About Paul Duggan

commercial litigation barrister and mediator

Commercial litigators referred to the DPP and ordered to pay their clients $11.7 m

Banksia Securities is civil litigation’s ‘Lawyer X’ moment. It is “one of the darkest chapters in the legal history of this state,” according to the Victorian Supreme Court’s Justice John Dixon.

Dixon J. delivered this assessment in Bolitho v Banksia Securities (No 18)(remitter) [2021] VSC 666 on Monday.

He ordered two barristers, three solicitors and a litigation funder to pay their own clients damages of $11.7 million plus indemnity costs.

It is the latest crescendo in a slow-burn case spanning years. And there might be more to come because Dixon J. also ordered that the matter’s papers be provided to the Director of Public Prosecutions (plainly with view to potential fraud-related charges against some of the lawyers).

Here is the nutshell version of Banksia Securities to date. A class action for 16,000 mainly elderly investors was settled for $64 million in 2017. The plaintiffs’ lawyers then put their heads together to milk their clients of more than $19 million in legal costs and litigation funder’s commission. Between them, the lawyers’ efforts at securing this recompense included misleading the Court, reverse-engineering invoices, backdating costs agreements and destroying documents.

But two of the lawyers’ braver clients smelled a rat and spoke up.

A judicial bollocking has now resulted.

“Moral atrophy”, “disingenuous”, “intention to conceal”, “deliberately destroyed documentary evidence”, “nefarious”, “incompetent”, “extraordinarily casual”, “gross dereliction” and “knowingly false” are some of the phrases applied to particular lawyers in the decision. Dixon J. differentiates between the lawyers (for example, one solicitor is found to have been grossly derelict but not dishonest) but their collective efforts were cumulative and, in Dixon J.’s words, “The victim was the administration of justice.”

Two barristers – Norman O’Bryan SC and his junior Michael Symons – have already lost their tickets. They might yet lose their liberty depending on how things pan out with the DPP. The two surviving solicitors have been directed to show cause why they should not lose their tickets too.

I will try to blog further about this case when I have digested the 696-page judgment but in the interim the Court’s own three-page case summary will give you a taste.

My initial takeaways?

  • The Civil Procedure Act is more than a list of platitudes. Breaching it has just cost some commercial litigators millions of dollars. Complying with it (and also the Uniform Law as to costs disclosure) would have saved them that money plus their reputations, livelihoods and potentially some jail time too.
  • Pause if you ever find yourself at either end of an email between lawyers that proposes the deletion of documents. Is such a course likely to end well? And whether it is acted on or not, how is that proposal going to look if the email ever find its way into evidence?
  • Nothing about the case suggests that this was a debut performance by its ignominious ringleaders. If I had ever been represented by Norman O’Bryan SC or solicitor Mark Elliott I would now be dusting off their invoices to me with very deep suspicion.

Commercial Tenancy Relief Scheme 2.0 – a new variant for leasing lawyers

Covid has evolved. So has Victoria’s commercial rent relief scheme to deal with the pandemic’s consequences for commercial landlords and tenants. We now have the details of the latest version.

The new CTRS (perhaps we should christen it the CTRS’s Delta variant?) effectively became law yesterday. Here is a very brief introduction:

  1. The Commercial Tenancy Relief Scheme Act 2021 ostensibly creates the scheme but its real substance is contained in the Commercial Tenancy Relief Scheme Regulations 2021 proclaimed yesterday.
  2. Its broad aim is to entitle distressed retail and commercial tenants who have suffered a decline in turnover of 30 per cent or more since 1 April 2021 to obtain at least proportionate rent relief from their landlords.
  3. Eligibility for the CTRS is no longer tied to the Jobkeeper program (which has expired) but rather to a financial comparison of three consecutive months of trade to an earlier corresponding period.
  4. Some tenants are disqualified from the outset. Publicly listed corporations, major banks and beekeepers (yes, really!) are among the unwelcome (see regs 7 and 8).
  5. The scheme is complex and littered with exceptions, carve-outs, qualifications, and deadlines. No brief summary (including this one) can be relied upon as entirely accurate.
  6. Eligibility is not automatic. Among other things, eligibility requires a written rent relief request from a tenant to a landlord (reg. 27(1)) which sets out certain details (reg. 27(2)) and is supported by certain documentary evidence within 14 days (reg. 27(3)). A tenant who stuffs up these formalities three times will not be allowed a fourth bite of the cherry (reg. 26(6)).
  7. A landlord receiving a compliant rent relief request must within 14 days offer the tenant at least rent relief proportionate to the tenant’s decline in turnover. At least half of that relief must be by way of waiver of rent (reg. 27(8)) with the balance by deferral.
  8. A tenant receiving such an offer will be deemed to have accepted it 15 days later unless they have otherwise agreed or have already referred the matter to the Small Business Commissioner (reg. 27(11)).
  9. The period for which rent relief must be granted starts on the day the rent relief request is made unless that request is made before 30 September 2021 in which case the rent relief period commences on 28 July 2021 (note the retrospectivity) (reg. 28). (This will make 30 September 2021 an important deadline for some distressed tenants.)
  10. Where a landlord and tenant cannot agree on rent relief the Small Business Commission can impose a binding order on the parties (reg. 48) without a hearing (reg. 46) which can then be further litigated in VCAT (reg. 59).
  11. Eligible lease disputes can be litigated in VCAT or the Supreme, County or Magistrates’ courts but all require a gateway certificate from the Small Business Commission (regs 64 and 65).
  12. The regulations currently contemplate a ‘rent relief period’ from only 28 July 2021 to 15 January 2022 (see definitions at reg. 4) but remember that the end date of the original CTRS scheme was extended several times so this end date might eventually prove to be elastic too.
  13. During the ‘rent relief period’ it will be impossible for most landlords to increase their rents under eligible leases for any reason (reg. 35). Particularly for long term leases without ‘review to market’ rent review clauses, this ban has potential long term implications to the capitalization rates and hence the capital value of some rental properties.
  14. Unlike the earlier CTRS schemes, some tenants will be required to provide further financial information to their landlord even after a rent relief agreement has been entered into. Their rent relief entitlement might then increase or decrease automatically depending on that information (reg. 29).

