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.

The Turkish purge fails in VCAT

Image

erdogan 090517Since last year’s failed coup attempt against Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan (pictured), his regime has ousted 4,238 judges and prosecutors, purged 95,000 public servants, jailed at least 81 journalists and sought to remove one sitting member from a VCAT domestic building case.

Yes, all extraordinary numbers but let’s focus here on that last and most local statistic. It made it on to the public record only yesterday via VCAT’s decision in Mackie v Republic of Turkey [2017] VCAT 620.

VCAT is currently 25 hearing days (!) into a domestic building dispute. Another 10 hearing days are anticipated. In it, a builder is claiming payment for constructing a house in Toorak Road, Toorak, for the Turkish government. The Republic of Turkey has  counterclaimed and also joined the project’s architect to the action.

Things cannot be going well for the Turks because, together with the architect, they used a long adjournment last month to seek an order from VCAT’s president to have the VCAT senior member hearing the case removed from it.

That senior member is not identified in yesterday’s decision. His removal was sought  on two alternative grounds.

Member “ill-suited”

The first was that the member concerned was “ill-suited” to this particular building case and accordingly the Tribunal should be reconstituted pursuant to s 108 of the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal Act.

Evidence in support of the reconstitution application was by affidavit derived,  among other things,   from approximately 2,000 pages of transcript. The complaints against the member included,  among much else,  his own statement during the hearing that he had “little experience” in construction law,  his apparent unfamiliarity with some building concepts and terminology (such as the difference between a civil engineer and a structural engineer),  and a comment during the litigation describing it as  “a nightmare”.

Apprehension of bias

The second limb of the reconstitution application was that the member had created a reasonable apprehension that he was biased in favour of the builder.

Evidence in support of this contention was said to include some stern words from the member to the architect’s principal witness about the architect’s repeated failure to give responsive answers in cross-examination,  the poor success rate by the architect and Republic’s respective counsel in making objections to evidence when compared to the builder’s counsel’s equivalent run rate,   and the member’s solicitude for the health and comfort of the builder’s 74 year-old, laryngitis-suffering witness while giving vive voce evidence.

All of these complaints were in support of a contention that a fresh member should replace the incumbent for the remainder of the hearing. It seems that the  architect (who made the formal application) and the Republic (which supported it) were hoping that the current hearing would then trundle on,  with the new VCAT member relying for his/her decision in large part on a truckload of transcript and no direct memory of what was said in evidence during the marathon hearing.

Decision – unsuitability

VCAT President Justice Greg Garde’s decision is unlikely to improve President Erdogan’s view of the rule of law as administered by a securely-tenured and independent judiciary.

Garde J dismissed the argument that the member was ill-suited. Among other things, he stated that cherry-picking certain remarks by the member from 25 days’ worth of transcript was not persuasive about the competency of the member when it was conceded that no single remark was, of itself, demonstrative of the member’s alleged unsuitability.

As to the member’s professed inexperience, Garde  J stated a VCAT member is entitled to be unfamiliar with industry jargon and concepts. Indeed, members in such a situation should not be bashful about it – they are under a duty to speak up and seek assistance from counsel as appropriate.

Decision – apprehended bias

Applying the High Court’s two-step test in Ebner v Official Trustee in Bankruptcy (2000) 205 CLR 337,   Garde J dismissed the bias argument too.

He stated that VCAT members are entitled to take up issues with counsel and the parties “and express robust views and opinions without prejudgment” and that in this case there was not sufficient evidence that the member did not “apply the same standards to all witnesses or act appropriately to progress the hearing and the determination of the proceeding….  I hold that if a fair-minded lay observer were asked whether he or she might reasonably apprehend that the senior member might not bring an impartial mind to the resolution of the issues and the questions which arise in the proceeding, the answer would be ‘no’.”

Garde J dismissed the application and ordered that the hearing resume next Monday before the same senior member who has heard it to date.

