam’s solicitors the certificate of title and a discharge of its mortgage.  Kellam did not lodge these documents for registration. 
  • On 26 September 2017 Brunner executed a mortgage in favour of Kellam (‘Kellam mortgage’) under which Brunner promised to pay the mortgagee on demand all moneys owing by the mortgagor to the mortgagee including the moneys under a loan agreement between the parties executed that day.  However, no loan agreement was in evidence other than the June 2017 agreement.   There was no direct evidence of the sums secured and conflicting evidence about the size of the mortgage debt. 
  • From 2016 to 2018 the plaintiff (Roberts Gray), whose principal was Roberts, acted for Brunner including in a Family Court proceeding fixed for trial on 6 July 2018.  Brunner was non-compliant with financial disclosure orders and had not put Roberts Gray in funds.    
  • On 11 May 2018 Brunner emailed a draft financial statement to Roberts, prepared with the assistance of an accountant (‘the accountant’), which included: under the heading ‘Other mortgage payments’ that Kellam was the lender, that the address of the property was Yandoit Creek Road Franklinford and that the average weekly amount was $360; under the heading ‘Other mortgages’ that Brunner was the borrower, that ‘your share’ was 100% and ‘amount of your share’ was $200,000 (without specifying any security property).  However, the section headed ‘Liabilities’ did not list Kellam as a creditor.
  • On 5 July 2018 Brunner executed a document charging in favour of Roberts Gray ‘all land owned by me … now or in future as security for the payment of all professional fees and disbursements now owing or at any time may be owing by me to Roberts Gray Pty Ltd for legal services provided to me’.  (Roberts Gray subsequently conceded that the charge was ineffective to the extent that it sought an equitable interest in properties not legally and beneficially owned by Brunner, ie any property other than the land).
  • The Family Court trial date of 6 July was vacated.  On 20 July Brunner’s financial statement, in substantially similar form to the draft, was filed.  The reference to the payment of $360 per week to Mr Kellam remained.  However, under the heading ‘other mortgages’, appeared: ‘Jon Brunner borrowed against Yandoit and 308/6 Victoria Street the sum of $600,000’.
  • The plaintiff ceased acting for Brunner, claimed a debt of about $85,000 with interest, and on 30 August 2018 caveated over the land claiming an interest as chargee pursuant to an agreement with Brunner, J. B. & F. Investments Pty Ltd, and Vesterdix.  Brunner was the sole director of both companies and deposed that there was no agreement between Roberts Gray and either company.
  • On 10 December 2018 the Kellam mortgage was lodged for registration.
  • Following notice of this lodgment Roberts Gray commenced a proceeding seeking relief, including: an order under s. 90(2) that the Registrar of Titles delay registering the Kellam mortgage; an order that it have leave to amend the grounds of claim in its caveat by deleting all parties to the agreement with Brunner except itself; a declaration that it held an equitable charge; and an order for sale of the land.
  • Registration of Kellam’s mortgage was ordered to be delayed, eventually until the trial and determination of the proceeding.    
  • On 20 February 2020 Brunner was declared bankrupt.
  • Roberts deposed or gave evidence:
    • that on 25 August 2017 the solicitors for the other party in the Family Court proceeding, Lander & Rogers, sent a copy of the June 2017 agreement to his firm;
    • that on 2 November 2017 Lander & Rogers wrote referring to the June 2017 agreement and to a loan from PG Walton to Vesterdix of $165,000 secured by a mortgage over the land and another property.
    • that on receipt of the draft financial statement on 11 May 2018 he knew of the $30,000 loan by Kellam to Brunner;
    • that when the charge was executed (on 5 July 2018) he believed that this loan had been paid off or (he also deposed) significantly reduced but had not contacted Kellam about this;
    • denying that before execution of the charge he was aware that Kellam had an interest in the land or that Brunner (who deposed to the contrary) had so instructed him, or that the Kellam mortgage existed, and stating that before taking the charge he did not do a title search or attempt to ascertain what interest if any PG Walton or TL Rentals had in the land;
    • denying that Brunner told him, immediately before filing the financial statement on 20 July, of the Kellam mortgage;
    • stating that on 20 July 2018 the accountant told him that the loan of $30,000 had been repaid and had not told him of a mortgage securing $250,000 plus interest.  He denied (contrary to evidence of the accountant) that the accountant had told him that the ‘private client mortgage’ over Yandoit secured $250,000 plus interest and denied that the accountant had met him before 20 July;
    • that he had never seen any document evidencing a loan by Kellam in any amount other than $30,000;
    • that he believed that the sworn financial statement “loaded up” the land to defeat the interests of the other party.
  • Brunner gave evidence that: Roberts did not ask him how much equity he had in the land; and he did not tell Roberts that he had no equity in the land, as there was no need because, having prepared Brunner’s financial statements, Roberts knew this.

Kellam submitted that he held two distinct security interests over the land: a subrogated right to the PG Walton mortgage; and an equitable interest by reason of his possession of the unregistered Kellam mortgage, the discharge of PG Walton mortgage and the certificate of title.  It was common ground that the interest in the land of TL Rentals had priority over any interest of Roberts Gray’s.  TL Rentals abided the outcome of the proceeding.

Daly AsJ held –

  1. On the balance of probabilities Kellam paid out the PG Walton mortgage.  While there was no evidence of the time and amount of funds transferred, the PG Walton loan was by inference discharged before October 2017, when the certificate of title and discharge of mortgage were delivered to Kellam’s solicitors.  The timing of the execution of the epitome of the Kellam mortgage was also consistent with this. [125]-[127]  
  2. Ordinarily, absent evidence that the epitome of mortgage was either a forgery or a sham, its very existence was compelling evidence of the evidence and validity of an equitable mortgage. [129], [133]
  3. The authorities were divided on whether a party claiming to be subrogated to the rights of a prior mortgagee was entitled to the benefit of the terms of the underlying loan contract.  The better view was that the subrogated party did not automatically acquire identical contractual rights to the original interest holder, such as, for example the interest rate payable by the mortgagor to the original lender. [123]
  4. Kellam had discharged the onus of establishing his entitlement to be subrogated to the rights of PG Walton under the PG Walton mortgage to the extent of the sum paid by him to it to discharge its loan to Brunner secured by the mortgage, plus interest. [83], [118], [131] 
  5. As Kellam was entitled to be subrogated to the rights of PG Walton under its mortgage, and this mortgage was registered, Kellam had priority over TL Rentals and Roberts Gray with respect to the amounts paid by him or on his behalf to PG Walton. [131]
  6. Any sums secured by the Kellam mortgage which were not referable to the PG Walton mortgage were thus secured only by an equitable mortgage, which ranked behind the interest of TL Rentals. [131]
  7. As to whether Kellam’s interest as the holder of an equitable mortgage should prevail over Roberts Gray’s later interest as chargee –

    (a)    Where merits were equal, the general principle applying to competing equi­table interests was that priority in time of creation gave the better equity. [118], [141], [160]

    (b)   Where merits were unequal and favoured the later interest, as for instance where the owner of the later interest was led by conduct of the owner of the earlier interest to acquire the later interest in the belief or on the supposition that the earlier interest did not then exist, the later interest would have priority.   It was always necessary to characterise the conduct of the holder of the earlier interest in order to determine whether, in all the circumstances, that conduct was such that in fairness and in justice the earlier interest should be postponed to the later. [141], [143], [144]