Does this all sound simple, straight forward and convenient? If so, I haven’t explained it sufficiently and you should probably do some further reading.

Some useful resources for that purpose:

How bazaar – soli’s CTRS rent relief requests mostly fail at VCAT

A recent Covid rent relief request case at VCAT bodes ill for Victoria’s pandemic-stricken commercial tenants.

The tenant in Tzilantonis v S &C Thomas Pty Ltd [2021] VCAT 486 was a solicitor who used part of the leased premises for his legal practice and the remainder as an online variety store known as Clearance Bazaar. After Covid thumped the legal practice’s turnover, the soli made three separate written requests spanning 8 months to his landlord for rental relief under the COVID 19 Omnibus (Emergency Measures) (Commercial Leases and Licences) Regulations 2020 (“the Regulations”). The landlord was unmoved. It contended that none of the requests complied with the Regulations and accordingly the tenant was not entitled to any rent relief.

So off to VCAT the parties went.

Last month VCAT Deputy President Riegler delivered his decision.  In summary:

  • It was common ground between the parties at hearing that any entitlement to rental relief was conditional upon the tenant having made a compliant rent relief request under the Regulations.
  • Of the tenant’s three rent relief requests for the year from 1 April 2020, VCAT found only the final request was compliant and hence the tenant was entitled only to rent relief for the three months covered by that particular request.
  • The formal final order states that “The Applicant is entitled to rental relief representing 62.2% of the rent that would otherwise have been payable over the period 31 December 2020 until 28 March 2021”. But the reasons are obscure as to both how that unquantified amount was arrived at, and how much of the relief was to be by way of rent waiver and how much was to be rent deferral.

The Tzilantonis decision answers some questions about the practical operation of the Commercial Tenancy Relief Scheme (CTRS) but invites others.

Some takeaway answers include the following:

  1. It seems that a tenant’s valid CTRS rent relief request can comprise separate documents on separate dates provided they are all provided to the landlord within a reasonably short period.
  2. Supplying VCAT and the landlord at final hearing with information or documentation which should have been provided with an actual rent relief request will be too late to salvage the validity of a non-compliant rent relief request.
  3. Strict, although not entirely slavish, compliance with the Regulations is required for a rent relief request to be valid. For example, an abbreviated version of the pointless tautology required at reg. 10(2) of the Regulations that “the tenant’s lease is an eligible lease … and that the lease is not excluded from the operation of these regulations…” won’t invalidate the request.
  4. Providing a landlord with a “print activity statement” (in essence an electronic version of a BAS statement) is capable of being sufficient evidence of a tenant’s participation in the jobkeeper program for the purposes of reg. 10(2)(b)(ii).
  5. VCAT-ordered CTRS rent relief applies to rent only – there is no flow-on right to corresponding relief for outgoings (eg utility payments) payable under the lease.

What of the remaining questions about the practical operation of the CTRS?

One that occurs to me relates to the common perception that any rent relief granted under the CTRS must be directly proportionate to the tenant’s fall in turnover.  And what of the widespread understanding that whatever rent relief is given must be in the form of 50/50 forgiveness of rent and deferral of rent?

Both are myths that arose from the National Cabinet’s views on these issues last year (see my blog touching upon its Code of Conduct here) rather than from any actual requirements in the Regulations.

The Regulations were amended several times over their short life (remember that the Regulations expired on 28 March 2021) but they never included any requirement that the rent relief had to be directly proportionate to the decline in the tenant’s turnover. The closest reference to proportionality was found in reg. 10(4)(ba) which made rent relief proportionate to the tenant’s decline in turnover the minimum rent relief to which the tenant was entitled. And the tenant’s maximum rent relief entitlement? Reg. 10(4)(a) referred to “… up to 100% of the rent payable…” [My emphasis.]