Four thoughts occur to me on this:

  1. VCAT members can be removed under s.108 of the VCAT Act during the running of a case but neither professed unfamiliarity with the subject matter nor a robust approach from the bench will of themselves be sufficient grounds for a successful application.
  2. If you are going to make a s.108 application best make it early. An application too far into the hearing is much more likely to expose the applicant to failure (and potentially grave costs consequences too).
  3. Isn’t it cheering to live under the rule of law where humble builders can take on foreign governments secure in the knowledge that the tribunals of law and fact won’t be distracted in their deliberations by the prospect of mass (or even targeted) judicial sackings?
  4. Blogging about a case involving the Republic of Turkey is a tenuous but sufficient excuse to reprint a famous limerick (below) about the censorious President Erdogan. It won its author, Boris Johnson, the prize in The Spectator magazine’s 2016 ‘President Erdogan Offensive Poetry Competition’.  (You will recall that Johnson subsequently became Britain’s  Foreign  Secretary and, as such, today remains in charge of his nation’s diplomatic relations with Turkey.) Enjoy.

There was a young fellow from Ankara

Who was a terrific wankerer

Till he sowed his wild oats

With the help of a goat

But he didn’t even stop to thankera.

ADDENDUM # 1

VCAT Senior Member Robert Davis delivered his decision in the substantive litigation on 25 August 2017. The decision is Mackie v Republic of Turkey & Tectura [2017] VCAT 129. The Republic of Turkey was ordered to pay the builder $693,824.58 and its counterclaim against the builder was dismissed. The Turks did have a win against the architect. It was ordered to pay the Republic of Turkey $119,664.65.

(Presumably the next issue for the builder will be actually collecting on the judgment. Some successful VCAT litigants find this a problematic exercise against even Victorian residents. Registering and enforcing a VCAT decision against a distant authoritarian sovereign state with an elastic approach to the rule of law is likely to prove a challenge indeed.)

ADDENDUM # 2

Boris Johnson has also survived President Erdogan’s displeasure. The limerick master became the UK’s prime minister in July 2019 and was resoundingly returned as prime minister at the British general election in December 2019.

What do Linda Evangelista and Dale Boucher have in common?

Linda E 020916

Dale B narrow 3 020916

What do Linda Evangelista and Dale Boucher have in common?

Slightly more than you think. They are both recognized authorities within their fields on costs disclosure.

The supermodel famously said, “I don’t get out of bed for less than $10,000 a day”.

Less famously, the Commissioner for Uniform Legal Services Regulation and CEO of the Legal Services Council in March this year signed into operation (see s 407 of the Uniform Law) his pronouncements on the need for single figure costs estimates under the Uniform Law. (See the Legal Services Council’s Guideline and Direction – Costs Estimate – LSC 01/2016 and its almost identical CULSR twin, Guideline and Direction – Costs Estimate – CULSR 01/2016.)

Ms Evangelista was succinct and presumably did not need to elaborate.

Mr Boucher was less concise. And, as if the Uniform Law jigsaw needed still more pieces, he accompanied his pronouncements with three “worked examples” of how lawyers are required to provide “single figure” estimates to their clients for the purposes of the Uniform Law.

Look at the examples closely. Identifying a “single figure estimate” in any of them is like identifying a snowflake in a blizzard. Easy. And meaningless.

Nevertheless it seems that Mr Boucher considers single figure estimates are compulsory, even if they are as a consequence contrived, almost certain to be superseded, or premised upon tenuous guesses about the likely course of litigation.

Note particularly paragraph 8 of both Guidelines and Directions. Estimates may be provided as a “range of figures PROVIDED [original emphasis] that the law practice … always gives the single figure estimate of the total legal costs in the matter that section 174(1)(a) requires” [my underlining].

My copy of the Uniform Law contains the following version of s 174(1)(a):

A law practice—

(a)       must, when or as soon as practicable after instructions are initially given in a matter, provide the client with information disclosing the basis on which legal costs will be calculated in the matter and an estimate of the total legal costs…

I will give a prize to the first reader who can find in s174(1)(a) the requirement for a “single figure estimate” to which Mr Boucher is referring in his Guidelines and Directions. And not just any prize. It will be a colour, A4-sized photo portrait of either Ms Evangelista or Mr Boucher – your choice.

