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

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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

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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.

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.

 

 

 

 

Is Covid-19 a frustrating event?

mona lisa with face mask

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

Is Covid-19 a frustrating event? To almost anyone but a contract lawyer that is a stupid question deserving a terse and emphatic response.

But any decent contract lawyer’s answer is unlikely to be short or sweeping.

In contract law, ‘frustration’ is the discharge of a contract as a consequence of some supervening and unanticipated event rendering some or all of the agreement’s obligations incapable of performance. The reported ‘frustration’ cases involve a litany of  catastrophic surprises ranging from the appendicitis-induced postponement of King Edward VII’s coronation in 1903[1], through various wars[2] to (most familiar to Australian lawyers) the legal consequences of a contractor being injuncted from working 24/7 to build Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs Railway line[3] in circumstances where the construction contract was effectively predicated on ‘round the clock’ work.

The Covid-19 coronavirus is plainly a supervening and unanticipated event. It has already caused history’s first postponement of the Olympic games. It has closed all of your local gyms and eateries. It has largely shut down Victoria’s court system.  And just when we lawyers thought things could not get worse, it is even causing surprise outbreaks of law and order. But none of these extraordinary developments alone answers the question of whether the current crisis is a frustrating event for the purposes of any particular contract.

Here is a quick refresher on the frustration of contracts:

  • When looking at whether a contract has been frustrated, don’t be too distracted by the macro picture. Focus on the specific contract in question. Has the contract become largely or completely incapable of performance because of the Covid-19 crisis? (Obvious casualties would be, say, the catering contract for a large wedding party that would now be contrary to the Public Health and Wellbeing Act 2008, or the contract for the screening of TV advertisements during the telecast of the now-postponed Tokyo Olympics.) Or has the contract’s subject matter simply become less attractive or more onerous to one of the parties? (Examples in this twilight zone might include the marriage celebrant’s booking for that same large wedding — after all, the wedding itself is still permitted even if the attendance of more than 2 guests is prohibited — or the screening of TV commercials (themselves still clearly legal and feasible) promoting, say, holiday packages that are neither legal nor feasible in the current circumstances.)
  • Frustration is a binary concept. Some contracts will be discharged entirely for frustration. Some will be held not to have been frustrated at all and thus will survive the supervening event entirely unscathed. There is no legal middle ground in between which allows contracts to be amended but otherwise upheld on the basis that they were semi-frustrated.
  • Extreme pessimists (and possibly also those negotiating contracts very recently) might have had the foresight to address specifically the consequences of global pandemics in their agreements. They will have no need for the doctrine of frustration and will instead be governed by the force majeure clauses (aka ‘Act of God’ clauses) to which they have agreed. As frustration applies only where the supervening event is not anticipated by the contracting parties, frustration and force majeure clauses are best thought of as alternatives to each other.
  • Frustration ends a contract as a consequence of the supervening event. By contrast, force majeure clauses are bespoke provisions. They might end the contract but will commonly suspend rather than terminate the contract or reduce rather than eliminate a party’s entitlement to payment.
  • Frustration operates independently of the parties’ acts and intentions. Force majeure clauses are authored by the parties and as such will often require action or communication for invocation.

 

Consequences of frustration

Let’s suppose a given contract is frustrated by Covid-19. What next?

Melbourne’s Formula 1 Grand Prix last month is a high profile example. Armies of large and small contractors and sub-contractors were involved in setting up for the race and its various satellite events. The race was then cancelled at the last minute because of Covid-19 concerns. Myriad contracts must then have become incapable of performance. In each instance, the question arises of who should carry the cost of the food/ entertainment/equipment that was arranged and (mainly) delivered but ultimately wasted as a consequence of Covid-19?

There is no quick and confident across-the-board answer.

And don’t expect much help from the the frustrated contracts provisions of Part 3.2 of the Australian Consumer Law and Fair Trading Act 2012. In very crude summary, it provides that money paid or payable under a frustrated contract ceases to be payable and, if paid, is recoverable by the recipient EXCEPT where a court or VCAT considers it just to order otherwise.

Note that pandemic-sized exception.

