Interpretation of a letter modifying conditions of sale

In United Bright Limited v Secretary for Justice ([2015] HKEC 438, CA) the Court of Appeal (Lam V-P delivering the judgment of the Court) had to deal with a dispute concerning the construction of a letter modifying restrictions contained in the Conditions of Sale. The Conditions of Sale (entered into in 1939) allowed only ‘European type houses’ to be built and contained a ‘DDH’ clause:

‘The design of the exterior elevations and the disposition and height of any building to be erected on the lot shall be subject to the special approval of the Director of Public Works and in no case may any building to be erected on the lot exceed 2 storeys.’

In 1957 the Government issued a Letter of Modification that allowed flats to be built instead of houses. This modification was said to be subject to conditions:

‘(a) Payment of an additional premium amounting to $33,550.00 for each Section within 14 days on demand.

(b) Buildings to comply with the following coverage limitations:

3 storeys over car port – 55% of lot area

4 ” ” ” ” – 45% ” ” ”

5 ” ” ” ” – 40% ” ” ”

(c) Car parking to be at the rate of not less than 1 car per flat.

(d) Buildings to be in accordance with the provisions of the Buildings Ordinance and plans to be submitted to the Building Authority for approval in the usual way.’

United Bright wanted to build a 37 storey block of flats with car parking beneath and associated facilities. It contended that the Letter of Modification permitted this development. The Government contended that the Letter of Modification only permitted a 5 storey development and that the DDH clause remained in full operation. Thus, the question concerned the proper construction of the Letter of Modification.

The Government succeeded:

1. Defining the relevant ‘context’ against which the relevant terms should be considered is central to contractual interpretation (Fully Profit (Asia) Limited v Secretary for Justice) ([8]). The relevant context included the Conditions of Sale that were modified ([9] – [12]). In terms of the letter itself, it was to be noted that it did not expressly release the lessee from the need to obtain approval under the DDH clause ([14]).

2. In Ying Ho Co Ltd v Secretary for Justice, the Court of Final Appeal had decided that the DDH clause in that case was an independent restriction from other more detailed restrictions in the Conditions of Sale. There was no reason to take a different view of the status of the DDH clause in the present case ([15] – [19]).

3. The fact that the Building Ordinance had been amended in 1955 (shortly before the Letter of Modification) allowing buildings of more than 5 storeys to be built and conferring powers to disapprove plans) was not part of the relevant context. The Government’s powers under the Building Ordinance and under the Conditions of Sale were separate from each other and had different objects even if administered by the same Department (Hang Wah Chong Investment Ltd v AG) ([20] – [24]).

The Court of Appeal reached its decision (in favour of the Government) based on the above considerations([27]).

The court went on, however, to look at the admissibility of correspondence around the time of the application.The lessee applied for the modification in 1956. There was, however, earlier correspondence between the lessee’s solicitors and the Government  referring to an earlier (1955) application for permission to build ‘not more than four flats on each of the six sites.’ The 1956 application was a renewal of the 1955 application. Should the correspondence be taken into account when interpreting the letter? The developer objected that the correspondence was a subjective statement of intent or merely reflected the state of the negotiations at a given moment in time ([31]). This objection failed. It was legitimate to look at the correspondence in order to clarify the subject matter of the application ([33]). The letter of modification referred to the application and so invited a reading together of the two documents. The correspondence cast light on what had been applied for (permission to erect flats and not houses) ([33] – [34]).

Evidence of the Government’s internal calculations of the premium was also admissible since the basis of the calculation was common knowledge among the relevant professional community at the time. The fact that the specific calculations were not shown to the lessee did not, therefore, mean that the calculation was inadmissible ([35] – [40]).

Finally, the correspondence was admissible even though it was being used to interpret a document registered at the Land Registry. The letter of modification regulated the rights and duties as between lessor and lessee and was not of its nature a public document ([41]). The English Court of Appeal has recently said that ‘context’ is of limited relevance when interpreting publicly registered documents (Cherry Tree Investments Ltd v Landmain Limited) but that was said in the context of a registration system with a state guarantee of title and Hong Kong’s system is materially different ([41(d)]). It is reasonable to expect Hong Kong purchasers to make enquiries of the Lands Department if they are in any doubt as to the effect of a letter of modification ([41(e)]).

Michael Lower

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