I have blogged about this silliness before but I was reminded of it at a seminar yesterday on the Uniform Law. Three speakers. Engaged audience. Useful discussion. But beyond the single slide of Linda Evangelista on display, not much clarity.

 

Client complaints – a tool kit for solicitors

Some lawyers have never received a complaint from a client.

Or so they say.

Such prodigies, liars and recent arrivals to the profession are vastly outnumbered by the rest of us.

This might explain the big audience of solicitors who turned out this week at a seminar Gordon & Jackson hosted on the twin topics of client complaints and recent cases dealing with the Civil Procedure Act.

I delivered a paper on the first topic. The paper’s section headings will give you the flavour of its content:

  1. Complaints are inevitable;
  2. Try not to take complaints personally (and get help, of whatever variety);
  3. Categories of complaint under the Uniform Law;
  4. Categories of complaint beyond the Uniform Law;
  5. Your LPLC insurance – the good news and the bad;
  6. Avoiding complaints in the first place; and
  7. Professional standards scheme – you are a participant, aren’t you?

My colleague Monika Paszkiewicz spoke on the Civil Procedure Act. Her paper includes reference to Judd J’s recent observations (in ACN 005 490 540 Pty Ltd v Robert Frederick James Pty Ltd [2016] VSC 217 at paras 18 -19) that solicitors who threaten each other too willingly with personal costs applications under the Civil Procedure Act might themselves be breaching the very statute they are invoking.

Client complaints and the Civil Procedure Act have obvious potential overlap for litigation solicitors. Download the two papers (combined as a single document) here and file them away with your Civil Procedure Act resources.

Waiter! There’s a Chinese restaurant in my easement!

The lawyer who acts for himself is commonly thought to have a fool for a client. But what about the lawyer who acts for the company of which he is a director and shareholder?

A Melbourne solicitor who acted in several capacities for a private company must now be pondering this question following the non-party indemnity costs order made against him personally in 1165 Stud Road Pty Ltd v Power & Ors (no 2) [2015] VSC 735. (The case was decided just before Christmas but somehow was published on Jade only this week).

The solicitor was (indirectly) one of the main shareholders in 1165 Stud Road Pty Ltd (“Stud Rd”). He was also its company secretary and one of its two directors. He dealt on its behalf in several controversial transactions and also acted as its solicitor in both litigation and conveyancing contexts.

In 2007, Stud Rd bought a block of land in Rowville. The block’s only road access was via an easement. But two years earlier a neighbour had built a Chinese restaurant on that easement.

In 2012, Stud Rd sold its landlocked block for $2.3 million. Its s 32 statement neglected to mention the slight issue of the obstructed easement. That sale then fell over before settlement and Stud Rd sued the purchaser and also the owner of the offending restaurant (“Palms”).

Early in the litigation, Palms demanded security for costs from Stud Rd. Stud Rd’s solicitor/company director/company secretary/etc. wrote back refusing and saying that Stud Rd had ample equity in the Rowville land and could afford to meet any likely costs order against it. That much was true.

But things changed when Stud Rd subsequently sold the land afresh. The new sale wasn’t disclosed to the other litigants nor was the new contract of sale discovered pursuant to Stud Rd’s continuing discovery obligations. Stud Rd also omitted to mention to the other parties its distribution of the net sale proceeds to various of its own related interests.

As the trial loomed closer, Stud Rd went into voluntary liquidation. The proceeding was discontinued before trial as a consequence.Palms had nevertheless spent over $300,000 preparing for the trial. There being no prospect of recovering those costs from the liquidated company, Palms applied instead for non-party costs orders against Stud Rd’s solicitors and its two directors personally.

