Owner’s liability for management charges – need for adequate legal basis and proper procedure

November 22, 2017

In San Po Kong Mansion (IO) v On Rich (HK) Investment Ltd ([2017] HKEC 2321) the plaintiffs were the incorporated owners of San Po Kong Mansion comprising four 20-storey blocks for mixed commercial and residential use.

The defendants owned 10% of the shares in San Po Kong Mansion allocated to part of a building originally a cinema but now converted into a shopping mall (‘the Theatre Parts’).

Shine Empire Ltd (‘Shine Empire’) retained the right to exclusive possession of the roofs of the other parts of San Po Kong Mansion (‘the non-Theatre parts’).

The incorporated owners had licensed various telecommunications companies to install equipment and cables on the roofs of the non-Theatre parts and collected licence fees. Shine Empire succeeded in possession proceedings (‘the Trespass Proceedings’) against the incorporated owners and the telecommunications companies. The incorporated owners and the telecommunications companies were ordered, amongst other things, to pay damages and costs to Shine Empire.

The incorporated owners entered into an agreement with the telecommunications companies indemnifying them against all damages, interest and costs arising from the Trespass Proceedings (‘the indemnity agreement’).

In the 2011 annual general meeting, the incorporated owners resolved to levy a charge on each owner as its contribution to the money payable to the telecommunications companies under the indemnity agreement.

Pursuant to this, the incorporated owners demanded HK$1.38 million from the defendants as their share of the sum payable under the indemnity agreements.

The defendants refused to pay arguing that:

  1. the 2011 AGM had not been validly convened;
  2. the DMC did not impose any obligation to meet this payment;
  3. nor did sections 20 – 22 of the Building Management Ordinance entitle the incorporated owners to recover the sum from the defendants.

On the first issue, it was decided that the AGM had not been validly convened. The incorporated owners were not able to show that they had properly served notice of the AGM (or any other notice) on the defendants.

Second, the sum payable under the indemnity agreement did not fall within any of the charging provisions of the DMC.

Third (concerning sections 20 – 22 of the Building Management Ordinance) there was no valid management committee (the incorporated owners were unable to show that any notice of a meeting that might have appointed them had been validly served). Only a validly appointed management committee can fix contributions under sections 20 – 22 of the Building Management Ordinance.

More fundamentally, even a validly appointed management committee could not have required the defendants to contribute to the money payable under the indemnity agreement.

Section 20 of the Building Management Ordinance allows incorporated owners to maintain funds:

(a) to meet the costs of exercising powers and performing duties imposed on them by the DMC and the Ordinance itself;

(b) to pay ground rent, taxes or other outgoings in respect of the building as a whole;

(c) to maintain a contingency fund to meet expenses of an unexpected or urgent nature.

The sums payable under the indemnity agreement did not fall under any of these headings. Sums are only recoverable under (c) if they were expenses that the incorporated owners were empowered to incur. It is not enough for them to be unexpected or urgent ([66]). The incorporated owners had not that they were authorised to enter into the indemnity agreement.

Michael Lower

 

Advertisements

Each owner potentially liable for owners’ corporation’s entire indebtedness

November 13, 2017

In Wong Tak Man Stephen v Chang Ching Wai ([2017] HKEC 2266) Ps were the liquidators of the Incorporated Owners (‘the IO’) of a building (‘the Building’). The IO was wound up following a petition by a construction company that carried out refurbishment works at the Building. The IO had net liabilities of just over HK$3.64 million.

The first and second defendants (‘the defendants’) were two of the owners of the Building. The defendants were among a substantial number of owners who had failed to make the contributions due from them towards the cost of the refurbishment work.

The liquidators successfully sought a declaration that the defendants were jointly and severally liable for the IO’s debts and obligations. The defendants were ordered to pay the plaintiffs the sum necessary to meet the IO’s liabilities.

The basis of the plaintiffs’ claim was section 34 of the Building Management Ordinance:

‘In the winding up of a corporation under section 33, the owners shall be liable, both jointly and severally, to contribute, according to their respective shares, to the assets of the corporation to an amount sufficient to discharge its debts and liabilities.’

The court was presented with two rival interpretations of section 34:

  1. The owners were individually liable but only for a proportionate share of the IO’s liabilities calculated by reference to their shares in the Building; or
  2. Each owner was jointly and severally liable for all of the IO’s debts and liabilities but with a right of recovery from co-owners.