The decision in in Tzilantonis sets out that the tenant’s year-on-year decline in turnover for the December quarter in 2020 was 62.2% and then — without any reference to this being the tenant’s minimum entitlement under reg.10(4)(ba) — transplants that percentage figure into the final rent relief order. Why the coincidence in percentage figures? Did the tenant even ask for more than 62.2%? The VCAT decision does not say.

Similarly, readers are left to wonder whether the 62.2% rent relief ordered for (most of) the March 2021 quarter was intended by VCAT to take the form of waiver of 31.1% of the usual rent plus deferral of payment of a further 31.1% (and if so, deferral over what period?) or if some other cocktail of rent relief was contemplated.

Reg. 10(4)(b) required a landlord offering a qualifying tenant rent relief to offer “not less than 50% of the rent relief … in the form of a waiver of rent, unless a landlord and a tenant otherwise agree in writing.” [My emphasis]. Note that — again contrary to common understanding — the requirement that 50% of the rent relief be by way of waiver (unless the tenant otherwise agrees) was the tenant’s minimum entitlement under the Regulations and was not a fixed and inflexible outcome.

So, of the 61.2% rent relief the tenant secured did VCAT decide that the tenant’s minimum waiver entitlement of 50% was appropriate here? Or was it to be a 100% rental waiver? Or was it to be waiver of something between those percentages with deferral (for however long) of payment of the balance of the rent relief? Again, readers are left to wonder.

A third big CTRS question didn’t arise in this case because of the Tribunal’s findings as to the invalidity of the tenant’s first two rent relief requests. But if, hypothetically, the tenant’s earliest rent relief request had complied with the Regulations, would the tenant’s subsequent rent relief requests then have been redundant as a consequence? (If so, a botched later request presumably would not have invalidated its valid predecessor.) Or should tenants seeking rent relief under the CTRS have submitted a fresh rent relief request each time a fresh version of the Regulations commenced (and, remember, with retrospective effect each time)? (If so, commercial tenants who failed to submit at least three valid rent relief requests will have disqualified themselves from at least some of the protections otherwise available to them under the CTRS.)

Conclusion

Two thoughts.

  • Pending some more published decisions from VCAT in this area, it will be perilous work for lawyers advising tenants and landlords as to their surviving rights and obligations under the CTRS.

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

Photo by Abdullah Ghatasheh on Pexels.com

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.

Tigers thump their retail landlord and Port Adelaide on the same day

Dusty Martin’s reaction to the Court of Appeal’s judgment

Richmond Football Club had two big wins on Friday – one over Port Adelaide in the preliminary final and the other over a retail landlord in Victoria’s Court of Appeal.

One result gets the Tiges into the 2020 Grand Final; the other should win them lots of new fans among Victoria’s retail tenants.

The Court of Appeal’s decision is Verraty Pty Ltd v Richmond Football Club Ltd [2020] VSCA 267.

In short, it allows Richmond to rely on the Retail Leases Act (‘the Act’) to save a mountain of land tax and prune back some rent increases (the precise monetary consequences are not set out).

The decision confirms that a ‘retail premises lease’ once entered or renewed will not change its legal character during its term by reason of extraneous circumstances (such as rent increases). This is important because the Act gives various protections to tenants of ‘retail premises’ including (at s. 50) voiding any requirement in a lease that the tenant effectively pay its landlord’s land tax. These protections commonly make the question of whether a particular lease relates to ‘retail premises’ within the meaning of s. 4 of the Act financially significant for tenants and landlords.

The Act’s definition of ‘retail premises’ focuses on the retail supply of goods and services but it has several carve-outs. One of the exclusions is that premises with ‘occupancy costs’ of over $1 million per year are not ‘retail premises’. But what happens if the proper categorization of premises as ‘retail premises’ changes during the life of a lease?

This was the issue that arose between Richmond and its landlord, Verraty.

Since (at least) 2004, Richmond had leased a Wantirna pokies venue from Verraty. In 2004 the venue constituted ‘retail premises’ within the meaning of the Act.The written lease included a requirement that the tenant reimburse the landlord its annual land tax but, because the lease was a ‘retail premises lease,’ that requirement was unenforceable by reason of s. 50 of the Retail Leases Act.

Over time the property’s rent and outgoings increased. By May 2016 the tenant’s annual occupancy costs ticked over the $1 million mark. Did the fact that the occupancy costs now exceeded $1 million mean that the premises ceased to be ‘retail premises’ within the meaning of the Act and that the hitherto-void land tax clause hence suddenly became enforceable against Richmond?

The landlord took that argument to VCAT and won – see Verraty v Richmond Football Club [2019] VCAT 1073.

Richmond then appealed to the Supreme Court (Croft J in his final case before retirement from the bench) and won – see Richmond Football Club v Verraty [2019] VSC 597.