    (c)   The mere failure of the holder of a prior equitable interest in land to lodge a caveat did not in itself involve the loss of priority which the time of the creation would otherwise give. [144] (d)    A person taking an interest with actual, imputed, or constructive notice of an earlier interest took subject to that interest, unless the earlier interest holder had engaged in conduct to induce the belief in the later interest holder that the earlier interest no longer existed. [156], [157], [161]

    (e)    The onus rested on the holder of a later interest to show that the earlier should be postponed. [84]

    (f)    The evidence was inconclusive on whether Roberts Gray had actual notice of the Kellam mortgage.  However, it would have been open to Roberts Gray (and prudent) to conduct a title search before taking the charge.  This was inexcusable in the context of a priority dispute.  Although a title search at the time the charge was taken would not have disclosed Kellam’s interest in the land the PG Walton mortgage and the TL Rentals caveat would have been revealed.  Upon such a discovery, Roberts Gray would have been in a position to make more fulsome inquiries of PG Walton and/or TL Rentals and Brunner.  Accordingly Roberts Gray had at least constructive notice of Kellam’s interest. [118], [162], [165], [167]-[169]

    (g)     However, even if this finding of constructive interest was incorrect, there was no basis for postponing Kellam’s equitable interest to Roberts Gray’s interest.  Kellam had not so conducted himself as to induce a party in the position of Roberts Gray into believing there was no prior interest holder.  The agreement by Brunner and Kellam to keep their arrangements private did not misrepresent the position to third parties. [118], [170], [171] 

  8. The application to amend the caveat by deleting J. B & F Investments Pty Ltd and Vesterdix would be granted because:

    (a)    it would not alter the estate or interest claimed in the caveat, but amend the grounds of the claim, with no prejudice to anyone; [178]

    (b)    Roberts Gray undoubtedly had an interest in the land as chargee.  The ques­tion of the validity of the charge has fallen away and the only dispute was over priority, which should be determined on the merits; [179]

    (c)    although less latitude was affordable to a caveat lodged by a solicitor, as op­posed to one prepared by a lay person, the prejudice to Roberts Gray of not being able to amend the caveat outweighed this consideration. [118], [180]

  9. Given that Kellam stood in the shoes of the holder of a registered mortgage, he had a prima facie entitlement to take possession of and sell the land, provided the requirements of s. 77 of the TLA had been fulfilled, and subject to his obligations to account to TL Rentals and Roberts Gray.  However, there was no evidence that the threshold requirements of s. 77 had been met, and given that the parties all agreed on sale, the court would appoint the trustee in bankruptcy to do this and account to the interest holders. [118], [183]

Philip H. Barton

Owen Dixon Chambers West

Tuesday, 29 June 2021

37. Caveat claiming resulting implied or constructive trust removed – No prima facie case – Difference between “prima facie case” and “serious question to be tried” tests – Circumstances in which hearsay admissible on application under TLA s. 90(3).

SMAV Nominees Pty Ltd v Bakal Enterprises Pty Ltd [2020] VSC 203 (24 April 2020), Derham AsJ

Comment.   This case is interesting for the following reasons –

1.   It considers the circumstances in which hearsay is admissible on an application to remove a caveat under the Transfer of Land Act s. 90(3).  See also Blog 11.

2.     Derham AsJ considers whether the caveator has to show, as to the existence of its asserted legal or equitable rights in the land, on the one hand a prima facie case or on the other hand a serious question to be tried.  His Honour states that the first is the correct test (as previously stated in Blog 1) and indeed states (at [64]) that the first test requires a higher standard than the second, citing the decision of Warren CJ in Piroshenko v Grojsman [2010] VSC 240; (2010) 27 VR 489.  It is, however, difficult to find any case in which a court holds that a caveator met one and not the other test (in this case Derham AsJ finds that caveator failed both), and indeed in Concrete Mining Structures Pty Ltd v Cellcrete Australia Pty Ltd [2015] FCA 888 at [33] (not a caveat case) Edelman J stated that the difference between the two tests is one of language not of substance.

3.   Although his Honour simply ordered that the caveator pay the plaintiff’s costs of the application he reserved liberty to apply in relation to his proposed orders.  It was ominous that he also found that the caveat had been used as a bargaining chip as this may foreshadow indemnity costs – see Blog 35 and previous Blogs on costs. 

The facts were –

·      In October and November 2017 the plaintiff’s sole director Mavroudis loaned Sabawi a total of $200,000.

·     In April 2018 Mavroudis was introduced to 294 Pound Road Hampton Park (“the property”) by Sabawi, whom he believed to be a licensed real estate agent.   On 13 April he signed a “Letter of Offer Expression of Interest” and paid a holding deposit of $10,000 to one of the vendors at the direction of Sabawi.

·    On or about 17 April 2018 Sabawi asked Mavroudis for his bank account details so that he could repay the loan of $200,000.  Mavroudis did this.  Sabawi subsequently advised Mavroudis that he had repaid the $200,000 to his account.  Mavroudis received the $200,000 into his account on 18 April 2018, recorded in his bank statement as “Inward Telegraphic Transfer 180490”.   

·   On 7 July 2018 Sabawi presented the contract of sale to Mavroudis for signing with the purchaser named as “294 Pound Road Pty Ltd” and the vendor’s estate agent named as a particular company formed by the two of them other than for the purpose of selling real estate.  Mavroudis signed only after insisting that the document be altered to show the plaintiff as purchaser and the sale as being by private treaty.   The plaintiff became registered proprietor. 

·  On 23 August 2019, the solicitors for the plaintiff and Mavroudis received a letter of demand from the then solicitors for the first defendant (“Bakal Enterprises”) demanding repayment of $200,000.  Among other things the letter alleged that, following discussion with an unnamed mutual friend, Bakal Enterprises had paid $200,000 into Mavroudis’s account on 18 April 2018 as a contribution towards a development on the property, which had fallen over.  Shortly before this letter Mavroudis received a telephone call to similar effect from, he gathered, Bakal, who was Bakal Enterprises’ sole director.

·        On 27 August 2019 the plaintiff’s solicitors responded, stating that Mavroudis’ first knowledge of these allegations was in this telephone call and refuting them.  On 16 September 2019 the then solicitors for Bakal Enterprises responded confirming that the mutual friend was Sabawi, enclosing a receipt so as to corroborate the statement that Bakal Enterprises and not Sabawi had made the $200,000 payment, and demanding its repayment. 

·     The plaintiff heard nothing further until receiving notice that Bakal Enterprises through its new solicitors Madgwicks had caveated on 10 February 2020 claiming a freehold interest in the property on the basis of a resulting implied or constructive trust.