The court (Deputy Judge Anson Wong SC giving the judgment) accepted the second interpretation:

  1. The phrase ‘jointly and severally’ was introduced in 1993 when the Building Management Ordinance replaced earlier legislation. The phrase evinces an intention that each owner is liable for all of the IO’s debts and obligations.
  2. The phrase ‘according to their respective shares’ in section 34 refers to the right of recovery from co-owners.
  3. This interpretation of section 34 is consistent with section 17(1) of the Building Management Ordinance which allows the entire indebtedness of an IO to be enforced against an individual owner with a right of recovery from co-owners. There are dicta in the Court of Final Appeal decision in Chi Kit Co Ltd v Lucky Health International Enterprise Ltd ([2000] 2 HKLRD 503) to this effect. It would be strange if this position were not to be mirrored on a winding up.
  4. The first, rival, interpretation would make liquidation expensive and time-consuming. It would pass the risk of non-payment to creditors.

Michael Lower

 

Family home in joint names and wife’s failure to transfer her interest to her husband in accordance with a consent order

November 4, 2017

In Chu Tsan Leung v Leung Mee Ling Amy ([2017] HKEC 2347) H and W were married. Title to the family home was in joint names. W left the family and in the subsequent matrimonial proceedings agreed to transfer her entire interest in the property to H. This agreement was incorporated in a consent order. W did not execute a deed to give effect to the order.

W was subsequently declared bankrupt. The Trustee in Bankruptcy claimed that W’s interest in the property remained an asset of hers. H sought a declaration that W did not have any beneficial interest in the property.

The Trustees in Bankruptcy argued that the consent order was procured through the exercise of undue influence by H and his solicitors. They argued that there was a presumption of undue influence on the facts of the case. This failed.

The evidence pointed away from the idea that the wife reposed trust and confidence in her husband at the time of signing the consent order. Nor was there anything unconscionable or manifestly disadvantageous to W when the context was properly considered: H, a construction worker, had been left to take care of two young children on his own.

It did not help W’s case for her to argue that she did not have full knowledge and understanding of the documents that she had signed. A person who signs a legal document he or she is bound by the act of signature (Bank of China (Hong Kong) Ltd v Fung Chin Kan and Ming Shiu Chung v Ming Shiu Sum).

H became the sole beneficial owner of the property from the moment of the decree absolute.

H argued, in the alternative, that he had always been the sole beneficial owner of the property since he alone had provided all of the purchase money and mortgage payments. This claim failed. Since title was in joint names, it was for H to show that she had no equitable interest. H was unable to do so.

Michael Lower

 

 

No waiver where landlord accepts rent after commencing possession proceedings

October 23, 2017

In Evans v Enever ([1920] 2 KB 315) T’s lease contained a forfeiture clause which gave the landlords the right to re-enter if the rent was in arrears or if the tenant became bankrupt. The tenant fell into arrears with the rent and was adjudicated a bankrupt.

The landlords commenced possession proceedings but these came to an end, in accordance with section 212 of the Common Law Procedure Act, when the tenant paid the rent and costs to the landlord. The landlords knew of the tenant’s bankruptcy when accepting this rent.

The landlords then brought new proceedings seeking possession on the grounds of the tenant’s bankruptcy. The question was whether the landlords had waived the right to forfeit when they accepted rent with knowledge of the bankruptcy.

It was held that they had not. The landlords’ action in bringing the first possession proceedings was an irrevocable election to determine the lease. The subsequent acceptance of the rent could not qualify this.

Michael Lower

Gift or trust: proving the relevant intention

October 16, 2017

Leung Wing Yi Asther v Kwok Yu Wah ((2015) 18 HKCFAR 605) arose out of ancillary relief proceedings on the divorce of H and W. W was the daughter of F, a highly successful businessman. In 2005 F transferred shares in his company to W. The result of this transfer, and a 2006 issue of further shares to W arranged by F, was that W had 20 million shares in F’s company. H argued that these shares should be regarded as an asset of W for the purposes of the ancillary relief proceedings.

F and W argued that F had not given the shares to W but remained the sole beneficial owner of them. They pointed to the way in which, even before 2005, F had transferred shares to his children but later insisted on their re-transfer to him. They also pointed to the company’s 2012 purchase of two very valuable properties. The divorce proceedings had already begun by then. F and W argued that F would not have enhanced the company’s value in this way had he thought that part of the gain would go to H.