Verraty then appealed to the Court of Appeal. There Justices Kyrou, Kaye and Sifris dismissed Varraty’s appeal in a joint judgment. The nub of it is in para 8:

“… if a lease is a ‘retail premises’ lease at the commencement of the lease, it remains subject to the Act even if the premises cease to be retail premises. In short, the text, context and purpose of the Act strongly support the view that it is not possible [for a lease] to jump in and out of the Act from time to time depending on whether the premises continue to fall within the definition of ‘retail premises’.

The judgment is a ringing vindication of Croft J’s final Supreme Court judgment but it is silent on the question of whether leasing relationships can ‘jump’ in or out of the Act when leases are renewed (cf during a lease term). This question did not squarely arise in the Richmond v Verraty matter but Croft J nevertheless ventured an opinion on it in his judgment. He suggested (at paras 74 – 78) that whether premises could change their ‘retail premises’ characterization upon renewal of a lease depended upon the lease provisions regarding such renewals.

The Court of Appeal does not look at this question but it certainly approved of Croft J’s analysis generally.

Conclusions? Three occur to me.

  1. It is now settled that whether a lease is or is not a ‘retail premises lease’ is established on a ‘once and for all’ basis upon its entry or renewal. Its character won’t change during its term.
  2. It is less clear whether a lease can ‘jump’ upon renewal of a lease. For example, ‘retail premises’ under the Act exclude premises whose tenants are listed on the ASX. Despite this, Verraty suggests that the retail premises lease for a ‘Mum and Dad’ business will continue to be a retail premises lease even where the tenants sell their business and assign their lease to an ASX-listed company during the life of that lease. So if that ASX-listed assignee then exercises an option to renew the lease, what is the status of the resulting further term? Croft J implies the answer depends on the terms of the lease involved. The Court of Appeal does not express a view.
  3. Richmond is going into Grand Final Week on a winning streak on and off the field. This might be a bad omen for Geelong.

Time for a second wave of rent relief applications? Meet Victoria’s amended Covid-19 commercial leasing regime

Victoria’s commercial leasing goalposts moved again last week with new regulations tweaking the Commercial Tenancy Relief Scheme (“CTRS”). As a result, most commercial tenants should probably now be making fresh rent relief applications to their landlords.

By way of background, I blogged about the original CTRS in May (see here). But in short, the CTRS is part of a national scheme to spread the financial pain of the Covid-19 pandemic between commercial landlords and their tenants. The newly updated Covid-19 Omnibus (Emergency Measures) (Commercial Leases and Licences) Regulations 2020 (“the Amended Regulations”) extend the CTRS until 31 December 2020 (see reg. 25 and the definition of ‘relevant period’) but they also do much else.

Here are four key changes I perceive in the Amended Regulations.

1. Fresh rent relief requests might now be necessary.

As in the original version of the CTRS, a commercial tenant will qualify for rent relief only if, first, it has an ‘eligible lease’ (which involves, among other things, participation in the Commonwealth’s ‘JobKeeper’ scheme) (see reg. 10(2)(b)) and, second, it makes a written request for rent relief that complies with reg. 10. The wrinkle is that reg. 10 was changed by last week’s amendments, and the information prescribed for the tenant’s request is now greater than before. One example of the effects of the changes to reg. 10 is that a tenant’s written rent relief request to a landlord could comply with reg. 10 on 28 September 2020 without specifying the tenant’s decline in turnover as “a whole percentage”. On 29 September 2020 that same written request would not have complied with the (newly amended) reg. 10.

This is problematic for several reasons. The Amended Regulations were made on 29 September 2020 but “are taken to have come into operation on 29 March 2020” (reg. 3). Put another way, the Amended Regulations’ commencement pre-dates their very publication by precisely 6 months. So is our hypothetical tenant’s compliant rent relief request of 28 September 2020 still valid today? (Think of all the billable hours likely to be exhausted exploring this question.)

Even assuming this particular absurdity can be safely navigated in our hypothetical tenant’s favour (and I think it can be only partially), what is the status of tenants’ pre-29 September rent relief requests for post-29 September 2020 rent if their earlier rent relief requests do not comply with the 29 September 2020 version of reg. 10? (Reg. 10(4)(a) implies that a landlord is under no obligation to give its tenant rent relief for any period before the landlord receives a written request from the tenant that conforms with the reg. 10(1).)

The Small Business Commission is central to the administration of the CTRS. It has already noticed this complication and sought to deal with it by publishing this template rent relief request for tenants to send to their landlords. It is feasible that some tenants will have already accidentally provided their landlords all the information prescribed by the new reg. 10, but such serendipitous advance compliance is likely to be rare. As the tenant’s compliant written request is both important and free, most tenants will probably be best served by completing the SBC’s template document asap and firing it off to their landlords. Every day they delay is potentially costing them rent relief to which they are otherwise entitled.

Back in April, the National Cabinet published the Mandatory Code of Conduct Contrary on SME Commercial Leasing Principles during Covid 19. That document created an expectation (but no actual legal requirement) that landlords would grant rent relief which was at least proportionate to their commercial tenants’ loss of turnover. That expectation was not reflected in Victoria’s original CTRS regulations. Confusion ensued. This has now changed. The Amended Regulations do have such a proportionality requirement (see reg. 10(4)(ba)). Landlords must offer their tenants within 14 days of a compliant request, rent relief “at a minimum, proportional to the decline in the tenant’s turnover” associated with the rented premises.

