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.