34. Costs – Whether indemnity costs against unsuccessful caveator – Whether solicitor should bear costs.

Alliance Developments Pty Ltd v Arbab & Anor [2019] VSC 832 (20 December 2019), Garde J; Alliance Developments Pty Ltd v Arbab & Ors (No 2) [2020] VSC 37 (14 February 2020).

Comment.   In the first Alliance Developments case Garde J comprehensively examines the law on award of indemnity costs against a caveator and a solicitor and on the importance of adhering to proper conduct in caveating.  The second Alliance Developments case is a brief further application of these principles to later costs. 

Alliance Developments Pty Ltd v Arbab & Anor [2019] VSC 832. 

The facts were –

·   The plaintiff (Alliance) initially had three shareholders including Mr Abela (Abela) and the first defendant Mr Arbab (Arbab) they being the the sole directors.  

·   In 2013 Alliance purchased and became registered proprietor of land at California Gully with the intention of subdividing it and erecting homes on it.  Arbab claimed he contributed funds to the purchase.

·  In 2014 Alliance, on the nomination of the purchaser Abela, became registered proprietor of land at Laverton North.

·     By August 2015 Arbab was no longer a director of Alliance and his shareholding had been reduced from 50% to 8%.  He disputed this, claiming he did not agree to it. 

·    Arbab retained a firm (“the firm”) with a sole principal (“the solicitor”) for advice.  The firm sought advice from counsel.  In October 2015 counsel advised on the dispute concerning the company, and advised that, if, as to which counsel stated he had not been instructed, the funds supplied by Arbab bore a certain complexion that it should lodge a caveat over the California Gully property.  Counsel did not refer to the Laverton North property.

·  In 2015 Arbab commenced proceedings under the Corporations Act which were subsequently amended. 

·   In March 2016 the firm sent a letter of demand to the third shareholder and his company concerning a partnership or profit sharing dispute. 

·      Later in 2016 the solicitor lodged a caveat over the Laverton North property on behalf of Arbab.  The estate or interest claimed was a freehold estate and the prohibition was absolute.  The ground of the claim was “Implied, Resulting, Constructive Trust”.

·   In March 2018 the solicitor lodged a caveat over the California Gully property on behalf of Arbab.  The estate or interest claimed was a freehold estate and the prohibition was absolute. The ground relied upon was: “Registered proprietor(s), being entitled to possession of the Certificate of Title for the land and to prevent improper dealing”.

·   Later in 2018 on the application of Alliance the Registrar gave a notice under the Transfer of Land Act s. 89A(1) that both caveats would lapse unless the application was abandoned or notice was given to the Registrar that proceedings were on foot to substantiate the claim of the caveator.  In response the firm gave notice that such proceedings were on foot.  In particular: the firm advised that the Corporations Act proceeding was on foot and was set down for trial; the solicitor certified in substance that she had retained the evidence supporting the caveats and had taken reasonable steps to ensure that they were correct; the letter attached a notice signed by the solicitor falsely to the effect that proceedings were on foot in a court of competent jurisdiction to substantiate Arbab’s claims.  The Registrar accordingly took no further action. 

·    On 23 August 2019 Alliance’s solicitors wrote to the firm stating that Arbab did not have a caveatable interest, that application would be made under the TLA s. 90(3) unless the caveats were withdrawn, that, referring to the Supreme Court decisions, they had instructions that may give rise to Arbab’s advisers being liable, and that they were concerned at the certification to the Registrar and the solicitor’s failure to produce any documentation substantiating the caveatable interests claimed.  This letter drew a combatative response from the solicitor on 25 August. 