·     The plaintiff’s solicitors demanded removal of the caveat and stated  that the $200,000 had been repayment of a loan by Sabawi.  On 27 and 28 February Madgwicks and the plaintiff’s solicitors communicated, in the course of which:

·       Madgwicks stated that Sabawi denied the loan, maintaining that the caveator had an interest in the land arising from the contribution of $200,000 towards its purchase;

·   the plaintiff’s solicitors provided documentary evidence of the $200,000 loan to Sabawi, foreshadowed caveat removal proceedings, reiterated Mavroudis’ previous account of the facts, and stated that: the plaintiff had purchased the property with its own funds and financial assistance from Mavroudis’s father; a planning permit for a subdivision of the property was imminent; the plaintiff had a very interested buyer once it could sell with plans and permits but that this was impeded by the caveat. 

·        On or about 5 March Bakal and Sabawi conferred with Madgwicks. On 12 March Madgwicks wrote to the plaintiff’s solicitors stating, after reiterating its instructions about the $200,000 payment, that Sabawi had instructed it that Mavroudis inappropriately altered the name of the purchaser in the contract of sale from 294 Pound Road Pty Ltd (to be incorporated between Mavroudis and Sabawi) to the plaintiff’s name and “[we] are informed by Mr Sabawi that this change was made under false pretences and without adequate payment to Mr Sabawi, who was instrumental in facilitating the sale in the first place …. Mr Sabawi is currently attending to swearing a statutory declaration confirming the above…”.

The plaintiff applied under s. 90(3) of the Transfer of Land Act for removal of the caveat.  Before the caveator filed any evidence Madgwicks offered in return for withdrawal of the caveat that $300,000 be held in trust pending determination of the dispute.

The material before the court included –

·      an affidavit by the caveator’s solicitor which stated that a statutory declaration was being prepared by Sabawi;

·       an affidavit by Bakal.  This affidavit exhibited a statutory declaration, inferred by his Honour to have been prepared by Madgwicks, said to have been made by Sabawi, containing Sabawi’s evidence including disputing Mavroudis’ account of the facts.   Bakal asserted that Sabawi had not sworn an affidavit because of the social distancing measures required in the COVID-19 pandemic. The statutory declaration omitted reference to the false pretences allegation contained in Madgwicks’ letter of 12 March.  It included that: in March 2018 Sabawi told Mavroudis that he was getting a friend to pay the deposit for the purchase; that after the $200,000 payment, Mavroudis acknowledged to Sabawi that the plaintiff had received the money; and he informed Mavroudis at the time of payment that the money was sent to him from Bakal for the purposes of the purchase.

·        Bakal’s affidavit contained a rendition of financial and property dealings between Sabawi and Bakal, with repetition of statements allegedly made by Sabawi about Mavroudis.  Bakal deposed –

·        that he did not know Mavroudis personally and other than the transfer of the $200,000 he had not had any relationship or dealings with him or his entities;

·        (partly denied by Mavroudis) as to an alleged involvement in this transfer of $200,000, garnished with further complex dealings.  He deposed that: on or about 18 April 2018, he transferred $200,000 to the plaintiff by electronic fund transfer, without contact between the plaintiff (or Mavroudis) and Bakal Enterprises (or Bakal); the details of who and when to pay were provided by Sabawi to him.  The reference on the payment produced by Bakal was “Deposit Pound Road”.  

·        affidavits by Mavroudis in which he deposed that when he signed the contract of sale he did not know, or know of, the caveator or anyone associated with it, and that he had not entered into any agreement, either personally or through any agent, with the caveator or any other party in relation to the property.  Mavroudis deposed that there was no truth in the account in the statutory declaration. 

The plaintiff submitted that the statutory declaration was inefficacious for non- compliance with the Oaths and Affirmations Act 2018 in its execution and witnessing. 

Derham AsJ held –

1.     Sabawi could have sworn an affidavit deposing to the matters in his statutory declaration.   The inconsistencies between the statutory declaration and matters raised in correspondence, in particular in the Madgwicks letter of 12 March, were relevant to an assessment of the strength of the caveator’s claim.  [27]-[28]

2.     However, regardless of the efficacy of that statutory declaration under the Oaths and Affirmations Act, the material in it was admissible because –

(a)     Under r. 43.03(2) of the Supreme Court (General Civil Procedure) Rules 2015, on an interlocutory application an affidavit may contain a statement of fact based on information and belief if the grounds were set out.  This included the identification of the supplier of the information, ie its source.  Nonetheless, the Court had a discretion to admit an affidavit non-compliant in this regard;

(b)     Section 75 of the Evidence Act 2008 provided that in an interlocutory proceeding the hearsay rule did not apply to evidence if the party who adduced it also adduced evidence of its source.  The source must be identified by name;

(c)     If Bakal’s affidavit had related the material in the statutory declaration as what he had been told by Sabawi it would have been admissible, this application being interlocutory and the source being disclosed. [51]-[56]

3.     His Honour set out the law on caveats in conventional terms, which, as this law is set out in Blog 1, it is unnecessary to repeat except in one regard.   His Honour noted that: the caveator bore the onus of establishing a prima facie case to be tried, ie a probability on the evidence that the caveator will be found to have the asserted legal or equitable rights or interest in the land, not that it was more probable than not that at trial it (his Honour states “the plaintiff” but this appears to be a slip) would succeed; and that probability is sufficient to justify the practical effect which the caveat has on the ability of the registered proprietor to deal with the property in accordance with their normal proprietary rights;

this test was often used interchangeably with whether the caveator established a serious question to be tried, but the prima facie case test was to be preferred;

the “prima facie case” test required a higher standard that the “serious question to be tried” test.  [30]-[33], [64]

4.     Where two people provided the purchase money for a property jointly, but the property was put into the name of one of them only, the property was, in the absence of a relationship giving rise to a presumption of advancement, presumed to be held on resulting trust in favour of the unregistered party in proportion to their contribution. [57]

5.     The caveator had not established a prima facie case or even, if it had been applicable, satisfied the serious question to be tried test, because Mavroudis gave evidence that he believed the payment of $200,000 was repayment of a debt and the evidence to the contrary was at best contained in Sabawi’s statutory declaration, which was of little weight, ambiguous and contrived.   Insofar as it purported to ascribe knowledge to Mavroudis of the purpose of the payment, it did not support a resulting trust claim: there was no identification of the supposed beneficiary of the trust beyond “a friend” and the ambiguous statement that the money was sent to the plaintiff by Bakal for the purpose of purchasing the property.  That might indicate that the beneficiary was to be Sabawi or Bakal.   The only objective evidence supporting the caveator’s claim was the payment of $200,000 itself and the record that Bakal produced that it related to “Pound Road”.   However, there was no evidentiary link between the payment of $200,000 and the payment of the deposit nearly three months later. [58]-[65], [76]

6.     For the same reasons there was also no prima facie case of a Muschinski v Dodds constructive trust.  There was no evidence of consensus between the caveator and the registered proprietor which could give rise to a joint endeavour. [66]-[69]

7.    There was no suggestion that the existence of a claim for restitution gave rise to any equitable interest in the property. [70], [76]

8.     The caveat had been used as a bargaining chip to obtain payment of $200,000.  Although there were many cases in which a caveat dispute was resolved as proposed by the caveator’s solicitors, with the addition of a mechanism for the resolution of the dispute sometimes involving the caveator commencing a proceeding, the registered proprietor was entitled to deal with its property as it saw fit without being restrained by the injunctive effect of the caveat unless the caveator established a proper basis for the caveat. [73]-[76]

9.     The caveator was ordered to pay the plaintiff’s costs of the application.  His Honour however reserved liberty to apply in relation to his proposed orders. [77]

Philip H. Barton

Owen Dixon Chambers West

26 May 2020

 

35. Costs – Judge busts caveator poker player – Colakoglu v Ozcelik [2020] VSC 139 (25 March 2020), John Dixon J; Diep v Tran & Ors (Costs) 2020 VSC 171 (9 April 2020), John Dixon J; Wegner & Anor v Mayberry [2020] VSC 239 (1 May 2020), Kennedy J.