H succeeded at first instance and in the Court of Appeal. In the Court of Final Appeal, F and W argued that the first instance judge had mistakenly considered that he should decide on F’s objective intention in making the transfer. Stock NPJ agreed that the judge had to ascertain F’s subjective intention; in the absence of an express declaration this, ‘requires an objective inference drawn from the parties’ words and conduct’. The presumptions of resulting trust and advancement are only relevant where there is no evidence of actual intention ([53]). The judge had, however, taken the right approach to this question.

F and W also argued that the first instance judge had not given due weight to the 2012 acquisitions by the company when considering F’s intention. This conduct, though it post-dated the transfer to W, was admissible as evidence of F’s intention in making the transfer. That said, ‘contemporaneous conduct is inherently more likely to be a reliable indicator of intention, to be given greater weight, than are words and conduct after the event.’ ([56])

Michael Lower

 

 

 

The equity of exoneration: tenant in common charging her share to protect property from partner’s creditor

October 8, 2017

Insol Funding Company Limited v Cowlam ([2017] EWHC 1822 (Ch)) also raised the question of the equity of exoneration.

Ms Cowlam co-habited with Mr Cowey. They were equitable tenants in common of the family home (‘the property’). Insol was Mr Cowey’s creditor with an equitable charge over Mr Cowey’s share in the property. It sought an order for sale of the property.

To protect her rights in the property, Ms Cowlam agreed to pay Insol GBP 330,000. This was to be treated as part payment of Mr Cowey’s debt. Ms Cowlam granted Insol an equitable charge over her share to secure the sum that she had agreed to pay.

Ms Cowlam claimed to have a proprietary right over Mr Cowey’s share by virtue of the equity of exoneration. This would arise on the date when she charged her interest with the payment of the sum due under her agreement with Insol ([38]).

Ms. Cowlam argued that in granting the charge and in making payment to Insol, she had charged her share with the payment of part of Mr Cowey’s indebtedness to Insol ([35]). Ms Cowlam argued that she had become a guarantor or surety for Mr Cowey’s indebtedness and was entitled to be exonerated out of his share ([113]).

Master Bowles explained that:

‘an equity of exoneration can arise in circumstances where property is charged for the benefit, not of the chargor, but as security for the debts of another and that, where such an equity arises, the chargor is to be regarded as a guarantor, or surety, for the debtor and can look to the debtor for indemnity, or exoneration, in the event that the charge is called upon.’ ([114]).

The equity is proprietary as well as conferring personal rights as against the debtor ([114]). Master Bowles saw no reason why it should not entitle the person claiming it to security over the debtor’s property ([114]).

The equity of exoneration arises from the ‘express, implied, or presumed, intentions of the parties’ ([115]). It was not available here. Ms Cowlam ‘entered into the settlement agreement, in her own right and for her own reasons and was, in so doing, acting purely as a volunteer’.

Michael Lower

 

Seminar about proprietary estoppel and the family home at CUHK Faculty of Law

October 6, 2017

We will run a seminar about the English Court of Appeal decision in Liden v Burton. Details are as follows:

Session A:
Date: 17 October 2017 (Tuesday)
Time: 1:00 – 3:00 pm
Venue: Classroom 3, CUHK Graduate Law Centre, 2/F., Bank of America Tower, Central
Speaker: Professor Michael Lower

Session B:
Date: 1 November 2017 (Wednesday)
Time: 1:30 – 3:30 pm
Venue: Breakout Room 510, 5/F, Lee Shau Kee Building, CUHK, Shatin
Speaker: Professor Michael Lower

 

(Same seminar in two different venues) 

 
All are welcome!
Please register at: www.law.cuhk.edu.hk/propertylawseminar
For enquiry, please contact Ms Vivian Chen at vivianc@cuhk.edu.hk.