·    In September Alliance commenced a proceeding seeking relief under s. 90(3).  The necessary court documents were served on Arbab and on the firm.  Between 16 and 30 September:

o   the solicitor said she did not have instructions to accept service and incorrectly disputed that there had been valid service on the Arbab (served at the address stated in the caveat);

o   the solicitor said that both she and client were overseas and she could not get instructions and did not act for the caveator;

o     the solicitor emailed the Court advising that she did not have instructions to act in the proceeding due to an unidentified potential conflict of interest;

o   on 25 September another solicitor appeared in court as agent for the caveator, directions were given including for filing of material by Arbab, and the proceeding was adjourned with the caveator being ordered to pay the plaintiff’s costs of the adjournment on an indemnity basis;

o    on 26 September the solicitor emailed the plaintiff’s solicitors confirming that she did not hold instructions but attaching an email from the caveator stating in substance that he would agree to removal of the caveats for particular reasons with costs, and that for medical reasons he had been unable to deal with the application;

o   on 30 September the solicitor advised the plaintiff’s solicitors that the caveator had not so agreed until 25 September. 

·      On 3 October the caveator emailed the Court and the plaintiff’s solicitors, agreeing to pay the costs of the plaintiff on an indemnity basis, but not to their amount without further information.  On that day, no material having been filed by the caveator who also did not appear, Ginnane J. ordered removal of the caveats and required that any application for indemnity costs be by summons.

The plaintiff issued such a summons seeking indemnity costs against caveator, the firm and the solicitor under s. 24(1) of the Supreme Court Act, which gave the Court a general discretion as to costs, and under r. 63.23(1) of the Supreme Court (General Civil Procedure) Rules 2015, which gave the Court power to make a ‘wasted costs order’ against the solicitor of a party to litigation.   The evidence included that Alliance had entered into a contract to purchase another property (as to which the evidence was conflicting).  Arbab elected to waive legal professional privilege and the solicitor deposed to her instructions.

Garde J held that Alliance’s costs up to and including 3 October 2019 were payable on an indemnity basis jointly and severally by the caveator and the solicitor on the following grounds – 

1.  The estate or interest claimed in a caveat, its ground, and the nature of the prohi­bition were of prime importance.  Examples of inaccuracies in caveats from previous cases were: “an interest as chargee” based on an implied, resulting or constructive trust; an “[e]quitable interest as a 50% shareholder of the property pursuant to a trust Deed” – a shareholder has no caveatable interest in land belonging to a company; a claim by an unregistered mortgagee to an absolute prohibition on dealings which stultified the exercise of a power of sale by a registered mortgagee.  By contrast, as illustrated in in Lawrence & Hansen Group Pty Ltd v Young [2017] VSCA 172, where only one of two registered proprietors gave a charge, a claim for absolute prohibition was sufficiently clear and should be construed as limited to the interest of the charging joint proprietor. [16]-[20], [56], Footnote 15

2.   The purposes of requiring the caveator to specify the estate or interest claimed were to enable: the registered proprietor to ascertain the claim to be met; the Registrar to determine whether a dealing lodged for registration was inconsistent with that claimed; the Registrar to determine whether a caveator’s notice was of a proceeding to substantiate the interest claimed and satisfied s. 89A(3)(b). [21]-[22] 

3.   However, if a caveator had more or different rights in land than those claimed, the caveator could lodge another caveat claiming the additional interests. [23]

4.   As to the claim in the Laverton North caveat of a freehold estate on the ground of a trust: the ground was expressed generally without referring to any agreement or basis, nor descending into particulars or explanation of how the alleged trust or freehold interest arose (there were three kinds of freehold estates – most commonly a fee simple, but also a fee tail and a life estate). [25], Footnote 15

5.  The claim made in the California Gully caveat was misconceived and nonsensical. As Alliance had been its registered proprietor since 2017 the ground of claim was suitable only for a registered proprietor who sought to receive notification from the Registrar of the lodgement of a dealing affecting the land.   Whatever Arbab’s claim – whether pursuant to any agreement or financial contribution or otherwise – it was not referred to in the caveat. [26]-[29], [65]-[68]

6.  The notice given by the solicitor to the Registrar was wrong and misleading.  The Corporations Act proceeding sought orders related to the shareholdings not to substantiate the estate or interest claimed in the caveats. [33]-[34]

7.   The lodging of a caveat was a serious business. His Honour set out why this was so and what the proper purpose of lodging a caveat was, referringto Goldstraw v Goldstraw [2002] VSC 491; Piroshenko v Grojsman & Ors (2010) 27 VR 489; Love v Kempton [2010] VSC 254; Campbell v Pastras & Anor [2015] VSC 162. [56]-[59].