2. Proportional rent relief as a minimum is now unambiguous.

Note that the proportional rent relief is a minimum rather than a fixed empirical requirement – a tenant might legitimately and candidly argue for a higher percentage of rent relief than the loss of turnover it has actually experienced.

The Amended Regulations maintain the original CTRS requirement that, unless otherwise agreed by the tenant, rent relief (whatever the amount) will be granted by landlords permanently waiving one half of the rent relief amount (see reg. 10(4)(b)) with the balance of the rent relief to be dealt with by way of deferral (see reg. 16(2)) or otherwise.

3. Even stony broke landlords are now required to donate blood to their haemorrhaging tenants.

The original CTRS regulations included (at reg. 10(4)(d)(iv)) an effective requirement that rent relief be calculated by reference to factors including “a landlord’s financial ability to offer rent relief”. Regulation 10(4)(d)(iv) has been deleted by the Amended Regulations. The potential effect is that some cash-strapped landlords might now be compelled to provide rent relief to their tenants even where that rent relief is likely to drive those landlords to insolvency.

4. A pseudo fix to jawboning as a delay tactic?

The very foundation of the original CTRS was that a qualifying tenant could not be evicted for non-payment of rent until the revised CTRS rent had been either agreed or fixed by VCAT. In my May blog I perceived a scenario where a cynical tenant might go on an effective rent strike under the pretext that it was negotiating with the landlord while knowing that the growing queue of litigants for a (largely shut-down) VCAT meant that those “negotiations” might drag on inconclusively for years. The Amended Regulations now offer tenants (but not landlords) the near-term possibility of obtaining from the Small Business Commission a binding order for rent relief (see Division 1A of the Amended Regulations). Such binding orders are likely to be relatively quick (at least compared to the VCAT route) and might be useful to some tenants requiring short term certainty (e.g. for business sales, partnership dissolutions, etc) but most tenants are likely to find them very unattractive for several reasons.

The most obvious disincentive to a tenant seeking a binding order is strategic. If a tenant has effectively suspended its landlord’s ability to evict it for non-payment of rent pending a very distant adjudication by VCAT, why would that tenant want to disrupt the status quo by seeking a binding order from the Small Business Commission? It sounds to me a bit like Roadrunner proposing a coin toss to Wyle E Coyote – essentially foolhardy.

And a landlord’s equivalent near-term options if rent relief negotiations reach an impasse? Scant indeed, on my reading of the Amended Regulations.

There are many other oddities in the Amended Regulations. These are surely not the last amendments to the CTRS that we will see.

ADDENDUM – 22 MARCH 2021 UPDATE

See this update for a contrary view from VCAT about the need for fresh rent relief requests after 29 September 2020.

For whom the Bell tolls

Alan Bond (pre-Bell collapse, fraud conviction and bankruptcy) with a mate

There is something uplifting in properly farewelling the dead and the dying.

The Economist’s weekly obituary always floats my boat (here is its recent goodbye to Ruth Bader Ginsburg as a sample). Ditto almost anything from Nick Cave’s vast anthology of dirges (including the Sydney Opera House’s spine-tingling cover of The Ship Song). Gabrielle Faure’s Requiem is my perfect breakfast soundtrack (although it does cause my family to fling toast at me).

Maybe Master Sanderson of the Western Australian Supreme Court has similar tastes.

He has just added a nine paragraph Corporations Law judgment to the genre. It’s beautiful.

In a mere 675 words he retells the story of the Bell litigation which is now being laid to rest after 25+ exhausting years, makes some final formal orders, and even includes some wry funnies along the way.

It might well be the very first and last Corporations Act judgment you actually enjoy reading from start to finish.

Here it is: Bell Group (UK) Holdings Ltd (in liq) [2020] WASC 347.

And to give it context, here is the ABC’s take on the wider saga.

Cashing in on a sense of entitlement – another intriguing TFM tale

From East St Kilda to Malvern via Tajikistan

Looking for an exotic read that traverses East St Kilda, L.A., London, Afghanistan and Malvern? Or researching the outer reaches of “disentitling conduct” in dysfunctional families for the purposes of Victoria’s testator family maintenance (TFM) regime?

Either way, take a look at Joss v Joss [2020] VSC 424 which was decided by Justice Elizabeth Hollingworth in the Supreme Court this month.

The deceased was an orthodox Jewish survivor of the Holocaust. He died aged 93 in 2017, leaving the entirety of his $12.4 million Australian estate to his wife of 61 years. The couple’s two children stood to inherit under Dad’s will if Mum predeceased him but as Mum survived Dad, they got nothing under Dad’s will.