Comment.   Colakoglu is a mundane caveat removal case in which a caveator, who removed the caveat after service of a s. 90(3) application, was ordered to pay costs on a standard basis – it was unclear whether there had been reasonable cause to lodge the caveat but clear that, in negotiations immediately before its withdrawal, he maintained it inappropriately as a bargaining chip to extract funds to cover his costs.  Diep and Wegner are the latest manifestations of the practice of judges visiting hopeless caveats with indemnity costs.  The caveator in Diep did not help his case by stating that he would not remove the caveat until there was “an offer on the table” and that he “plays poker and was happy to spend a couple of hundred thousand dollars to make a point”.   From the time of the decision of Dodds–Streeton J. in Goldstraw v Goldstraw [2002] VSC 491 at [42] judges have repeated that caveats are not to be used as “bargaining chips”, which the caveator in Diep literally did.  From the blogger’s dim recollection, in vernacular terms the caveator “went bust”, and indeed Google confirms that to “bust” a player in poker (as John Dixon J. did) means you are relieving them of all their chips.

In Colakoglu v Ozcelik [2020] VSC 139 the facts were –

  • The plaintiff and first defendant were married, had purchased a unit then placed in the plaintiff’s name but to which the first defendant claimed he had contributed giving rise to a trust, and proceedings were on foot between them in the Federal Circuit Court in which the beneficial interest of the parties could be adjusted under the Family Law Act.
  • The plaintiff listed the property for sale with the first defendant’s consent, his solicitors advising that he had foregone his interest in the property and had no interest in the proceeds of sale.
  • A contract of sale was accordingly entered into with settlement scheduled for 19 March.  However, on 3 March, notwithstanding their earlier advice, the first defendant’s solicitors lodged a caveat claiming a resulting and/or constructive trust.
  • The plaintiff sought consent to withdrawal of the caveat, on the basis that the sale proceeds would be held by her solicitors in a solicitor’s controlled money account for the benefit of both parties pending resolution of the family law issues.  Before the time for settlement of the contract arrived the parties were not in dispute that the contract ought to settle with the balance of proceeds of sale being paid into trust.
  • However, the first defendant did not remove the caveat, delaying settlement.  But after the plaintiff commenced a proceeding under the TLA s. 90(3) the first defendant withdrew the caveat and the contract settled

John Dixon J. ordered that the costs of the application be paid by the first defendant on a standard basis, dismissed an application for costs against his solicitors, and referred an application for compensation under s. 118 for case management.  His Honour held –

  1. As to whether there was a serious question to be tried, as the unit was to be converted into a fund to be held in trust pending resolution of the family law dispute, the beneficial interest of either party was unaffected, and accordingly whether the first defendant disclaimed any interest in a trust as the plaintiff submitted, or whether he ever had such interest as the first defendant now contended, was a matter for trial. [7]
  2. The balance of convenience favoured removal of the caveat. [16]
  3. The evidence on whether the first defendant had reasonable cause to lodge the caveat was unclear, because he did not engage with the plaintiff’s allegation that he disclaimed any interest in the unit when consenting to its sale.  However, in the negotiations immediately before the withdrawal the caveat continued to be maintained inappropriately as a bargaining chip to extract funds to cover his costs. [13], [22]

In Diep v Tran & Ors (Costs) [2020] VSC 171

  • The first defendant lodged a caveat asserting a caveatable interest on the basis of an agreement dated 1 May 2019.   He ignored requests for a copy of this agreement: it was never sighted.
  • The plaintiff’s solicitors requested withdrawal of the caveat, being met with the response that it would not be removed until there was “an offer on the table” and that he “plays poker and was happy to spend a couple of hundred thousand dollars to make a point”.
  • The plaintiff’s solicitors suggested that the caveat be withdrawn, the settlement proceed and the net proceeds of the sale be placed in a trust account pending resolution of the dispute.  The caveator responded in substance: “you said you were going to make an offer, there’s no offer of money.  Why would I remove my caveat if you are not going to give me money?”
  • After caveat removal proceedings were issued the caveat was withdrawn.

His Honour ordered that the caveator pay indemnity costs because: he provided no justification for the interest claimed by his caveat; before issuing the proceeding the plaintiff’s solicitor made a reasonable proposal for retention of the net proceeds of sale; the caveat was used as a bargaining chip to extract a monetary offer – a serious misuse of statutory provisions for an improper or ulterior purpose.

In Wegner & Anor v Mayberry [2020] VSC 239 –

  • The first defendant lodged a caveat on the ground of an implied, resulting or constructive trust over land of which the first plaintiff, his former wife, was a registered proprietor as tenant in common with the second plaintiff.  The purchase of the land had been funded by bank finance secured by mortgage.
  • In April 2019 this caveat was removed by court order with indemnity costs.
  • In July 2019 the first defendant became bankrupt.
  • In January 2020 the first defendant lodged a second caveat on the same ground as the first.   On being requested to remove it he refused until the plaintiffs refinanced and released him from his obligations as a co-borrower.  He was given notice that unless the caveat was withdrawn indemnity costs would be sought.
  • In February 2020 the plaintiffs entered a contract to sell the land for a price below the mortgage debt, the solicitors for the first defendant’s trustee in bankruptcy consented to the sale, and caveat removal proceedings were commenced.

Kennedy J ordered removal of the caveat because the caveator had not established any arguable right or interest in the land (and any interest would now be vested in his trustee in bankruptcy) and the balance of convenience favoured removal: the caveat would adversely affect the sale; it was in everyone’s interests that the mortgage debt be reduced; there was evidence that market may be falling; and the trustee in bankruptcy had consented to the sale.

Indemnity costs were awarded because the caveat had been lodged for a collateral purpose and in disregard of known facts.

Philip H. Barton

Owen Dixon Chambers West

12 May 2020

 

27. Caveat removal procedure – whether originating application for removal of the caveat required or just a summons in the proceeding sufficed?

 

Walters v Perton (No 2) [2019] VSC 542 (16 August 2019) Derham AsJ.

The facts were:

·      Mr Warring was Mrs Perton’s father and Mrs Walters’ domestic partner.  Mrs Perton, as trustee of a trust, was the registered proprietor of certain land.  

·    The Supreme Court had previously granted judgment in favour of Mrs Perton for possession but in the current proceeding Mrs Walters sued Mrs Perton claiming that the property was held on trust for her.  She had also lodged a caveat grounded on this claim. 

·    In this proceeding Mrs Perton made no claim by counterclaim or otherwise for removal of the caveat but nonetheless filed a summons seeking its removal. 