Palms succeeded – but only against the director who had also acted as the company’s solicitor. His multi-faceted role as the company’s director, shareholder AND external solicitor was said by Vickery J to constitute “exceptional circumstances”.
Here is a taste:

138. It is clear that [the solicitor], in conducting the Proceeding as a solicitor on behalf of the Plaintiff, in respect of which he was not only a director but also, through a corporate vehicle, a shareholder, was in breach of paragraphs 9.2 and 13.4 of the Professional Conduct and Practice Rules 2005 and placed himself at serious risk of being in breach of paragraph 13.1 of the rules. As a solicitor in active practice, [the solicitor] ought to have been aware of the effect of these Rules.
139. This placed [the solicitor] in a conflict of interest and rendered his conduct of the litigation on behalf of the Plaintiff improper.
140. This was so despite the fact that, during the life of the Proceeding, neither Palms nor its solicitors … ever once raised the issue of conflict of interest or demand that [the solicitor], or any of the firms at which he worked, cease to act in the Proceeding due to his conflict.
141. Reference is made to paragraphs 9.2, 13.1 and 13.4 of the Professional Conduct and Practice Rules 2005 published by the Law Institute of Victoria, which was tendered in evidence:
9.2 A practitioner must not accept instructions to act or continue to act for a person in any matter when the practitioner is, or becomes, aware that the person’s interest in the matter is, or would be, in conflict with the practitioner’s own interest or the interest of an associate.
….
13.1 A practitioner must not act as the mere mouthpiece of the client or of the instructing practitioner and must exercise the forensic judgments called for during the case independently, after appropriate consideration of the client’s and any instructing practitioner’s wishes where practicable.
13.4 A practitioner must not unless exceptional circumstances warrant otherwise in the practitioner’s considered opinion:
13.4.1 appear for a client at any hearing, or
13.4.2 continue to act for a client,
in a case in which it is known, or becomes apparent, that the practitioner will be required to give evidence material to the determination of contested issues before the court.

142. It is likely that [the solicitor] was not able to bring an independent mind to decisions made on behalf of the Plaintiff in the conduct of the Proceeding by reason of his conflict of interest and it is likely that a number of the decisions he made were infected with this conflict.
143. An order for costs against a non-party is not dependent upon, but can take into account, any improper conduct by the non-party….

The upshot was that the solicitor personally [cf the firm that employed him] was ordered to pay Palms’ cost of the proceeding on a standard basis until the date of the undisclosed sale and on an indemnity basis thereafter.
A final point is worth noting. Palms’ application was brought partly in reliance upon s 29 of the Civil Procedure Act [as discussed in Yara v Oswal blogged here] but that limb of the application was held to be statute-barred as it had not been made before the proceeding was “finalised” as required by s 30. However, this missed deadline did not matter for Palms as the Court held that it had power to order the costs against the solicitor under s 24 of the Supreme Court Act and/or in its inherent jurisdiction.

The lessons from this case? Four occur to me.

  • Acting for yourself and/or interests close to you is perilous.
  • A lawyer and client with apparently aligned commercial interests might still have a conflict of interest if the lawyer’s forensic judgment is thought to be compromised as a result of that close association.
  • Lawyers should not act in matters in which they are likely to be material witnesses.
  • And finally, never be too reassured by the fact that no conflict of interest is suggested by your opponents.

Estimating the costs of an impending litigation for disclosure purposes

You are a solicitor about to open a new potential litigation file. It might go all the way to the High Court. But it also might settle in response to your very first letter of demand.

The only real certainty about it is that the new Uniform Law requires you to give your client a written disclosure “as soon as practicable after instructions are initially given” which  must include “an estimate of total legal costs.”  You must then promptly update that disclosure ever thereafter when there is a “significant change to anything previously disclosed” (see s 174 of the Uniform Act).

What does that all mean? This early in the life of the Uniform Law, nobody can be certain but if you get your disclosure wrong (initially and/or subsequently) your costs agreement is likely to be rendered void as a consequence (see s 178(a) of the Uniform Act) and collecting payment will become slow and problematic as a consequence.

So get your costs disclosure right.

Here are some suggestions (but no promises) as to how to go about it.