Put another way, the answer as to who is to carry the losses of a frustrated contract  is ‘black’ except when a court or VCAT considers that it should be ‘white’ or some shade of grey (or perhaps some chequered-flag pattern for Grand Prix-related events).

This legislation gets more curious still. Its open invitation to litigation appears to have been accepted in Victoria on – wait for it – only a single occasion. That case was Foley v Afonso Building Solutions [2014] VCAT 1640.

In Foley v Afonso a landowner paid a builder a $10,000 deposit on a domestic building contract. It then transpired that the building permit necessary for the project was unobtainable. The owner wanted her deposit back. The builder refused as it was not his fault that the building permit didn’t issue. So the parties went to VCAT.

Senior Member Walker concluded that the contract had been frustrated by the impossibility of getting the essential building permit. He ordered that the owner was entitled to have most (but not all) of her deposit refunded. The builder was permitted to retain the $1800 he had spent on preliminary work (such as drawings and soil tests) but not the $8000 commission he paid the agent who had secured the contract.

The decision is short. It doesn’t mention any authorities or the word ‘restitution’ but the restitutionary flavour is unmistakable.

Presumably Covid-19 will soon ensure that Foley v Afonso is superseded by many more authorities on the consequences of frustrated contracts in Victoria.

 

Conclusion 1

Covid-19’s frustrations are suffocatingly obvious to most of us. But that doesn’t mean contracts affected by the virus will necessarily be themselves frustrated.

And whatever the answer on first principles to your particular frustration query, beware of the continuing cascade of government announcements and promised regulatory changes that might take your client’s situation beyond a ‘first principles’ analysis anyway.

With this in mind, follow resources such as –

Conclusion 2

A final thought over and above frustration.

In these extraordinary times, remember that your clients’ best Covid-19 solutions might not be in the legal textbooks at all.

The unexpected and supervening event of Covid-19 might, for example, trigger the business interruption insurance that your client has forgotten it holds and make the entire frustration discussion unnecessary. Check that insurance.

And while the C-19 maelstrom continues, remember also that the banking industry (see for example this Commonwealth Bank Covid-19 support page) and the laws of insolvency have both been temporarily transformed in recent weeks. (Your clients might have more time and options available than they appreciate.)

Stay safe!

[1] Compare Krell v Henry [1903] 2 KB 740 and Hearne Bay Steam Boat Co v Hutton [1903] 2 KB 683. Both cases involved sightseers disappointed by the coronation’s postponement. In the former case the contract was held to have been frustrated by the postponement; in the latter the contract was held not to have been.

[2] See for example Fibrosia Spolka Akcjyna v Fairbairn Lawson Combe Barbour Ltd [1943] AC 32 where a pre-war contract that required an English company to deliver machinery into Poland was rendered illegal and frustrated by the outbreak of World War 2.

[3] Codelfa Construction Pty Ltd v State Railway Authority of NSW (1982) 149 CLR 337.

Retail tenant ordered to pay its landlord’s costs. Again.

In May this year I blogged (here) about the retail tenant that won a VCAT claim and received nothing but an adverse costs order for its trouble. Subsequently the tenant appealed the costs order (but, interestingly, not VCAT’s refusal to allow it damages) to the Court of Appeal.
The Court of Appeal (comprising Hansen JA, Ferguson JA and McLeish J) delivered its decision last Thursday. The joint judgment was more bad news for the tenant.The decision is 24 Hour Fitness Pty Ltd v W & B Investment Group Pty Ltd [2015] VSC 8216.
In a nutshell, the Court of Appeal said that VCAT’s Judge Jenkins sitting at first instance had set her reasoning out sufficiently and that it was “only in exceptional cases” that leave to appeal from a costs order would be granted. Leave to appeal was accordingly refused with the further comment that even if leave to appeal had been granted the appeal would still have been dismissed.
My colleagues Robert Hay QC and Sam Hopper have respectively blogged about the appeal decision here and here with Hopper suggesting that the decision might discourage some weaker retail claims in what is usually a ‘no costs’ jurisdiction.
The Court of Appeal, of course, has never been a ‘no costs’ jurisdiction. Although it is not apparent from the judgment, the landlord last Thursday made a Calderbank-based application for costs of the appeal on an indemnity basis. Finally there was a small win for the tenant. It was ordered to pay the landlord’s costs of the appeal but only on the standard basis.