·    The hearing of the removal application was fixed for hearing with the hearing of an unrelated application.  Two months before the hearing date the defendant notified the Court that she no longer pressed the hearing of the caveat removal application but would seek a speedy trial of all issues in the proceeding including the caveat removal.

·       The plaintiff applied for costs of the caveat removal application, including submitting that it had been incompetent because the defendant had not filed an originating application for such removal.

Derham AsJ held –

1.   Having regard to the Civil Procedure Act 2010, the requirement set out in s. 90(3) of the Transfer of Land Act that the person “bring proceedings in a court against the caveator” for the removal of the caveat, if it meant commence a proceeding by writ, originating motion or possibly a counterclaim, must yield, if necessary and appropriate, to give effect to the overarching purpose of facilitating the just, efficient, timely and cost-effective resolution of the real issues in dispute.  Shaw v Yarranova Pty Ltd [2005] VSC 94 was accordingly distinguishable because it preceded the Civil Procedure Act. [13]

2.   Accordingly if the caveat removal application were otherwise well founded in fact and law it could have been brought by summons in the proceeding.  But in a case such as the present, the caveat removal application amounted in substance to an application summarily to dismiss the plaintiff’s claim that she had an equitable proprietary interest in the land sufficient to sustain the caveat.  The matters relevant to determination of the validity of the caveat were intimately wrapped up with the plaintiff’s claims for a declaration that she had an equitable interest in the land.  Because of the operation and effect of the Civil Procedure Act the Court looked to the substance of the application rather than its form – if that would further the overarching purpose.  The defendant had accordingly in this case employed the wrong procedure to remove the caveat. [14], [16], [17]

3. The defendant was ordered to pay the plaintiff’s costs thrown away by the abandonment of its caveat removal application. [19]

 

Comment: A decision on an unusual point, and subtle in the sense that it holds that a summons may suffice in some proceedings but not in others.

 

23. Caveat based on constructive trust imposed due to theft.

Aust Café Pty Ltd v Thushara de Soysa & Ors [2019] VCC 237 (15 March 2019) Judge A. Ryan.

The facts were –

  • The second defendant was at all material times the registered proprietor of a property, mortgaged to the ANZ Bank from 2006 to 24 August 2016 and thereafter to Westpac.
  • The plaintiff operated a café where it employed the first defendant as a floor manager and, from August 2009 to February 2014, his then wife the second defendant as a food server.  The third defendant, now married to the first defendant, was also employed there.
  • According to the third defendant’s bank-statements between 29 November 2012 and 30 December 2013 $32,400 was transferred from her to the second defendant by regular payments of $600, said to represent spousal maintenance by the first defendant to the second defendant.
  • There was also evidence that between 22 February 2013 and 8 January 2014 payments of $600 were regularly made into the second defendant’s home loan account.
  • The plaintiff plead or affidavits filed on its behalf deposed that –
    • The first and second defendant had misappropriated moneys by undervaluing customer transactions, and the first defendant retained the extent of the undervaluation and distributed part of it to the second defendant;
    • The second defendant applied some of this money to pay off her mortgage;
    • She had admitted the misappropriation to a private detective retained by the plaintiff.
  • The second defendant plead or deposed –
    • that she had not stolen from the plaintiff but was instructed by its director to record large cash sales as low cash sales, because he did not want a high valuation of the business for Family Law purposes;
    • that the cash registers were cleared every 15 minutes and there was CCTV surveillance;
    • that the alleged admissions were inadmissible;
  • The plaintiff caveated over the property claiming a freehold estate on the grounds of “Implied, Resulting or Constructive Trust”.
  • The second defendant applied under the TLA s. 90(3) for removal of the caveat.

Judge Ryan held:

  1. A person who misappropriates funds held them from the time of receipt on constructive trust for the defrauded party. [20], [21], [24]-[26]
  2. Where those trust funds were used exclusively to acquire property, so long as the trust property could be traced and followed into other property into which it has been converted, that property remained subject to the trust. Further, equitable rights were not lost by the mere fact that the misappropriated funds were mixed with other funds. [20]
  3. The beneficiary may claim a charge over the acquired property to the value of the
    misappropriated funds. [20]
  4. Where the thief gave the funds to a volunteer recipient that recipient came under an equitable obligation once it had notice of the theft. [21]
  5. There were serious questions to be tried about: whether the second defendant colluded with the first defendant to defraud the plaintiff; whether she received stolen moneys via the third defendant; whether any stolen moneys were applied towards her mortgage repayments.  There was accordingly a serious question to be tried that the plaintiff had the interest in the property which it claimed. [28], [18]
  6. The balance of convenience favoured the plaintiff: the second defendant did not point to any current prejudice in dealing with her property beyond general disadvantage. The course which appeared to carry the lowest risk of injustice favoured maintenance of the caveat. [29]
  7. The second defendant was ordered to pay the costs of the application. [32]

Comment: This is a relatively unusual type of case. For completeness a longer list, taken from the author’s Leo Cussen Paper on caveats in July 2017, and including a case cited by her Honour, is –

“Constructive trusts imposed following breach of fiduciary duty or trust. Examples are: Dennis Hanger Pty Ltd v Brown, [2007] VSC 495 – a company maintained a caveat over a former employee’s land, he having used forged company cheques to make mortgage repayments; George v Biztole Corporation Pty Ltd, 26 February 1996, Ashley J – a caveat was maintainable where the alleged misappropriation was applied in making improvements to land already owned by the defaulting fiduciary; Dharmalingham v Registrar of Titles [2005] VSC 417 – a wife maintained a caveat over land given by her husband to his sister, on the grounds of “matrimonial property of caveator and husband fraudulently transferred to husband’s sister”. In Somerville v Nufarm Australia Ltd [2002] VSC 520 a caveat based on an alleged constructive trust over land of the wife of a former employee, who had gambled with his employer’s funds and paid proceeds to her, failed on the ground of no serious question whether the wife had active or constructive knowledge of her husband’s wrongdoing”. 

22. Caveats based on trusts alleged to arise in the domestic context – Muschinski v Dodds trust? Sale of land subject to caveat with requirement of retention of net proceeds to meet caveator’s future claim – Requirement in case of conflict of testimony that caveat be removed unless caveator commenced proceeding to establish interest – Power of courts exercising Family Law jurisdiction to alter property interests rests on legislation not on trusts – Family Law Act does not, of itself, give a party to a ‘marriage’ or a de facto relationship a caveatable interest though court order under that Act could have that effect – Comparison of procedures under TLA s. 90(3) and s. 89A – Indemnity costs against client and reserved against solicitor who lodged caveat.

Karan v Nicholas [2019] VSC 35 (7 February 2019) Daly AsJ.

McRae v Mackrae-Bathory [2019] VSC 298 (7 May 2019) Derham AsJ.  

Hermiz v Yousif [2019] VSC 160 (15 March 2019) Derham AsJ.

 

Karan is a case of a son with a caveatable interest in his parents’ property based on a Muschinski v Dodds constructive trust.

McRae is a dispute between real or alleged domestic partners concerning two properties, involving a Muschinski v Dodds constructive trust, with analysis by Derham AsJ of: (1) the balance of convenience where despite a caveatable interest it is necessary that a property be sold, and; in the case of a property not being sold, the law that, where a caveator has established a prima facie case but there is a conflict of testimony, the caveat would not be removed outright but may be ordered to be removed unless within a certain time a proceeding is issued to establish the caveator’s title.

