Seller entitled to rescind and recover deposit where deposit cheque is accidentally dishonoured and time is of the essence?

In Howarth Cheung Natalie Jane YS v Tsang Hong Kwang Ok ([2014] HKEC 1683, CA) S entered into a preliminary agreement for the sale of property to P. The agreement provided for P to pay a deposit of just under 5% of the purchase price. The cheque was not honoured as the bank thought that there was a discrepancy between the signature on the cheque and the specimen signature that they had. S accepted the repudiatory breach and P sought specific performance. S counter-claimed for payment of the deposit.

It was accepted by both parties that time for payment of the deposit is of the essence in Hong Kong even in the absence of an express stipulation to this effect. So the delay in paying the deposit was a repudiatory breach ([4.1] – [4.5] per Cheung JA). P argued, however, that the contract included an implied term to the effect that the stipulation as to time was suspended because the extraordinary event that had happened was beyond P’s control. This failed. The obligation was specified in clear terms ([5.9]); S should not be affected by disputes between P and her agent ([5.10]); the term was not needed to give business efficacy to the contract ([5.11]); nor was it capable of clear expression ([5.12]).

P argued that she should be granted equitable relief from termination of the agreement. This was rejected. First, the point had already been dealt with by the Privy Council in Union Eagle ([6.1]). The Australian courts took a different approach and granted equitable relief where the delay was occasioned by fraud, mistake, accident or surprise (and the High Court of Australia considered the ambit of these exceptions in Tanwar Enterprises Pty Ltd v Cauchi (2003) 201 ALR 359). Even if the Australian approach were followed, it would not allow for relief in the present case:

‘The parties themselves have stipulated the time for payment which is of the essence of the contract. The purchaser had chosen to pay by cheque which in law is in the nature of payment by cash. This by itself precludes any argument on suspension of this obligation. Further, the possibility of the bank not honouring the cheque is not beyond the reasonable contemplation of the parties as mishaps do happen. Hence payment of the deposit can be subject to an exculpatory provision which has not been sought for by the purchaser in the first place. As presently drafted, the payment term is not subject to the purchaser tendering another payment upon discovering that the cheque has not been made. In any event, HSBC is not a third party in the strict sense of the term but an agent of the purchaser. To decree relief will deprive the vendor of an essential right of the agreement. The whole circumstances just do not come within the ambit of the requirement for relief that, although the accident was not occasioned by the vendors who were innocent, it was sufficient of itself to render it unconscionable or inequitable for the vendors to insist upon its legal rights.’ ([6.20] per Cheung JA).

Finally, S could recover the unpaid deposit from P. Contractual damages aim to put S in the position that he would have been in had the contract been performed (and in that event the deposit would have been paid). Alternatively, the effect of the acceptance of a repudiatory breach is to discharge the parties from all executory obligations but does not affect rights and obligations that have already accrued (Damon Compania Naviera S.A. v. Hapag Lloyd International S.A. [1985] 1 WLR 435). This approach has been taken by the Hong Kong courts (for example, Sun Lee Kyoung Sil v Jia Weili [2010] 2 HKLRD 30).

Michael Lower

 

 

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