Retail tenant wins VCAT fight but gets nil damages and an adverse costs order

VCAT’s no costs presumption is more elastic in some parts of the tribunal than in others.

In building cases, the losers commonly pay the winners’ costs. In retail tenancies disputes the losers very rarely do. But the winner paying the loser’s costs? Calderbanks and their equivalents aside, it is almost unheard of  anywhere at VCAT or beyond it.

So imagine the winner’s chagrin in the retail tenancies case of 24 Hour Fitness Pty Ltd v W & B Investment Group Pty Ltd [2015] VCAT 596 when it won the liability stoush, produced an expert report seeking just over $3m in damages and then received nothing but an order to pay the ostensible loser’s costs.

The case is an illustration of one of the hazards of compartmentalising a single business within separate corporate vehicles.

24 Hour Fitness Pty Ltd was the tenant. A gym operated on the premises. Unremarkably, the landlord understood that the tenant owned the gym.

Back in 2013, the tenant claimed the landlord had breached a provision of the lease. VCAT agreed. The matter was eventually relisted three years later for an assessment of damages the tenant had suffered by reason of the landlord’s breach.

But in March this year, on day 1 of what was to have been a five-day hearing, the evidentiary penny dropped.

The tenant had never owned or operated the gym (or even any other business). Instead, a company associated with the tenant, ran the gym business. That associated company was a complete stranger to the lease. It occupied the premises and operated the gym entirely without the landlord’s knowledge or permission. Its business might have suffered by reason of the landlord’s non-compliance with the lease but, being a stranger to the lease, it couldn’t recover from the landlord for that breach.

And because the ostensible tenant had no direct interest in the business which claimed to have suffered the financial loss, it could not show any compensable loss referable to the landlord’s breach either.

In the costs decision published last month, Judge Jenkins took a dim view of the tenant conflating itself, its associated company and the associated company’s business for the purposes of the VCAT litigation.

Necessarily, her starting point was s. 92 of the Retail Leases Act 2003. That section proscribes costs orders in VCAT retail tenancy disputes unless a party has “conducted the proceeding in a vexatious way that unnecessarily disadvantaged the other party to the proceeding”. (The other exception, refusal to participate sufficiently in mediation or ADR, did not arise.)

What does “vexatious” mean? The tribunal’s answer includes a handy survey of authorities dealing with exceptional costs orders in both courts and tribunals and (at para 19) this checklist of matters to be taken into account when considering whether to order indemnity costs:

  1.  Whether a party has been forced to take legal proceedings entirely through the wrongful or inappropriate conduct of the other party;
  2. Whether an action has been commenced or continued in circumstances where the applicant, properly advised, should have known he had no chance of success;
  3. Where a party persists in what should, on proper consideration, be seen to be a hopeless case;
  4. Whether the party against whom indemnity costs are sought has made a false allegation of fraud;
  5. Particular misconduct that causes a loss of time to the Court and the parties;
  6. Commencing or continuing proceedings for an ulterior motive or in wilful disregard of known facts or clearly established law; 
  7. Making allegations which ought never to have been made or undue prolongation of a case by groundless contentions; and
  8. An imprudent refusal of an offer of compromise.

Judge Jenkins found five of the eight matters on that list present in the case before her. She ordered the tenant to pay the landlord’s costs relating to the preparation of the damages hearing dating all the way back to 2013.

The tenant did have one minor win. The landlord had asked for indemnity costs but failed. Judge Jenkins found there was insufficient evidence to justify an inference that the tenant was motivated in its claim by an ulterior motive. She held that indemnity costs were reserved “for the most exceptional circumstances” and that solicitor and client costs (which she suggested were similar if not equivalent to standard basis costs) would suffice.

The lesson? If a lease (or any other type of contract for that matter) has been breached but the resulting loss has been suffered by a stranger to that agreement, any resulting commercial litigation might not be very commercial at all.

POSTSCRIPT: The Court of Appeal subsequently upheld Judge Jenkin’s decision. See my brief blog on the appeal decision here.