Hermiz is a groundless claim for a Muschinski v Dodds constructive trust by the mother of a registered proprietor’s child, which also: ventilated why the TLA s. 90(3) procedure should be taken rather than that under s. 89A, and; attracted an order for indemnity costs against the caveator and reserved the caveating solicitor’s liability also to pay them.  This case reiterates that the power of courts exercising Family Law jurisdiction to alter property interests rests on legislation not on the principles of constructive trusts; and that the Family Law Act does not, of itself, give a party to a ‘marriage’ or a de facto relationship a caveatable interest, although an order under that Act could have that effect.

Karan v Nicholas [2019] VSC 35 (7 February 2019) Daly AsJ.

The facts were –

  • Mrs Karan was the registered proprietor of a residential property. Her son Theo was registered proprietor of a neighbouring property where his parents and then his mother lived for many years.
  • She died, as administrator of her estate her other son Frank desired to sell the property, but Theo had caveated claiming an equitable estate in fee simple on the ground of an implied or constructive trust.
  • Frank applied under the Transfer of Land Act (TLA) s. 90(3) to remove the caveat. Theo was agreeable provided part of the sale proceeds was held in trust pending determination of his claim.
  • Theo alleged in substance:
    • residence in the property since 1988;
    • that Frank had used both properties to raise funds for business ventures on the basis of being responsible for the mortgage repayments which he subsequently ceased making leaving Theo to make some repayments;
    • payment of rates and outgoings including insurance;
    • expenditure on repairs, renovations and extensions;
    • in summary, total contributions of over $200,000.

Daly AsJ:

  1. Referred to a “Baumgartner constructive trust” (based on the High Court case of Baumgartner v Baumgartner (1987) 164 CLR 137, also known as a Muschinski v Dodds constructive trust, based on the High Court case of that name: (1984) 160 CLR 583)). The elements of this trust are that a constructive trust for the holding of a beneficial interest in land in particular shares may arise regardless of agreement or intention where:

(a)   A relationship or joint endeavour has broken down without any blame attributable to any party to it;

(b)   There has been a financial contribution by one or both parties to the relationship or to the joint endeavour;

(c)   In these circumstances, and in all the circumstances, it would be unconscionable for one party to the relationship or joint endeavour to retain a benefit greater than that party’s contribution. [7]

  1. Held that Theo had established a serious question to be tried that such a trust existed from before 2012, on the basis of arguments that:

(a)   he and their parents were involved in a joint endeavour whereby he made contributions to the property, which enabled him and his family to live rent free at the property, and enabled his parents to live rent free at his property;

(b)   they all pooled their resources to facilitate the joint endeavour;

(c)   the joint endeavour ended without blame upon the death of the parents; and

(d)   it would be unconscionable for the estate to retain the benefit of his contributions. [8], [14], [16]

  1. Ordered removal of the caveat on condition that all or part of the net sale proceeds be retained to meet any claim by Theo, who was also required to commence a proceeding to pursue his claim within a specified time. [3(k)], [18]-[20]

McRae v Mackrae-Bathory [2019] VSC 298 (7 May 2019) Derham AsJ.  

The chronology was –

  • The plaintiff (Zachary) was the registered proprietor of a property at Albion acquired in 2004 and of a property at Lara acquired in 2013, each encumbered by the same mortgage.
  • In January 2019 the defendant (Rachel) caveated over each piece of land claiming an interest in the land “as chargee” under an implied, resulting or constructive trust.
  • In March 2019 Zachary entered into a contract to sell the Albion property to be settled in May 2019.
  • He applied for removal of the caveats under the TLA s. 90(3).
  • He alleged that:
    • in 2012 she gave birth to their twins, but he had never lived with her as a couple in a de facto relationship and there was no agreement between them sufficient to give rise to a constructive trust;
    • until recently the children lived with her during the week and with him every weekend;
    • in January 2019 she had attempted to kill him leading to an intervention order.
  • Rachel alleged that:
    • they had resided in a ‘full emotional and sexual’ committed de facto relationship between 2002 and 2019 and were publicly known as such;
    • they pooled their income for joint expenses;
    • the properties were acquired during the course of the relationship;
    • she made financial contributions to their purchase and development;
    • Zachary always ‘indicated’ to her that she had an interest in both properties and was entitled to a half share of them;
    • his evidence as to residence with the children was incorrect and that she had not assaulted him.

Derham AsJ held:

  1. The estate or interest claimed as chargee was likely to be the result of a legal error. [3]
  2. If Rachel’s testimony was accepted there was a sensible basis for, and a sufficient probability of, finding that there was a Muschinski v Dodds constructive trust over both properties to the extent of her having an equitable estate in fee simple as a co-tenant with Zachary. This basis was: her direct contributions to the acquisition of the Albion property; her contributions to the maintenance and mortgage payments of both properties. [17]-[19]
  3. Accordingly, while it was neither necessary or appropriate to determine disputed questions of fact, Rachel had a sufficient likelihood of success justifying the practical effect of maintaining the caveat over the Albion property or of requiring deployment of most of the net sale proceeds in reducing the mortgage. [13], [20]
  4. The interaction between the strength of the caveator’s case and the balance of convenience was such that the lowest risk of injustice, whatever the outcome of the disputes, lay in removal of the caveat at settlement on the proviso that the net proceeds of the sale were (after payment of certain credit card debts – see below) applied to reduce the mortgage (Zachary also undertaking not to withdraw loan monies under the mortgage). This outcome preserved most of the benefit of Rachel’s caveatable interest.  To withhold this protection would do her irreparable harm if she succeeded in establishing her claimed interests, while to grant it would not greatly injure Zachary if her claims failed. [4], [21], [22], [24]
  5. However, certain of Zachary’s credit card debts were first to be paid out of the sale proceeds because most were incurred during the relationship alleged by Rachel and some had been incurred in completing the Lara property and so would ultimately benefit Rachel if her constructive trust claim succeeded. [4], [23]
  6. As regards the Lara property, it was clearly established law that where a caveator established a prima facie case but there was a conflict of testimony the court would not order outright removal of the caveat but may order removal unless steps were taken to establish the caveator’s title within a certain time. Accordingly the caveat would be ordered to be removed unless the caveator commenced proceedings to establish her title within a month. [5], [25], [26]
  7. Having regard to offers made by each side before the hearing, which were each to some extent appropriate, the defendant was ordered to pay the plaintiff’s costs fixed at $1,400, being disbursements incurred in issuing the originating process and paying the search fees incurred in putting forward exhibits to his affidavit in support. [27]

 

Hermiz v Yousif [2019] VSC 160 (15 March 2019) Derham AsJ.

