Deposits, liquidated damages and penalties

In Polyset Ltd v Panhandat Ltd [2002] 3 HKLRD 319, CFA) S agreed in May 1997 to sell property to P for HK$115 million. Completion was due to take place nine months after the date of the contract. P paid a deposit of HK$40.25 million (35%  of the purchase price). The contract expressly justified the larger than usual deposit on the basis of the longer than usual period between contract and completion. P later alleged a breach of contract and refused to complete. The Court of Final Appeal agreed with the Court of Appeal that S was not in breach of contract. The question was whether S could keep the deposit which exceeded S’s actual loss (HK$ 33million) by just over HK$ 7 milion. It held (Litton NPJ dissenting) that the deposit in this case was excessive and so the seller was not entitled to forfeit it.

The Court of Final Appeal distinguished between a liquidated damages clause and a deposit. A liquidated damages clause is intended to replace a claim for breach of contract. If it represents a genuine attempt to quantify the damages that might be payable in the event of breach then effect will be given to it. It then prevents any claim to the effect that the amount is too large or too small. If the liquidated damages payable are excessive so that they cannot be said to be a pre-estimate of the damages payable but are, instead, an attempt to terrorise the other party into performance then the liquidated damages clause is a penalty and the court will strike down the liquidated damages clause.

A deposit is quite different from a liquidated damages clause. A payment in advance is properly classified as a deposit if  it is intended both as part payment of the purchase price and as a proof that the buyer is serious about the transaction. It is not intended to substitute for a claim for breach of contract; in principle, a seller can keep the deposit and bring an action for breach (giving credit for the deposit if the claim is successful). If the deposit is not excessive then effect will be given to the contractual intention in its regard (usually that the seller can keep the deposit if the purchaser fails, without legal justification, to complete).

Where, however, the deposit is excessive the seller will not be allowed to keep it. When deciding whether or not a deposit is excessive, it is not appropriate to ask whether or not it represents a genuine pre-estimate of loss. That question is relevant to the evaluation of a liquidated damages clause but not to the contractual provisions concerning a deposit.  A deposit that is in line with usual practice (10% of the purchase price in Hong Kong) is not excessive. A deposit that is larger than the customary deposit is excessive unless there were special circumstances to justify it.

Ribeiro PJ summarised the position thus:

‘In the light of the foregoing authorities, the proper approach to unusually large deposits may be stated as follows.

(a) Where (in the absence of fraud or vitiating factors other than excessiveness) the amount of an agreed deposit matches or is less than the conventional amount, its forfeiture will not attract judicial scrutiny, whether or not the innocent party has suffered any loss as a result of the other party’s breach.
(b) Where the deposit exceeds the conventional amount, that is, 10% in Hong Kong, forfeiture is only permitted if the party seeking to forfeit can show that exceptional circumstances justify the higher amount.
(c) Such exceptional circumstances must relate to a true deposit’s purpose as an earnest of performance and as compensation for the vendor’s withdrawal of his asset from the property market pending completion, providing an objective justification for the higher sum.
(d) If such justification is not forthcoming, the courts will not recognize the amount as a true deposit but will treat it as an advance payment towards what was payable under the contract and recoverable as such, subject to the innocent party’s entitlement to deduct damages for any actual loss suffered as a result of the other party’s breach.’ (para. 90)

A 35% deposit was excessive.  The lengthy gap between contract and completion might justify a larger than usual deposit but not a deposit as large as that paid in the present case.  Hence, P could not be allowed to forfeit the deposit but was only entitled to its actual loss. The safest course for a seller is to accept the customary deposit and to have a clause that allows him to re-sell and to claim the loss on sale and the costs of sale as liquidated damages. A seller should accept that a deposit that is several times larger than the customary deposit is likely to be impermissible (para. 108).

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