8.   After referring to the criteria in Fountain Selected Meats (Sales) Pty Ltd v Inter­national Produce Merchants Pty Ltd (1988) 81 ALR 397 and Ugly Tribe Company Pty Ltd v Sikola & Ors [2001] VSC 189, Arbab was ordered to pay indemnity costs because 

(a)  he agreed to pay costs on 25 September 2019 and indemnity costs on 3 October 2019, disputing only the final amount;

(b)  the caveats were lodged and maintained on his instructions;

(c)  the caveats were misconceived and without merit;

(d)  the caveats were lodged and relied on without regard for known facts and clearly established law;

(e)  the caveats were intended as a bargaining chip in the Corporations proceeding; and

(f) it would be unfair to the other shareholders if Alliance bore the difference between an indemnity costs and a standard costs order. [60]-[73]

9.  The Court’s power under r 63.23 reflected the inherent jurisdiction of the Court to supervise its own affairs. The inherent jurisdiction required a serious dereliction of duty or gross negligence, but this was unnecessary under r 63.23.  Under r 63.23, a solicitor’s negligence or failure to act with reasonable competence may justify a personal costs order.  His Honour set out matters found relevant by previous judges in the exercise of the wasted costs jurisdiction in  Dura (Australia) Constructions Pty Ltd v Hue Boutique Living Pty Ltd (No 5) [2014] VSC 400; (2014) 48 VR 1;  Apollo 169 Management Pty Ltd v Pinefield Nominees Pty Ltd (No 2) [2010] VSC; Sekhon & Anor v Chandyoke & Anor [2018] VSC 327 (Blog 17); McKewins Hairdressing and Beauty Supplies Pty Ltd (in liq) v Deputy Commissioner of Taxation and Anor (2000) 74 ALJR 1000; Pearl Lingerie Australia Pty Ltd v TGY Pty Ltd; Pearl Lingerie Australia Pty Ltd v John Giarratana Pearl Lingerie [2012] VSC 451; Gatto Corporate Solutions Pty Ltd v Mountney [2016] VSC 752; and White Industries (Qld) Pty Ltd v Flower & Hart (a firm) (1988) 156 ALR 169.  [75]-[84]

10.The firm had a paramount duty to the Court and in the administration of justice to act honestly in relation to the dispute. These duties included a duty on the factual and legal material available not to make a claim or respond to a claim in a civil proceeding without a proper basis.  The firm was required not to engage in misleading or deceptive conduct or conduct likely to mislead or deceive. [86]-[87]

11. Assuming the standard laid down by Dixon J. in Briginshaw v Briginshaw (1938) 60 CLR 336 applied, his Honour was satisfied to a comfortable level of satisfaction on the balance of probabilities that the firm (and solicitor) failed to act with reasonable competence and was negligent and in breach of duties to the Court in:

(a)  the drafting of the caveats;

(b)  the s 89A application;

(c)  the misrepresentations to the Registrar;

(d)  the refusal to withdraw the caveats to avoid the proceeding;

(e)  the failure to acknowledge that the caveats were unsustainable; and

(f)   the failure to brief counsel with the relevant facts, or if in doubt, obtain counsel’s opinion on whether the caveats were maintainable. [88]-[90]

In Alliance Developments Pty Ltd v Arbab & Ors (No 2) [2020] VSC 37 Garde J held that the plaintiff’s costs after 3 October 2019 were payable on an indemnity basis jointly and severally by the caveator and the solicitor for similar reasons to the previous costs order, including that the solicitor had acted contrary to the overarching principles set out in the Civil Procedure Act, including the obligation to act honestly, the requirement to have a proper basis for a civil claim, and the obligation not to mislead or deceive.