The chronology was –

  • In 1998 the plaintiff (Hermiz) and the first defendant (Yousif) were sexually intimate leading to the birth of a child.  They ceased their relationship at about this time and Hermiz had never met the child.
  • Hermiz paid child support.  Yousif never provided him with any financial support.
  • Hermiz married his wife Dina in 2004.  In 2010 they purchased a residential property, became registered proprietors and subsequently cohabited there.
  • Yousif made no contribution to the property, or to any other asset owned by Hermiz, he made no promise about the property or declaration of trust or like arrangement concerning it, and no court order related to it.
  • In December 2018 Hermiz and Dina entered into a contract to sell the land with settlement due in February 2019.
  • In January 2019 Yousif lodged a caveat claiming an interest in the land pursuant to a court order under the Family Law Act.  There was no order giving such an interest.  The caveat was voluntarily removed.
  • On 1 February 2019 Yousif via a firm of solicitors lodged the caveat the subject of this proceeding claiming a freehold estate on the basis of an implied, resulting or constructive trust.  Hermiz’s solicitors wrote to Yousif’s solicitors expounding the absence of basis for the caveat and forshadowing an application for damages and indemnity costs.
  • Hermiz and Dina could not complete the sale, but gave the purchaser possession under a licence and also remained liable to keep up mortgage repayments.
  • Hermiz applied under the TLA s. 90(3) to remove the caveat.
  • Two days before the Supreme Court hearing Yousif filed an application in the Federal Circuit Court for a property order, in particular for an order that the net proceeds of sale of this property be held in trust pending final orders, supported by an affidavit including allegations referred to in 1 below.

Derham AsJ held:

  1. Yousif had not discharged the burden of establishing a serious question to be tried (in the sense of a prima facie case) of the interest in land claimed in the caveat.  There was insufficient evidence of a Muschinski v Dodds constructive trust: her allegation of cooking, cleaning and supporting Hermiz financially whilst he studied for his Australian medical qualification more than a decade before purchase of the land did not reveal that it is or would be unconscionable for him to deny her an interest in the land. [32]-[37], [40], [41]
  2. On the dissolution of marriage or the breakdown of a de facto or domestic relationship, the scope of the Federal Circuit Court’s power to alter property interests was determined by legislation, in this case the Family Law Act s. 90SM, rather than by the principles of constructive trusts.  The Family Law Act did not, of itself, give a party to a ‘marriage’ or a de facto relationship a caveatable interest, although an order under that Act could have that effect. [38], [39]
  3. The balance of convenience was also against Yousif. [42]
  4. Hermiz was justified in applying under the TLA s. 90(3) as opposed to using the administrative procedure in s. 89A. The very reason for the summary procedure under s. 90(3) was to enable an application that avoided the delay involved under s. 89A. [44], [45]
  5. Indemnity costs would be awarded against Yousif because: the nominated basis of resulting, implied or constructive trust for lodging the caveat was without merit, and; she was using the caveat process as a bargaining chip. [52], [53]
  6. Leave would be reserved to Hermiz to claim costs against the solicitors who lodged the caveat. [54]

21. Options – Indemnity costs – Injunction against caveating

Pollard v Pollard [2019] VSC 21 (8 February 2019) Daly AsJ. 

Kuipers v Harrington (No 2) [2019] VSC 190 (25 March 2019) Derham AsJ.

 

These two cases are in contrast.  Pollard illustrates that a well drawn option to purchase creates a caveatable interest.  Kuipers illustrates a badly drawn option clause, no caveatable interest, and consequential award of indemnity costs and enjoining of the caveator. 

Pollard v Pollard [2019] VSC 21 (8 February 2019) Daly AsJ.  This was not a case under the TLA s. 90(3) but was a trial in which, if the defendant succeeded (as she did), she would have a caveatable interest.  The facts were –

·       In 2004 the parties entered into a deed inter alia concerning a property owned by a company and later by the plaintiff which included (cl. 5.7) that if the plaintiff wished to sell it he must first give the defendant the option to purchase it: at a value calculated by multiplying the annual gross rent paid by the tenants at such time by 10 times; but if it was untenanted, then at current market value established by sworn valuation; and the defendant was to be given at least 30 days’ prior notice in writing of such intention to sell, with her then to exercise her option to purchase within 21 days of receipt of such notice;

·    In 2009 the defendant lodged a caveat on the grounds of “As beneficiary of an option to purchase pursuant to a written agreement” then describing the agreement;

·    In February 2018 the plaintiff informed the defendant that the property was going on the market, stated its market value according to a real estate agent, and asked her intentions.  At that time the property was leased to a tenant;

·      Initially the defendant stated that she was not interested in purchasing the property and that the caveat would only be lifted at settlement of a sale.  Subsequently she confirmed that she wished to exercise her right to purchase at 10 times the current annual rent; 

·       The plaintiff commenced proceedings seeking removal of the caveat.   

Daly AsJ found or held –

1.    The plaintiff was obliged to give the defendant the option to purchase the property at the price calculated in accordance with the Deed, ie to give 30 days’ notice of intention to sell and concurrently to give the option to purchase the property at ten times the annual rental receivable at the time of the notice.  The obligation to offer the property to the defendant for sale at market value only arose if the property was untenanted. [32]

2.    The defendant was only obliged to respond to an offer made in accordance with the Deed.  No such offer was ever made.  She was not required to enquire whether the property was tenanted. [35]

3. The defendant was entitled to an order for specific performance of the plaintiff’s obligations. [34], [37]-[46]

 

Kuipers v Harrington (No 2) [2019] VSC 190 (25 March 2019) Derham AsJ.

The chronology was –

·         The plaintiffs owned a 38.38 ha. property at West Rosebud.  On 4 April 2014 they and the first defendant executed a Heads of Agreement and a Deed of Agreement”.  Under the Deed the first defendant was to facilitate development of the property by subdividing it into ten acre lots, in return for transfer to him of one such lot.  Clause 7 of the Deed purported to give the first defendant the plaintiffs’ consent to the lodgement of a caveat over the land to ‘better secure the opportunity’ for the first defendant to develop it;

·         The Heads, described by his Honour as “an ill drawn document ([14]) –

·         Recited that:

·    the seller has agreed to grant to the option holder a three-year call option for the properties to either purchase the properties, source a joint venture partner or investor, source a funder to develop them or to source an ultimate buyer/buyers.  This was the only reference in the document to a period of three years for exercise of the call option;

·     if the option holder exercised the call option, the seller and the ultimate buyer and/or their nominees must enter into an unconditional contract of sale;

·     the option holder was entitled to earn the profit margin between the seller and buyer less any relevant costs, fees, and commissions due to third parties.

·         Defined:

·    “Expiry Date” of the Heads as “three years from the commencement date” (but the term “Expiry Date” was not subsequently used in the document);

·      “Option Call” as an irrevocable offer to enter into a REIV sale contract with an ultimate buyer.

·      Provided, in a Payment Agreement”, that for facilitating the subdivision the first defendant would receive a ten acre parcel;

·         Provided that “the seller grants to the option holder an irrevocable right and option: (a) to require the seller to enter into a contract of sale with either the option holder or the ultimate buyer (cl. 2.1(a)); (b) to nominate a person or entity as selected buy (sic) the option holder to enter into a contract as the ultimate buyer, to purchase the property or properties listed on this agreement and on the terms contained in this agreement”; (cl. 2.1(b));

·   Provided: that the “call option” may be exercised during the term of the agreement by notice (cl. 2.2); the option holder, the first defendant, must pay the seller (the plaintiffs) $1 which is deemed to be a holding deposit towards the purchase of the properties” (cl. 2.8); “This agreement can only be terminated by either of; the expiry of this agreement, or by mutual consent of both parties (cl 2.11);

·       Provided that (cl. 4):

“The seller consents and grants to the option holder and the ultimate buyer, an interest in the property for the purpose of securing the development approval, and when a Contract is offered, the option holder and/or the ultimate buyer are authorised to lodge a caveat on the title of the property, a) but the caveat shall be discharged in favour of mortgages to be lodged for a contract of purchase, b) the caveat will protect any equitable interest of the option holders until settlement of the contract by the ultimate buyer; c) cost of removal will be paid by the lodger of the caveat”.

