At the track, bets are customarily not paid until the winning jockeys and their saddles have weighed in and the stewards have declared ‘correct weight’.
Similarly, in commercial litigation (never entirely dissimilar to gambling) the financial outcome of the courtroom contest is often unclear until the final costs orders are made.
But in retail tenancies cases at VCAT successful punters rarely even glimpse the stewards’ scales. This is because of the near-prohibition on costs orders contained in s 92 of the Retail Leases Act 2003 .
The latest illustration of this problem for successful litigants, and boon for unsuccessful litigants, is Complete Pets Pty Ltd v Coles Group Property Developments Pty Ltd  VCAT 361.
A tenant, its guarantor and two investors together sued a landlord. The landlord cross-claimed. The landlord offered in a Calderbank letter and, later, in an open offer, that all claims be settled on the basis that each party walk away from the litigation and bear its own costs.
The tenant’s camp did not bite. They fought on with disastrous consequences. They were awarded zilch. The landlord won $342,901.
The landlord then sought its costs.
The landlord argued firstly that the guarantor and investors had brought their claims under the Fair Trading Act and accordingly were not caught by the savage restriction on costs orders contained in the Retail Leases Act.
Senior Member Riegler was unmoved, stating (at para 16): –
I am of the view that it is of no consequence that the relief is being sought under the Fair Trading Act 1999 …… The critical question is not what relief is being sought but rather whether the parties are parties to a proceeding before the Tribunal under Part 10 of the Retail Leases Act.
He concluded that the parties were involved in such a proceeding and, as a consequence, the landlord could not obtain a costs order against any of the tenant, guarantor or the investors unless it could show that one of the exceptions to s 92 of the Retail Leases Act applied. This required the landlord to satisfy VCAT that its opponents had conducted the proceeding either in a vexatious way that unnecessarily disadvantaged the landlord, or after failing to participate in alternative dispute resolution.
The landlord relied on its spurned settlement offers to make precisely those alternative submissions. It argued that as the ‘walk away’ offers it had made were clearly more favourable to the litigation’s losers than the end result vexatious conduct and/or the failure to participate in alternative dispute resolution should be inferred.
Again Senior Member Riegler was not persuaded. He said –
- a litigant merely putting its opponent to its proof is not of itself vexatious;
- neither is a litigant’s failure to accept an advantageous offer of settlement; and
- the reference in the Retail Leases Act to alternative dispute resolution does not extend to settlement offers.
Is a party with a strong case wasting its time and money making a Calderbank offer (or similar) in VCAT’s Retail Tenancies List?
Of course, not every punter who backs himself to pick the four winners necessary for a quadrella comes away disappointed – just the overwhelming majority.
In a retailing leasing dispute your client’s odds of getting a costs order are probably similar. Your punter might do much better taking a form guide to Flemington than a Calderbank offer to a costs application in the Retail Tenancies List.