Philip H. Barton

Owen Dixon Chambers West

5 May 2020

29. A rare High Court foray into caveats – a claim for compensation under the equivalent of the TLA s. 118 – in what circumstances a trustee in bankruptcy has a caveatable interest – whether the interest claimed was correctly stated in the caveat – why maintenance of a caveat does not require an undertaking as to damages.

Boensch v Pascoe [2019] HCA 49 (13 December 2019) concerned the interaction between bankruptcy law and NSW caveats law, materially identical to Victorian law.  The following provisions of the Bankruptcy Act 1966 were relevant:

Upon a person becoming bankrupt, s 58(1) vests in the trustee in bankruptcy property then belonging to the bankrupt that is divisible among the bankrupt’s creditors together with any rights or powers in relation to that property that would have been exercisable by the person had the person not become a bankrupt.  Excluded by s. 116(2)(a) from the divisible property is property held in trust by the bankrupt for another person.  However where the person who becomes bankrupt is a trustee of property who has incurred liabilities in the performance of the trust, such entitlement as the person has in equity to be indemnified out of the property held on trust gives rise to an equitable interest in the property held on trust taking that property outside the exclusion in s 116(2)(a) (on the basis that the exclusion is limited to property held by the bankrupt solely in trust for another person).

Notwithstanding the foregoing, where the property held on trust by the bankrupt out of which the bankrupt had an entitlement in equity to be indemnified comprised legal title to land registered under the Real Property Act 1900 (NSW) (“the NSW Act”) (ie the equivalent of the Transfer of Land Act 1958), what was vested in the trustee in bankruptcy until the trustee could obtain legal title by registration was only the equitable estate (s. 58(2)).

The NSW Act provided:

any person who, “by devolution of law or otherwise, claims to be entitled to a legal or equitable estate or interest in land” under the provisions of the Act “may lodge with the Registrar-General a caveat prohibiting the recording of any dealing affecting the estate or interest to which the person claims to be entitled” (s. 74F(1));

a caveat must be in the approved form and specify “the prescribed particulars of the legal or equitable estate or interest … to which the caveator claims to be entitled” (s. 74F(5));

failures strictly to comply with the formal requirements for caveats are to be disregarded by a court in determining the validity of a caveat (s. 74L);

upon application by the registered proprietor the Registrar-General was required to serve a notice on the caveator that it would lapse unless within 21 days from service the caveator obtained and lodged a Supreme Court order extending the caveat (s. 74J(1));

any person who is or claims to be entitled to an estate or interest in the land described in a caveat may apply to the Supreme Court for an order that the caveat be withdrawn by the caveator (s. 74MA(1));

any person who, “without reasonable cause” lodges or after request refuses to withdraw a caveat is liable to pay compensation to any person who sustains pecuniary loss attributable to the lodging of the caveat, or the refusal or failure to withdraw it (s. 74P(1)).