 

ABSTRACT

Proprietary estoppel comes into play where: (1) a landowner (A) gives a third party (R) an assurance that R has or will have an interest in A’s land; (2) R incurs detriment; (3) in reliance on A’s assurance; and (4) in these circumstances it would be unconscionable for A to go back on the assurance given. In these circumstances, R can apply for relief and the court has a discretion to order the relief that it decides would undo the unconscionability arising from A’s attempt to resile from the assurance given.
Proprietary estoppel has a part to play where A and R are a couple in a stable relationship and the property to which the assurance refers is their family home. The courts have developed an approach to proprietary estoppel that is tailored to the family context and that surmounts potential obstacles to the use of proprietary estoppel here. Thus, the assurance may be couched in vague terms but still be clear enough in its context. The concept of detriment is wide enough to include the normal incidents of forming and maintaining a family. If claimants had to show that the assurance was the only factor inducing them to incur detriment it would be difficult for a proprietary estoppel claim to succeed; A would be able to defeat the claim by pointing to R’s mixed motives since the family relationship will often provide a convincing explanation for R’s actions. The courts have developed an approach to reliance that keeps alive the realistic prospect of a successful claim.
The decision of the English Court of Appeal in Liden v Burton ([2016] EWCA Civ 275) illustrates the ways in which the law of proprietary estoppel has been adapted by the courts for use in the family home context. Arguably, the decision represents a further stage in this process of adaptation. Here the assurance was that ‘we would be together for the future, that this would be our home and that he would look after me forever’. This might appear to be an assurance that A regarded the relationship as being for the long term. In its context, it was understood as an assurance that R would have an interest in A’s property.
Proprietary estoppel and the common intention constructive trust overlap; there is no obvious reason why Ms Liden could not have relied on the common intention constructive trust. It is, however, well-established that the fact that a property has been acquired as the family home of a couple who are married or in a long term stable relationship does not lead the courts to infer the existence of a common intention constructive trust. Arguably, there is a discrepancy here between the approach taken in Liden and that taken in common intention constructive trust cases.

 

 

Equitable subrogation: one co-habitee charging interest to secured creditor of her partner

October 1, 2017

In Insol Funding Company Limited v Cowlam ([2017] EWHC 1822 (Ch)) Ms Cowlam and Mr Cowey were equitable tenants in common of their family home. Mr Cowey gave his creditors (Insol) an equitable charge over his 20% share in the property.

Insol brought proceedings to enforce the charge. Ms Cowlam sought to head these off to protect her own interests. She agreed to pay Insol GBP325,000 by 31st December 2015. If this payment were not made then the amount to be paid would rise to GBP330,000 and the property would be put up for sale. Ms Cowlam gave Insol an equitable charge over her own share in the property as security for this payment.

The parties agreed that this would, as far as Ms Cowey and the property were concerned, exonerate Mr Cowey’s liability. Insol would lose its right to enforce its equitable charge over Mr Cowey’s share and seek an order for sale.

The property was now to be sold. Ms Cowlam claimed to have a right to be equitably subrogated to Insol’s equitable charge over Mr Cowey’s share. This right would have priority over the charge that Ms Cowlam had granted to Insol. Insol would, in effect, be deprived of any right to receive any of the proceeds of sale.

The equitable subrogation claim failed. Master Bowles explained that there are two situations in which equitable subrogation may apply:

‘firstly, where a guarantor, or surety, pays the principal debtor’s debt and, secondly, where a lender, in the expectation of security in respect of his lending, advances money in payment of a debt, or towards the purchase of property, but where, for one reason, or another, the expected security does not arise.’ ([120])

Neither of these situations applied in the present case:

‘Ms Cowlam has simply promised to pay, in her own right, a sum of money, in part satisfaction of Mr Cowey’s indebtedness, and, where, in due course, and pursuant to her promise, such a payment will be made ([123]).

Master Bowles thought that the right approach to equitable subrogation was to test his conclusions by reference to the principles of unjust enrichment. In one sense, Insol was enriched by the agreement with Ms Cowlam but there was no unjust enrichment:

‘Insol entered into a valid contractual bargain with Ms Cowlam under which she agreed to pay the settlement sum. It is hard to see that payment to Insol of an amount agreed to be paid to Insol, under a contract which has not, in itself, been impugned, can be said to unjustly enrich Insol.’ ([132])

Rather, allowing Ms Cowlam’s claim to succeed would be unjust to Insol ([132]). It would be inconsistent with the intended effect of Ms Cowlam’s agreement with Insol ([135]).