One son apparently accepted this but his brother did not. That son – a 61 year-old now named “Jessica” (s/he has long been planning gender reassignment surgery) sued the estate under Part IV of the Administration and Probate Act claiming her father had a “moral obligation” to make adequate provision for her proper maintenance and support and had failed in that duty. Jessica initially claimed 100 per cent of the estate but whittled that claim back to between 30 and 45 per cent by the end of the trial.

What had the plaintiff done to deserve such munificence from her late father (and at the expense of the deceased’s widow, Jessica’a own mother)?

Here are just some of the highlights from Jessica’s resume:

  • After being expelled twice from the same school Jessica received a commerce degree from Melbourne Uni. She then worked in banking and finance in Sydney and London for a few years.
  • In 1989 Jessica briefly joined the US Marines but didn’t make it through boot camp.
  • She then moved home to East St Kilda where the deceased bought her an apartment in her own name and employed her in the family business.
  • Along the way, Jessica stole some of the deceased’s share certificates and bought herself a luxury car with the proceeds.
  • In 1998 the deceased started paying Jessica an allowance of $500 per month. That allowance never stopped (even after the deceased’s death) and by the time of the trial had grown to $1600 per week (i.e. $83,000 annually tax-free) plus miscellaneous extra payments from time to time.
  • In 1999 Jessica quit work at the family business and (on her own version) chose never to work again. She lived off her parents’ money thereafter.
  • At about the same time, she abandoned the St Kilda apartment she’d been given to stand empty while she took off to Tajikistan hoping to fight in Afghanistan.
  • She developed strong anti-Jewish, pro-Muslim views. She also attempted to get a job working with the Iranian government.
  • She boasted to friends that she was joining Al Qaeda.
  • She repeatedly demanded millions from her parents (as an “advance on her inheritance”) and threatened to kill herself if they refused.
  • She repeatedly embarrassed her parents publicly and privately.
  • She acquired a cross-bow and was arrested after threatening to kill the deceased with it at the family’s synagogue.
  • She accepted a brand-new car from the deceased in 2014 and never saw him again before he died three years later.
  • As at the date of trial (in Hollingworth J’s words): –
    • “Jessica’s life has essentially been on hold for 20 years, as she stubbornly waits for her parents to pay for the [gender reassignment] surgery that she would have been capable of saving for, and paying for, herself at various times during that period.”
    • “Jessica’s parents have furnished at least three previous homes for her over the years; she has either sold or abandoned all of the furniture.”
    • Jessica has “no superannuation, savings or substantial assets” and no dependents “except for an elderly cat”.

So did the deceased have a “moral duty” to make provision for Jessica in his will?

Too right, said Hollingworth J.

“By continuing to support Jessica for all those years, [the deceased] allowed her to become financially dependent on him, and to lose much, if not all, of her capacity for employment. This is the most important consideration in my conclusion that [the deceased] did owe a moral duty towards Jessica, notwithstanding her attitude and behaviour over the years.

….

“… I have determined that the sum of $3.225 million would constitute adequate provision for Jessica’s proper maintenance and support.”

Observations

Three thoughts occur to me.

First, like so many other TFM judgments, Joss contains some judicial platitudes about freedom of testation being “an important human right” but then illustrates that the limitations to that right can be very severe indeed.

Second, religious types might perceive in Joss an echo of the The Prodigal Son. They are wrong.

In the parable, the younger son received a large, early share of the family fortune and squandered it. He then saw the error of his ways and returned to the family fold to express regret and seek forgiveness. In Joss the younger sibling bypassed the family and went to court where expressing indignation rather than regret. And rather asking for forgiveness Jessica sought, among other things, the price of the hypothetical “impeccable” 2 or 3-bedroom house in Malvern or Armadale to which she aspired.

The only common thread between Joss v Joss and the Prodigal Son is that in both stories the older brothers must have come away dumbfounded. (The brothers might also have found themselves questioning the scriptural injunction: “The meek shall inherit the earth”.)

One final cheerful thought though. This type of case often prompts people to ask lawyers how they can be sure that a will won’t be contested after a testator dies. There is only one certain answer if you are a testator:  make sure you spend every last cent you have before you turn up your toes. 

Jock Serong’s mission to salvage a sunken treasure

      

Jock sea landscape 270720

Jock Serong at Port Fairy

Barristers should be good with words. Most (not all) are competent speakers. Many reckon they can write too but are frightened of active verbs, simple expression and short sentences.  Only occasionally is a  barrister strong enough with text to shrug off the law completely and find fame as a writer rather than as a  barrister.

Charles Bean, Australia’s official historian of World War 1 was one such ex-barrister. Another is John Bryson, whose Azaria Chamberlain book ‘Evil Angels’ elevated a tabloided tragedy into  serious long form journalism.  A third is my friend and former roommate Justin “Jock” Serong.

As a barrister at the Victorian Bar, Jock had a wide and very solid practice. He ranged from native title work in outback Queensland and immigration work (both for and against the Commonwealth) through to high profile murder trials in Melbourne. But after hours, he started penning words for a surf mag too.