  1.  Start with one of the Law Institute of Victoria’s disclosure template documents available here. By all means modify the LIV’s wheels to suit your particular situation but don’t reinvent them altogether.
  2. Make your costs estimate sensible. Your client might be dismayed with the bottom line estimate but everyone will be happier to see that figure upfront in an estimate than to be ambushed by something similar in the final bill.
  3. Make the costs estimate transparent to your client. An Excel spreadsheet where you (and the client) can manipulate the variables might be a great way to start. (Help yourself to the template version below.)
  4. Be candid with your client as to the vagaries of both litigation and your estimate. Maybe your client’s case will be quick and simple. But maybe it will become the Battle of the Somme instead, complete with counterclaims, interlocutory skirmishes, third and fourth parties and some stern appellate action to top it all off. Your guess at the very start is possibly only slightly better than your client’s. Don’t pretend otherwise.
  5. Sign the client up to a costs agreement. Again, be guided by the Law Institute precedents.
  6. Having done all of the above, test your client’s comprehension of the strategy and costs being embarked upon. File note it. (Seriously, file note it. You might need those file notes years down the track if your client suggests that language/stress/other issues impeded his/her comprehension of the costs disclosure sufficiently to constitute a breach by you of s 174(3) of the Uniform Law.)
  7. When your costs disclosure then seems complete – remind yourself that it probably isn’t. Your ongoing disclosure obligations endure until the file is actually closed.

Some thoughts on the accompanying spreadsheet
I have drawn the spreadsheet below as an aide-memoire for solicitors attempting to estimate future solicitor/own client costs for Uniform Law disclosure purposes. Inevitably, it will need modification for each actual case.

For template purposes, I have done it for a hypothetical commercial case in the Victorian County Court. The rates I have utilized are derived from the County Court scale (which is, of course, 80 per cent of the Supreme Court scale – see this blog.)

I have made the following viable (but not inevitable) assumptions which might or might not apply to your case. (Change the variables and add or delete new row items to suit your particular client’s anticipated case.)

  • The spreadsheet is for a prospective plaintiff;
  • There is no conditional costs agreement (eg no win/no fee) arrangement proposed;
  • There will be a single claim against a single defendant;
  • There will be no counterclaim, third party claim or similar;
  • There will be no pleading amendments by either side;
  • All directions will be made ‘on the papers’ and by consent;
  • There will be a single contested interlocutory application;
  • There will be a single mediation;
  • There will be a four-day trial with a reserved judgment handed down on an eventual fifth day with short argument that day as to costs, interest and the final form of the Court’s orders;
  • There will be two expert witnesses, (eg an accountant and an engineer) for the plaintiff and no lay witnesses for the plaintiff requiring payment for their attendance;
  • Everything will happen in Melbourne without anyone claiming circuit fees, travel expenses or similar;
  • The barrister will do an initial advice as to merits, draw the statement of claim, do an advice as to evidence, remain involved incidentally throughout the matter and will charge the equivalent of 10 hours’ preparation for each anticipated full day in Court;
  • The solicitor and the single (senior) junior barrister will each charge the client the maximum County Court scale rates applicable to them as of November 2015 (ie solicitor $302.40 per hour and the barrister $432 per hour / $4316 per day in Court) (plus GST in both cases); and
  • There will be no appeal.

Note that because of the technical limitations of WordPress (which hosts this blog) the Excel / Numbers functions formerly embedded in the table below have been lost in posting it here. You can resurrect the table and its functions for your own use by –

  • copying and pasting the table from this blog back into your own Excel / Numbers spreadsheet;
  • restoring the functions manually (eg in Excel you make the formula in D2 read “=PRODUCT(B2:C2)” and then replicate it for the remaining rows;
  • insert/delete rows and increase/decrease the rates and duration estimates to suit the circumstances; and
  • use “AutoSum” to calculate the total.

You might even email a version of your spreadsheet to your client so he/she can also manipulate some of the variables. Emphasize to your client that you are providing an estimate – not a quote and that the defining characteristic of commercial litigation is that it never goes entirely according to the script.

