As CTRS sunsets, VCAT shades VSBC’s rent relief request guidance

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The pandemic-inspired Commercial Tenancy Relief Scheme (CTRS) ends this Sunday, 28 March 2021 but two recent cases suggest that it will echo on in VCAT litigation for a good while yet.

I last blogged about the CTRS back in October (see here). For a beginners’ guide to the CTRS generally, see my original blog on the subject here. In a nutshell, it is a regime to give temporary assistance to pandemic-hit commercial and retail property tenants.

The scheme came into operation in May 2020 with retrospective effect to 29 March 2020. It was originally to end on 29 September 2020 but was extended twice. By its first lot of amendments (the September amendments) it was extended until 31 December 2020 and by a second set (the December amendments) it was extended further to 28 March 2021. (See the expiry date provision at reg. 25 and also the definition of “relevant period” at reg. 3 of the COVID-19 Omnibus (Emergency Measures) (Commercial Leases and Licences) Regulations 2020.)

But with no further extensions the CTRS party is about to end. Both the CTRS and the Commonwealth’s JobKeeper payment program (which was always essential to CTRS eligibility) are to end on 28 March 2021.

As discussed in my October blog, the September amendments contained some tweaks to the CTRS beyond simply prolonging it. Those other changes caused the Victorian Small Business Commission (VSBC) to suggest publicly that fresh rent relief requests to landlords were likely to be necessary for any pandemic-distressed tenants wanting rent relief for any time after the CTRS’s original 29 September 2020 expiry date. In short, the VSBC’s implication was that even an entirely compliant rent relief request made before 29 September 2020 risked being legally useless in respect of any rent due after that date and hence a fresh formal rent relief request was necessary for pandemic-affected tenants.

Really? As Talking Heads asked in Psycho Killer “Say something once, why say it again?”

As statutory interpretation, the VSBC view was arguable but as policy it did sound improbable, especially when the CTRS was directed at assisting small businesses through a societal catastrophe.

Fast forward six months and this ‘one-rent-relief-request-or-two?’ issue from the September amendments has now cropped up in two separate VCAT cases in the last fortnight.

Both cases make encouraging news for tenants.

In Yarraville Business Pty Ltd v Persico [2021] VCAT 213 Member Edquist was unmoved by the VSBC’s public pronouncements. In Yarraville, the tenant had made one (problematic) rent relief request before the September amendments and none afterwards. The landlord pointed to this as fatal to the tenant’s reliance on the CTRS in respect of short-payment of rent due after 29 September 2020. The Tribunal disagreed (at least on an interlocutory basis). It found that the tenant’s single pre-September request was sufficient for both pre- and post-29 September CTRS purposes and that the VSBC’s views were of little consequence:

….

74.    I begin with the observation that I am not assisted by the reference to the website of the Small Business Commissioner. The Victorian Small Business Commission is not a superior court, and its opinions do not bind the Tribunal. It was not contended that the website should be regarded as the opinion of an expert witness. The chain of reasoning underpinning the Small Business Commissioner’s expression of opinion does not appear to be set out on the website, and so I am not in a position to consider it.

….

88.    …. For these reasons, I find that [the Tenant’s] argument is sustained. [The Tenant] did not have to make a fresh application for review after 29 September 2020 in order to continue to enjoy protection from eviction ….

Just four days later, in Global Fashion Service Pty Ltd v ESR Investment Nominees 3 (Australia) Pty Ltd [2021] VCAT 224, VCAT’s Deputy President Riegler reached a similar conclusion in favour of another tenant who had also sought rent relief before the September amendments but had failed to make a fresh rent relief request afterwards. DP Riegler’s reasons do not refer to the VSBC nor to the Interpretation of Legislation Act (several parts of which are discussed in Yarraville) but the bottom line was the same.

In each case, a tenant who had failed to seek rent relief after the September amendments came into force succeeded in obtaining an injunction preventing a landlord from terminating a lease to which the CTRS applied.

The interlocutory nature of both the Yarraville and Global Fashion decisions is significant as no final decision of legal rights has yet been made in either case and hence they have – for the moment at least – dubious precedent value.

Nevertheless, pending the final determination of the two cases they are still likely to assist tenants in CTRS rent relief negotiations by upsetting a previously widespread perception that valid rent relief requests made before 29 September 2020 were somehow irrelevant to leasing relationships after that date.

The cases are also a useful reminder not to rely on everything you read on the VSBC website.

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