Things snowballed and eventually the writing won. To the dismay of his clerk, Jock upped stumps, left the bar and moved to Port Fairy. A decade and five published novels later, he is still there.

Jock has always loved a Quixotic adventure. At the bar, when he wasn’t defending or prosecuting the consequences of other people’s adventures, he was planning his own (although Jock’s enterprises were typically far more benign than those of his punters).

Inevitably, not all of Jock’s quests succeeded. One particularly ambitious scheme, with some mates, involved launching a large-format magazine they called the Great Ocean Quarterly. It was a highbrow fusion of salt water literature, photography, surfing, science, history and anything else that they could thematically tie back to the sea. They launched it in colour and on old-style heavy stock paper in 2013 in defiance of a booming internet and a languishing print advertising market.

But the doomsayers were right.  After seven issues, GOQ  was swamped by commercial reality and sank without trace in 2015.

Or so it seemed.

Could anything be more Quixotic?

Actually, yes. Jock and his team recently had a lightbulb moment and now they’re getting the band back together.

When GOQ closed its doors there was one issue still in utero. Now they’ve chosen this pandemic as an opportune moment to print that “Lost Eighth” edition as a one-off.   According to Jock’s promo email, they’re doing it “to honour some hard work from some years ago, and bring something lovely into a riven world.”

“There’s not much that can be guaranteed in print media, but this much stands: it’s the best issue we never made.”

Is this a crazy-brave announcement on the very same day one of Australia’s major publishers announced the closure of eight of its own magazine titles?

Absolutely. If the GOQ team thought the Lost Eighth was a commercial winner they probably would not have set up this crowd funding site.

Dive in. Help Jock and his crew land the Lost Eighth.

 

Commercial leasing – rent relief and good faith in a time of Covid-19

Not the Covid-19 Omnibus (Emergency Measures) Act 2020

Victoria’s Covid-19 emergency measures to assist commercial tenants now have formal legal force with the proclamation of the Covid-19 Omnibus (Emergency Measures) (Commercial Leases and Licences) Regulations 2020.

Some of the new temporary reforms are drastic. For example, paying rent will effectively become optional in the short term for many commercial tenants. And landlords who even attempt to evict such tenants for non-payment will be guilty of an offence.

The new pro-tenant measures will apply to a vast range of retail and non-retail commercial leases for the six months between 29 March 2020 and 29 September 2020.

The changes are effected mainly by the deeming of new terms into commercial leases and licences, but a crucial detail easily overlooked is that the entire scheme is underpinned by the Commonwealth’s JobKeeper scheme. A commercial tenant who is not a qualified participant in the JobKeeper scheme will be effectively excluded from the protections offered by the new rules.

 

The wide focus

First, a quick refresher and backgrounding for recently arrived Martians and/or anyone too overwhelmed by recent events to have maintained focus.

Retail leases (a very broad concept that commonly includes the leases of shops, offices, serviced apartments and the premises of many other small and medium businesses) are governed by Victoria’s Retail Leases Act 2003. (Although note that the “retail” character of any commercial lease is suddenly less important as the new regime temporarily extends parts of the Retail Leases Act to non-retail commercial leases as well.)

Since March 2020, the snowballing Covid-19 crisis has caused Australia’s federal and state governments to order the partial or complete temporary closure of many businesses nationwide. (In Victoria this has been done mainly by orders under the  Public Health and Wellbeing Act 2008.)

The Federal Government has sought to mitigate the widespread financial disruption resulting from these closures with measures including the JobKeeper scheme. The JobKeeper scheme is expected to subsidize the earnings of millions of private sector employees (and some small business principals) for at least six months until September 2020.  But it is primarily concerned with maintaining employment relationships. It offers no direct help to landlords or tenants suffering financial distress as a consequence of the Covid-19 crisis.

On 3 April 2020 the National Cabinet announced a Mandatory Code of Conduct for Small and Business Enterprises to impose  “a good faith set of leasing principles to commercial tenancies” affected by Covid-19 shutdowns and downturns.

As commercial tenancies have never been considered within the Commonwealth’s constitutional powers and the National Cabinet has the same constitutional status as unicorns under the Australian Constitution (namely none),  the Code of Conduct’s claim as of early April to be mandatory was very optimistic in the absence of supporting state statutes and regulations.

The states have accordingly in recent weeks been legislating to give the National Cabinet’s various pronouncements practical legal effect in state-governed areas such as leasing (and much else besides). Victoria’s legislation for this purpose is the evocatively-named Covid-19 Omnibus (Emergency Measures) Act 2020 (“Omnibus Act”) which commenced operation on last Anzac Day , 25 April 2020.

The Omnibus Act is a thumping 299 pages but commercial landlords and tenants need concern themselves with only a slim bite of it. That portion, Part 2.2, sets out parameters for the supporting regulations but, absent those regulations, it has no real practical utility.