Some parting cautions
Three final issues occur to me that might be prudently flagged as part of your disclosure to your client. (Neither is apparent in the Uniform Law or my spreadsheet.)

  • Most litigation settles well before trial. Some settles during the running of the trial. Of the relatively few cases that run to judgment, some are appealed but most are not. The combined effect of these disparate possibilities is that your initial estimate might legitimately undershoot or overshoot the eventual total that you charge your client drastically.
  • Losers will usually be ordered to pay the winner’s costs. This means that the figure in your compulsory Uniform Law estimate is likely to be substantially wrong in practical net terms. The final, post-trial, net figure your client pays for lawyers’ involvement in the litigation is likely to be much higher or lower than your Uniform Law estimate, depending on whether your client is on the right or wrong end of a substantial costs order.
  • Once embarked upon, litigation can seldom be unilaterally abandoned without adverse costs consequences – see for example Victorian Supreme Court Rule 63.15 and County Court Rule 63.15 about the cost presumptions upon the filing of a notice of discontinuance. This makes dangerous the widely-held view that costs can and should be estimated to prospective litigants as a sequence of distinct figures. Lay clients might reason from an overly segmented disclosure that if they are not enjoying the litigation ride, they might easily and cheaply, unilaterally quit along the way as if alighting from a bus at one of its usual stops. Alas, life and litigation just isn’t as simple as the authors of the Uniform Law apparently believe.

What guarantees do I offer about the spreadsheet? None but any bouquets or brickbats about it are welcome all the same.

Category of legal work estimated time estimate in hours (assume 1 day =10 hours) hourly /unit charge approx total charge
Pre-litigation investigation & negotiation (solicitor) 20 $302 $6,048
Brief to advise (barrister) 10 $432 $4,320
Writ & statement of claim (barrister) 10 $432 $4,320
Filing fee $814 $814
Brief as to evidence (barrister) 10 $432 $4,320
Preparation for and attendance at mediation (solicitor) 6 $302 $1,814
Preparation for and attendance at mediation (barrister) 10 $432 $4,320
Mediator’s fee (half share) $2,000 $2,000
Mediation venue hire (half share) $300 $300
Interlocutory application (solicitor) 10 $432 $4,320
Interlocutory application (barrister) 10 $432 $4,320
Fees for Expert # 1 – report and appearance as expert witness 30 $362 $10,860
Fees for Expert # 2 – report and appearance as expert witness 30 $362 $10,860
Solicitor’s general preparation (including attendances on client, experts, counsel and court, correspondence, offers of compromise, discovery, notices to admit, expert witness notices, preparation of court book etc) 100 $302 $30,200
Trial preparation (barrister) 45 $432 $19,440
Setting down fee $962 $962
Hearing fee (per day of trial from day 2) 3 days $500 $1,500
Solicitor instructing in Court 45 $302 $13,590
Barrister – appearance at trial 40 $432 $17,280
Barrister – taking judgment 5 $432 $2,160
Misc disbursements (eg process servers, company searches, couriers, subpoenas etc) $2,000 $2,000
Trial transcript (4 days @$2250 per day) $10,000 $10,000
TOTAL ESTIMATE $155,748 (plus GST)

Our dishevelled new Uniform Law

What a shambolic creature is the new Legal Profession Uniform Law.

I attempted to translate its provisions relating to costs disclosure and recovery in a presentation for the Goulburn Valley Law Association this week. I reckon I did a reasonably accurate job. I could tell this because my attentive audience seemed to be suitably irritated and confused by the end.

Anybody who claims an entirely confident understanding of the Uniform Law has obviously not read it properly.

By itself, the Uniform Law is frequently unintelligible without reference to the local (ie state) law which adopts it.Because of this, the Uniform Law in Victoria is actually a schedule to the zippily-named Legal Profession Uniform Law Application Act 2014.

This unattractive combination adds up to a combined total of approximately 570 pages and 120,000 words. And that’s before you reach for a third necessary document, the Legal Profession Uniform General Rules 2015 (and disregard other related subordinate legislation).