The facts were –

  • Mr and Mrs Boensch were registered proprietors of a property.  He claimed that in 1999 they had reached a matrimonial property settlement under which she agreed for consideration to transfer her interest in the property to him.  He also claimed that in 1999 they had executed a Memorandum of Trust which included that she would cause her share of ownership to be transferred to him to hold the whole of land in trust, in substance for their children, and would arrange for a professionally drafted trust document.
  • In October 2003 he was served with a bankruptcy notice.
  • He claimed that in March 2004 they had executed a deed of trust confirming the settlement upon him as trustee in the 1999 Memorandum of Trust, constituting “the Boensch trust”and creating their children as First Group Beneficiaries.
  • On 23 August 2005 a sequestration order was made against him.  The trustee in bankruptcy was legally advised that there were strong prospects of defeating the trust claim.  Documents produced by the bankrupt did not lead the trustee to a contrary view.  On 25 August 2005 the trustee lodged a caveat claiming a “Legal Interest pursuant to the Bankruptcy Act 1966”.
  • Documents and evidence subsequently produced by the bankrupt were for a long time unconvincing.   However in December 2007 a court held that the Memorandum of Trust was not a sham and that it manifested a sufficient intention to constitute a trust.   Appeals failed.
  • The caveat lapsed on 15 September 2009.
  • The bankrupt took proceedings claiming compensation under s. 74P(1).  The primary judge concluded that, because the bankrupt had not proven that the trustee in bankruptcy lacked a caveatable interest it could not be said that the trustee had lodged or maintained the caveat without “reasonable cause”, but that even if the trustee had not had a caveatable interest he nevertheless had an honest belief based on reasonable grounds that he had a caveatable interest and thus reasonable cause to lodge and maintain the caveat within the meaning of s. 74P(1).
  • An appeal by the bankrupt failed but he obtained special leave to appeal to the High Court.  The appeal was unanimously dismissed.  There were two judgments: by Bell, Nettle, Gordon and Edelman JJ.; by Kiefel CJ, Gageler and Keane JJ.  Unless otherwise stated references below are to the judgment of the plurality.  The following propositions emerge from the judgments –
  1. Provided the bankrupt had a valid beneficial interest in the trust property, the trust property vested in the trustee in bankruptcy subject to the equities to which it was subject in the hands of the bankrupt.  For these purposes, a valid beneficial interest meant a vested or (subject to applicable laws as to remoteness of vesting) contingent right or power to obtain some personal benefit from the trust property. [15]
  2. Notwithstanding s. 58(1), a legal estate or interest in land subject to the Real Property Act could not pass to the bankrupt’s trustee in bankruptcy unless and until the trustee applied and subsequently became registered as proprietor of the land.  After this the trustee still held the estate or interest subject to the equities to which it was subject in the hands of the bankrupt. [94]
  3. The onus was on Mr Boensch to establish that he had lacked any valid beneficial interest in the property.  However, the evidence established that he had a beneficial interest in the property – to the extent of his right to retain the property as security for satisfaction of his right of indemnity as trustee of the Boensch trust.  By reason of that beneficial interest, an estate in the property vested forthwith in equity in the trustee in bankruptcy pursuant to s. 58 of the Bankruptcy Act 1966, subject to a subtrust on the terms of the Boensch Trust but permitting the trustee to exercise the right of indemnity.  On that basis, the trustee in bankruptcy was entitled to be registered as proprietor and that was a sufficient basis to sustain his caveat. [102], [116] (Similarly Kiefel CJ, Gageler and Keane JJ at [2]).
  4. There was a division of opinion on whether the interest claimed in the caveat, ie “Legal Interest pursuant to the Bankruptcy Act 1966”, was adequate.  On the one hand, expressing themselves very cautiously, the plurality stated that ([107]) “Generally speaking” it was to be doubted that this claimed interest was adequate to describe an equitable estate vested in a trustee in bankruptcy pursuant to s. 58(2) by reason of the bankrupt’s right of indemnity.  While noting that NSW statutory provisions did not require the caveat to specify whether the interest claimed was legal or equitable, their Honours gave reasons why this wording was inadequate, stating that ([107]) it “may be accepted that a court would not ordinarily make an order under s. 74K(2) of the NSW Act extending the operation of a caveat which employed that description”; and stating in a footnote that it was unnecessary to determine whether the court would have power to order amendment of the caveat in those circumstances referring to Percy & Michele Pty Ltd v Gangemi [2010] VSC 530 at [92]- [102] per Macaulay J.On the other hand Kiefel CJ, Gageler and Keane JJ held that the equitable estate vested in the bankrupt was adequately described in the caveat [11].