However, we now have those regulations. They were promulgated last Friday, 1 May 2020 as the Covid-19 Omnibus (Emergency Measures) (Commercial Leases and Licences) Regulations 2020 (“Omnibus Regs”) but have effect from 29 March 2020 (note the retrospectivity) until 29 September 2020 when they expire (see regs 3 and 25). The regulations aim to give legal force in Victoria to the National Cabinet’s Mandatory Code.

 

The highlights

The first thing to note about the new regime is that a given tenant’s eligibility for and participation in the JobKeeper scheme is a threshold test.

Only tenants with an “eligible lease” will benefit from the new scheme and the chief criteria for any lease’s eligibility is that that the tenant concerned should be a small or medium enterprise and also a qualified participant in the JobKeeper scheme (see Regs 10(2) of the Omnibus Regs).

Tenants under eligible leases who withhold all or part of their rent will in the short term be deemed not to have breached their leases provided they request rent relief from their landlord in writing,  together with prescribed information including showing their eligibility for the JobKeeper scheme (regs 9 and 10).

A landlord receiving such a request from a tenant is then required to offer rent relief to the tenant within 14 days. The Mandatory Code was understood by many to require that landlords  give rent relief in direct proportion to  their tenants’ drop in revenue but this view must be mistaken as no such requirement appears in the Omnibus Act or the Omnibus Regulations. The Act and the Regulations are the enforceable legal instruments (not the Mandatory Code) and neither of them specify any precise amount or formula for calculating rent relief. Whatever the relief arrived at in a given case, the Mandatory Code, the Omnibus Act or the Omnibus Regulations all require the relief must be in the form of a waiver of rent as to half of that relief and deferral of rent as to the balance of the relief (unless the tenant agrees otherwise).

But back to the obvious key question – what  is the amount of the rent relief to be? The answer is that the amount is to be negotiated “in good faith” (per reg 10(5) of the Omnibus Regs) having regard to factors including the reduction in the tenant’s turnover during the six months from 29 March 2020 to 29 September 2020 (which I will call here the “Covid Window”),  the amount of time (if any) that the tenant was unable to operate its business at the leased premises, and the landlord’s “financial ability to offer rent relief” (Reg 10). (This “financial ability” concept is intriguing. It might even become the subject of a future blog — after I have dusted off the writings of Mother Theresa, Karl Marx, Robin Hood and Alan Bond.)

Collectively, the changes are overwhelmingly pro-tenant. Tenants can waive some or all their new entitlements, but landlords are hamstrung.  A landlord who even attempts to evict a tenant under an eligible lease for non-payment of rent or to call up bank guarantees in response to  non-payment of rent will potentially in each instance be guilty of an offence punishable by a fine of 20 penalty units (being $3304.44) (Reg 9)

Tenants, however, don’t get a perpetual free kick. In the absence of a renegotiated lease (which might include rent deferrals and lease extensions on top of the compulsory rent waiver), the parties are to mediate their dispute through the Small Business Commission (reg 20) and, failing success there, litigate it (reg 22). Reg 22 suggests that VCAT will retain its current exclusive jurisdiction for retail lease disputes and will additionally acquire non-exclusive jurisdiction for non-retail commercial lease disputes. VCAT’s “no costs” presumption is likely to apply to both retail and non-retail lease disputes (see s. 92 of the Retail Leases Act 2003 and s. 109(1) of the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal Act.)

None of this is likely to be good news for landlords.

Commercial tenants large and small are struggling. Cash flows across the economy are faltering. Commercial vacancies are climbing.  Reliable replacement commercial tenants are likely to become very rare birds.  And, to top it all off, the Business and Property List of VCAT (which will hear this type of dispute) is functionally closed for the foreseeable future. When VCAT does eventually reopen, it will inevitably be gummed up by the backlog of cases that have gone unheard during its closure. And that is even before the coming avalanche of Covid-19 rental disputes hits the Tribunal.

This looming traffic jam at VCAT must cast a shadow over rent relief negotiations between tenants and landlords.

The Mandatory Code and the Omnibus Regulations both require landlords and tenants to negotiate their revised arrangements in good faith. As ever in these things, our lawmakers’ attempt to compel good faith seems oxymoronic. Either good faith exists in a given relationship and the formal requirement for it is redundant or bad faith exists and nothing in the Code or the Omnibus Regulations will cure that problem.

A cynical tenant might cut its cloth accordingly. The tenant and landlord who cannot voluntarily agree to a revised rental arrangement will join a long and growing queue to have their squabble determined in VCAT and (assuming the tenant’s compliance with reg 10) the tenant is most unlikely to be evicted at any time before the hearing for its non-payment of Covid Window rent. 

Smart (or desperate) landlords caught in this bind might well prefer the short-term certainty of agreeing to a steeply discounted rental income to the uncertainty of waiting a long time to argue their case in VCAT.

Finally, the disclaimer. The Covid-19 commercial rent regime is new and untested. It is likely to be tweaked in the coming months. My thoughts and summaries above are both general and incomplete. If you are a tenant or a landlord you should not rely upon this blog as a substitute for legal advice tailored to your particular circumstances.