Between them, these three documents are ostensibly organised into various chapters, parts, divisions and schedules. Indeed, they seem to have more chapters than the Freemasons, more parts than Shakespeare, more divisions than Stalin and more schedules than V/Line. But you can’t be entirely sure because the centrepiece document, the Uniform Law itself, has no index whatsoever and the pagination doesn’t help.

That is bizarre in any legislation but particularly in something that presumably is meant to be accessible to, among others, disgruntled clients looking as lay people to the law for guidance about their rights and obligations vis-a-via their lawyers.

But given the sheer bulk of the Uniform Law package, it must be extraordinarily precise, right?

Wrong again.The mandarins responsible for administering it (for Victorians that means a combination of the Sydney-based Legal Services Council and the Melbourne-based Victorian Legal Services Board and Commissioner) have separate websites, each featuring information sheets for clients and for legal practitioners.

Alas, some of the Victorian Legal Services Board and Commissioner’s info appears to relate to superseded legislation and not to the Uniform Law at all.

And at least one of the Legal Services Council’s flyers makes the confident assertion that the Uniform Law “does not permit” lawyers to express estimated future costs to their clients as a range.

This “cost-estimates-must-not-be-expressed-as-a-range” view is an urban myth also gaining currency at high levels in Victoria.

But it is wrong. (Look, at least, at s 182(3) of the Uniform Law regarding conditional costs agreements and then look (in vain) for any prohibition on cost estimates being expressed as a range in other contexts.)

In August 2015, the Victorian Law Institute Journal breathlessly introduced the Uniform Law to its readers with a cover story entitled “Empowering Clients”. What nonsense. If any lay client can navigate the Uniform Law without professional assistance (which seems improbable) he/she would almost certainly have found (substantially) the same answers much faster under the now-repealed Legal Profession Act.

How did we get lumbered with the Uniform Law? It seemed a good idea to the Council of Australian Governments back in 2009 to have uniform nationwide legislation for the various jurisdictions’ barristers and solicitors. This might have made sense if most of our lawyers and clients were dealing with each other on a nation-wide basis.

But in the real world only substantial commercial and government clients generally operate on that basis. So guess which class of clients is largely excluded from the “protections” offered to clients by the costs provisions of the Uniform Law? You guessed it. Commercial and government clients.

What a mess. Little wonder that since the idea’s inception in 2009 every jurisdiction except Victoria and New South Wales has slipped off the Uniform Law bandwagon.

But enough venting from me.

I ended my Goulburn Valley Law Association presentation this week with what I hope are four practical observations:

  • As ever, costs are only recoverable by solicitors to the extent those costs are fair and reasonable. Costs agreements are prima facie evidence only as to what is fair and reasonable – see s 172(4).
  • Solicitors’ enforcement of costs agreements against clients hinge first and foremost on adequate costs disclosure at the front end. Position yourself to be able to demonstrate this. Employing the LIV’s template disclosure and costs agreement document will be a good start.
  • Even perfect front-end written costs disclosure of itself might still not be sufficient. For the purposes of s 174 of the Uniform Law, solicitors should ideally verify and document the client’s receipt and apparent comprehension of that written disclosure. (The Law Society of NSW suggests a short (and documented) Q & A exchange with the client about the client’s expectations as to costs and strategy following delivery of the written material as one mode of evidencing the client’s apparent understanding of that material.)
  • Perfect disclosure should ensure a valid costs agreement but even a perfect costs agreement isn’t bullet-proof either – see s 199 and s 200. Because of this, there will probably be situations where it will be fastest and cheapest for solicitors to grasp the nettle and initiate a costs assessment (aka a taxation) of their own bills rather than to sue for fees only to have their proceeding stayed pending an assessment anyway. But don’t think about this idea  too long if you are a solicitor because you might be statute-barred by s 198(4) if you wait more than 12 months from the date of your bill before seeking the costs assessment.

Need further clarification? Then reach for the Uniform Law with trepidation.


					

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.