  5. The trustee in bankruptcy also had good reason to believe, as he did, that the Boensch Trust was not validly constituted.  However, the possibility that the trust might have been set aside under the Bankruptcy Act would not have been sufficient to sustain the caveat.  The interest asserted in the caveat must be in existence at the time of its lodgment.  The assertion by a caveator, who at the time of the lodgment did not have an estate or interest in the land, that he had commenced proceedings which may result in such an interest being vested in him did not suffice. [103] – [104]
  6. The test for liability under s. 74P(1) was established in Beca Developments Pty Ltd v Idameneo (No 92) Pty Ltd (1990) 21 NSWLR 459 at which time the statutory words were “wrongfully without reasonable cause”.  This test was that the claimant for compensation must establish that the caveator had neither a caveatable interest nor an honest belief based on reasonable grounds that the caveator had a caveatable interest (and thus “without reasonable cause”), and that the caveator acted deliberately, knowing that he or she had no interest in the land (and thus “wrongfully”).  Notwithstanding the repeal of “wrongfully” this remained the correct test. [110], [111] (Similarly Kiefel CJ, Gageler and Keane JJ at [12]).
  7. The plurality noted that the Beca Developments test had been substantially followed by intermediate courts in other States including in Edmonds v Donovan [2005] VSCA 27;  (2005) 12 VR 513 at 548 per Phillips JA (Winneke P and Charles JA agreeing at 516 [2], [3]).  The High Court however left open whether, if that test is not satisfied, a person may still be liable under s. 74P(1) by reason of acting with an ulterior motive or where the only interest supporting a caveat is de minimis in terms of legal content or economic value. [114]
  8. Accordingly provided the caveat was lodged on the basis of an honest belief on reasonable grounds that the bankrupt had an extant beneficial interest in the property (including a beneficial interest by way of right of indemnity) the trustee in bankruptcy had reasonable cause to do so.  In fact there was a caveatable interest here.  Further the trustee honestly believed on reasonable grounds that the property vested in him either because the trust was void or because of the bankrupt’s right of indemnity [105], [108], [116] (Similarly Kiefel CJ, Gageler and Keane JJ at [12]).
  9. Even if, as the plurality had held, there was a mere technical deficiency in the statement of the interest claimed this did not of itself demonstrate the absence of a “reasonable cause” to lodge and not withdraw the caveat, at least where the caveat did not overstate the interest sought to be protected. [108]
  10. The plurality noted that, although a caveat was “a statutory injunction to keep the property in statu quo until [the caveator’s] title shall have been fully investigated”, unlike an application for interlocutory injunction it did have to be supported by an undertaking as to damages.  Their Honours justified this on the ground that the holder of an unregistered interest in land under the Torrens system is more vulnerable to inconsistent dealings. [113].

Comment: The equivalent Victorian provision to s. 74P(1) is the TLA s. 118 which provides –

“Any person lodging with the Registrar without reasonable cause any caveat under this Act shall be liable to make to any person who sustains damage thereby such compensation as a court deems just and orders”.

Accordingly the two provisions are materially the same and the High Court’s decision applies in Victoria.  The test in Victoria has however been the same as in NSW, or virtually so, as illustrated in Blogs 9 and 24.

The case is also instructive on –

  1. whether the interest claimed in the caveat was correct.  The comment in paragraph 4 above that the NSW statutory provisions did not require the caveat to specify whether the interest claimed was legal or equitable applies equally in Victoria – the TLA s. 89 simply requires that caveator be a person “claiming any estate or interest in land”;
  2. the interest claimed in the caveat must be in existence at the time of its lodgment – it is not enough that the caveator has commenced proceedings which may result in such an interest being vested in him – paragraph 5 above;
  3. why an undertaking as to damages is not normally required – paragraph 10 above.