Wise Think Global Ltd: had a further deposit been paid?

In Wise Think Global Ltd v Finance Worldwide Ltd ([2013] HKEC 1790, CFA) S agreed to sell property to P. A deposit of HK$500,000 was paid on the signing of the provisional agreement. A further HK$3.1m was to be paid on the signing of the formal agreement. The provisional agreement provided that if the vendor failed to complete the agreement, it would refund the deposit paid together with a further amount equal to the deposit. The provisional agreement also provided that the deposits would be held by the vendor’s solicitors as stakeholders.

The terms of the formal agreement were agreed and P sent the agreement signed on behalf of P and a cheque for HK$3.1m. P’s solicitors’ accompanying letter declared that the agreement and cheque were sent against S’ solicitors undertaking to send in return the part of the formal agreement signed on behalf of S within three days. S’ solicitors did not give this undertaking. They cashed the cheque but did not send a part of the formal agreement signed on behalf of S. Instead, more than three days later, S purported to terminate the provisional agreement by paying liquidated damages in accordance with the terms of the provisional agreement. S refunded both of the deposits and paid a further $500,000 (equal to the initial deposit). The question was whether it had also to pay further liquidated damages equal to the HK$3.1 m further deposit.

Litton NPJ said that the central question was whether the deposit had been paid to and accepted by the vendor’s solicitors ([23]). They were to hold the deposits as stakeholders but they were also the vendor’s agents. When they cashed the cheque, the money was received and paid ([25]). The terms of the undertaking that the purchaser’s solicitors sought to impose did not render the payment conditional. The only realistic interpretation of the proposed undertaking was that the vendor’s solicitors were being asked not to cash the cheque unless they were in a position to send the vendor’s signed part of the contract to the purchaser’s solicitors ([28]). Litton NPJ emphasised that this case turned on its special facts; it would be rare for a purchaser to pay a deposit before the contract had been signed ([31]).

Bokhary NPJ approached the matter on the basis that the purchaser had accepted the risk that the further deposit would be forfeited and that there was an expectation that the right to resile, and the consequences of doing so, would be matching (the same for each party) ([37]).

Lord Millett NPJ said that the vendor’s solicitors could refuse the deposit by returning the cheque, by holding it without cashing it or by cashing it on the express basis that the money was held to the purchaser’s solicitors order ([41]). Simply cashing the cheque, by contrast, amounted to acceptance of the deposit monies ([42]).

Since the right to resile had not been validly exercised, the Court of Final Appeal ordered specific performance of the contract.

Michael Lower

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