Michael Lower

 

 

Variation of an express trust or a common intention constructive trust

September 24, 2017

In Insol Funding Company Ltd v Cowlam ([2017] EWHC 1822 (Ch)) Ms Cowlam and Mr Cowey began to co-habit in 1994 and had a son in 1995. They lived in a property owned by Ms Cowlam. They sold it and in 1998 they bought a new property to be the family home (‘the property’). The transfer of the property into their joint names recorded that they held it as beneficial joint tenants. They did not sign the transfer form.

The purchase of the property was funded by the proceeds of sale of Ms Cowlam’s home and by a mortgage. Initially, they each contributed to the repayment of the mortgage. Ms. Cowlam later injected further substantial capital sums into the property helping to pay off the mortgage and to finance improvement works.

In November 2001 the couple agreed that, in the light of Ms Cowlam’s greater contributions to the property, she had an 80% share and Mr Cowey had a 20% share.

Mr Cowey received GBP85,000 as a severance payment from his employers. He used this to finance his new business. He refused to use any part of it towards the property. He also made it clear that he did not intend to marry Ms Cowlam. From 2006, Ms Cowlam made nearly all of the mortgage payments. From 2007 onwards she made all of the payments.

The court had now to consider the extent of the respective beneficial interests of Ms Cowlam and Mr Cowie (since Mr Cowie’s charge was subject to an equitable charge in favour of Insol Funding Company Ltd).

The declaration in the 1998 transfer of the property to the couple would have been decisive had it been signed by the couple ([76]). It could not have been displaced by a common intention constructive trust ([77] – [79]). It could have been affected by proprietary estoppel ([79]).

The declaration was not enforceable, however, since it was not manifested and proved in writing signed by the parties as required by section 53(1)(b) of the Law of Property Act 1925 (cf Conveyancing and Property Ordinance, s. 5(1)(b)).

There was, however, a presumption of a beneficial joint tenancy under a common intention constructive trust given the domestic context and the fact that the title was in joint names ([86]). There was nothing here to rebut the presumption. The presumption reflected the reality that in 1997 Ms Cowlam and Mr Cowie were a mutually committed couple ([89]).

It is, however, possible for a common intention constructive trust to be varied where the later emergence of a different common intention can be proved.

Such a variation could be shown here. The principal evidence of this was the express agreement between the parties in 2001 that Ms Cowlam had an 80% share. The variation was confirmed by Mr Cowey’s refusal to apply the severance pay to the property and by Ms Cowlam’s assumption of sole responsibility, in fact, for the mortgage payments.

This latter fact was also the necessary detrimental reliance on the changed common intention. Detrimental reliance remains an essential element of the common intention constructive trust ([99]). The fact that Ms Cowlam was also motivated by a concern to maintain a home for her son did not affect this conclusion ([102]).

Ms Cowlam had an 80% beneficial share in the property. Master Bowles would have been prepared to reach the same conclusion had he relied on the principles of proprietary estoppel ([109] – [110]).

Michael Lower

Adverse possession: the slightest act of the paper owner sufficient to retain possession

September 17, 2017

Tierra Trading Ltd v Land Base Ltd ([2017] HKEC 1809) was an adverse dispute between neighbours. The disputed land comprised landings and staircases between the neighbouring buildings. The plaintiffs were the registered owners of the disputed land and they sought an order for possession against their neighbours (the defendants). The defendants claimed to have acquired title by adverse possession. They failed to establish the factual basis of their claim to have been in possession. Further, Deputy Judge Kenneth Kwok SC pointed to the statement by Slade J in Powell v McFarlane that the slightest act done by an owner in possession would negative discontinuance of possession. The plaintiffs had included the disputed land in their calculation of the Gross Floor Area of the development built on their land. This inclusion was a sufficient act to indicate their continued possession.

Michael Lower

Tierra Trading Ltd v Land Base Ltd ([2017] HKEC 1809) was an adverse possession dispute between neighbours. The disputed land comprised landings and staircases between the neighbouring buildings. The plaintiffs were the registered owners of the disputed land and they sought an order for possession against their neighbours (the defendants). The defendants claimed to have acquired title by adverse possession.

They failed to establish the factual basis of their claim to have been in possession. Further, Deputy Judge Kenneth Kwok SC pointed to the statement by Slade J in Powell v McFarlane that the slightest act done by an owner in possession would negative discontinuance of possession. The plaintiffs had included the disputed land in their calculation of the Gross Floor Area of the development built on their land. This inclusion was a sufficient act to indicate their continued possession.

Michael Lower