·     Nothing then occurred until 2018 when, after the plaintiffs had entered into a contract to sell the land to someone else, the first defendant lodged a caveat claiming a freehold estate in the land pursuant to an agreement dated 4 April 2014;

·     On an application by the plaintiffs to remove this caveat Daly AsJ found that the caveator’s prospects of maintaining a claim for an interest in the land were modest at best and on the  balance of convenience the caveat should be removed;

·       A month after this removal the first defendant lodged a second caveat claiming an interest as chargee apparently on the ground that the Heads created a charge;

·    The plaintiffs applied under the Transfer of Land Act s. 90(3) to remove the caveat.  Before filing the summons the plaintiffs’ solicitors wrote foreshadowing an application for indemnity costs. 

Derham AsJ held –

1.    On its proper construction, the option right, if any, conferred by the Heads was limited to three years from the date of the agreement. [20]

2.    However the Heads were uncertain, and therefore void and unenforceable, because 

(a)    it was unclear who was responsible to pay the option holder the ‘profit margin’, how it was to be calculated or what if any costs were to be taken into account;

(b)     the price at which the land was to be sold was to be determined by later agreement;

(c)     many terms of the subsequent REIV sale contract were unknown;

(d)     the nomination provision was uncertain in its reference to “on the terms contained in this agreement” which were unidentified; and

(e)   it was unclear whether the contract of sale to be entered into was to be between the plaintiffs, the option holder and the ultimate buyer under which the option holder was to be paid some unidentified profit margin. [21]

3.    The wording of clause 4 (consent to caveat) was unclear as to what interest in the property was purportedly granted and it appeared that the right to lodge a caveat did not arise until a contract was offered to the sellers. [23]

4.    There was accordingly no serious question to be tried that the Heads gave the caveator a caveatable interest because:

(f)      there was no charging clause;

(g)     the call option was void for uncertainty;

(h)     the time for exercise of the call option had expired; and

(i)   the sellers’ consent to caveat was little better than a contractual consent to lodge a caveat in certain circumstances, which had not arisen and, if they had, would not give rise to an interest in the land. [24] 

5.    The balance of convenience also favoured removal of the caveat. [26]

6.    Indemnity costs were awarded against the caveator.  His Honour comprehensively recited the principles governing an award of indemnity costs.  An order for indemnity costs warranted by: the nominated basis for lodging the caveat, ie a charge, was untenable; the pre-summons warning; the caveator was attempting to use the caveat as a bargaining chip. [33]-[35]

7.    The first defendant would be enjoined against lodging any further caveat on the basis of the Heads or the Deed because the lodgement of the second caveat was frivolous, vexatious and an abuse of process.  The caveator had shown a profound disregard of the absence of any underlying basis for the second caveat and displayed that he was ready, willing and able to continue to disrupt any sale.  There was accordingly a prima facie case that he would continue to lodge caveats if not restrained. The balance of convenience also favoured the grant of an injunction. [36]-[37]

20. No one gets costs

Glenis & Anor v Ikosedikas & Ors (No 2) [2018] VSC 324
(15 June 2018), T. Forrest J.

This is the costs decision (apparently not released online until late January) in the case of this name ([2018] VSC 278) covered in blog post 17.  The defendants alleged that in 2011 the first plaintiff entered into a loan agreement consolidating previous loans with a then balance of about $250,000.  The agreement gave the lender the right to caveat over certain residential land owned by both plaintiffs if the loan was not repaid that year.  By 2018 the debt was unpaid and inflated by interest.

In March 2018 the plaintiffs entered into a contract to sell that land for $1.995 m.  It was subject to a registered mortgage securing loans currently over $2 m., though apparently another property owned by the second plaintiff was linked to this mortgage.    

In April 2018 the defendants caveated.  The plaintiffs successfully applied to remove the caveat.   His Honour held that the existence of the loan agreement established a serious question to be tried but that, notwithstanding the substantial debt, the balance of convenience favoured the registered proprietors both because of the delay in caveating until after the contract of sale and because the registered mortgage rendered the caveat worthless. 

Both parties now unsuccessfully applied for costs.  His Honour held –

  1. The plaintiffs had engaged in sharp practice in that: they took advantage of the defendants’ dilatory response to restructure their affairs so that the property was mortgaged to its full value and another property (not the subject of the caveat) was now owned virtually outright.
  2. The caveators were not entitled to costs: his Honour knew of no authority that a caveator demonstrating a serious question to be tried but losing on the balance of convenience was entitled to costs.

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]

 

12. RECENT SUPREME COURT CASES DEC 2017 – FEB 2018 (6 of 6)

Costs

Toh & Anor v Wu & Anor [2018] VSC 36 (12 February 2018) Daly AsJ.

The chronology was –

 

2017                            First defendant commences family law proceeding in Federal Magistrates Court

against her husband.  The plaintiffs in the subsequently issued Supreme

Court proceeding are her in-laws and are registered proprietors of a

property.  Application (not yet determined) to join plaintiffs as parties

to the family law proceeding and to restrain sale of property or have proceeds

of sale retained in trust pending determination of

proceeding.

28 November 2017   Caveat lodged by first defendant over the property, grounds of claim being “court order under the Family Law Act 1975”.

15 January 2018       Plaintiffs notify intention to issue and issue s. 90(3) application. 

16 January 2018       Service of application and material in support.

18 January 2018       Hearing at which caveat ordered to be removed.  Order that net proceeds of sale be held in trust.  Costs reserved.

29 January 2018        Settlement of sale of property due.

Daly AsJ ordered that each party should bear their own costs of the s. 90(3) application.  Her Honour reasoned –

  1. In removing the caveat the court had not considered whether there was a serious question to be tried.  Although the interest claimed in the caveat was not prima facie a recognized proprietary interest the underlying documents tolerably revealed claims pursuant to a resulting or constructive trust, and the suddenness of the application severely compromised the caveator’s ability to respond.  However, the balance of convenience overwhelmingly favoured removal because of settlement and finance difficulties.  The removal was also influenced by the fact that, having regard to the existing Federal Magistrates’ Court proceedings, it was in the parties’ interests for property interests to be determined in one proceeding, not fragmented across jurisdictions.
  2. Special circumstances warranted the plaintiffs not receiving their costs, namely their failure to warn the caveator of the intended application.  While it would often be unnecessary or impractical to warn of an application, the application here was made some 7 weeks after lodgement of the caveat and only 7 business days before settlement of the sale was due.  The caveator was ambushed.
  3. The caveator’s alleged impecuniosity was irrelevant to the costs decision.