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.

County Court scales up on costs

Are you a County Court litigator charging scale? If so, congratulations; you got a pay rise this week.

Commiserations on the other hand if you a County Court litigant already rueful about rejecting a shrewd offer of compromise. Your burden just got heavier.

The County Court of Victoria has amended its cost rule, Order 63A.

For beneficiaries of scale costs (lawyers and successful litigants especially) this is good news.

There are two key changes.

The first is the axing of the County Court’s own stand-alone scale. Instead, the County Court Civil Procedure Rules now apply the Supreme Court’s scale but discounts it a uniform 20 per cent.

Take, for example, the scale allowances for a solicitor’s time. Under the former County Court scale, a solicitor’s time was allowable at $277 per hour for attending a conference and $546 per half day instructing in Court.

That same solicitor’s time under the new County Court costs regime is now worth $296 per hour (ie 80 per cent of the Supreme Court rate of $370 per hour). As is in the Supreme, costs are now claimable on an hourly basis and also in 6 minute units but the half-day rate for solicitors’ time is gone.

The second key change is the end of ‘party and party costs’. The new default measure of costs is ‘standard basis’ (which is really ‘solicitor and client’ costs by another name). (Indemnity costs remain as the juicer alternative). This change echoes the Supreme Court’s costs reforms of last year (as to which see my blog of the time here).

Some other features of the new County Court costs regime:

  • Costs of pleading amendments (whether with or without leave) are now costs in the proceeding unless the Court otherwise orders (CCR 63A.17);
  • Similarly, costs of interlocutory applications will be costs in the proceeding absent an order to the contrary (CCR 63A 20.1) (Incidentally, this rule has no direct Supreme Court equivalent);
  • Interlocutory costs orders are payable “forthwith” (CCR 63A.03(2)) but unless the Court otherwise orders those costs may not be taxed until the entire proceeding is completed (CCR 63A 20.1). (This is likely to have a glacial effect on the concept of “forthwith”).
  • The entire Order 63A continues to be ostensibly premised on the “County Court scale of costs” as if such a document exists. But it simply doesn’t. Instead CCR 1.13 gives legal force to the mirage by providing, “County Court scale of costs” means a fee, charge or amount that is 80 per cent of the applicable rate set out in Appendix A to Chapter 1 of the Rules of the Supreme Court.”
  • The new rules and costs apply from 7 October 2014 irrespective of when the proceeding involved commenced (CCR 63A.83).

(Thanks to barrister Mark Lapirow for alerting me to the new Order 63A before the ink had even dried on it.)

Slide into PowerPoint – a novice’s guide

Are barristers the last professional presenters in the western world to adopt PowerPoint?

I made my PowerPoint début last week at a PPS Act seminar before an audience of 130 solicitors.

The feedback forms  are now in and it seems (on the statistically dubious basis of all 27 completed questionnaires) that it was a resounding success.

PowerPoint is scarcely rocket science but we’ve all seen it stuffed up too often.

So here are three suggestions that helped me:

• Get some Grade 3, 4, 5 or 6 kids to teach you the basics (really!);

• Get their grandmother to fill you in on the rest (chief of which is suggestion #3);

• Watch this video in which comedian Don McMillan does a 9 minute PowerPoint presentation on how not to do a PowerPoint presentation.

It’s funny. But it’s also excellent professional education for any lawyer ever likely to be handed the remote control to a PowerPoint projector.

Paul Duggan

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Paul Duggan is a commercial litigation barrister based in Melbourne, Australia.

Since 1996 he has advised and appeared in most types of business-to-business and business-to-customer disputes – commercial and domestic building matters, commercial and retail leasing disputes, insolvencies, franchises, partnerships, insurance, professional negligence, sales of land, Corporation Act matters and trade practices disputes to name a few. Although Paul has represented governments, major public companies, insurers, Lloyds syndicates and private individuals his clients are predominantly small and medium enterprises contemplating or engaged in litigation in the Victorian Supreme Court, County Court or VCAT.

Paul also practises in the federal jurisdictions and interstate.

Paul’s clerk is Gordon & Jackson.

Liability limited by a scheme approved under the Professional Standards Act 2003.