Implied terms: the tension between the plain meaning of the words and an evident commercial purpose

In Aberdeen City Council v Stewart Milne Group ([2011] UKSC 56) the Council sold some development land to Stewart Milne Group Ltd (‘SMG’). The contract for the sale provided for a further payment (‘Profit Share’) to be paid to the Council in the event of (i) the service of a notice by SMG on the Council to trigger the obligation to pay; or (ii) a sale by SMG; or (iii) the grant of a lease by SMG. There was to be only one such payment and once it had been made there would be no further obligation to make any payment even if one of the relevant events occurred.

SMG sold the property to SMW, another company in the same group, at a price that the Council alleged was well below the open market value. SMG contended that this triggered the once and for all obligation to make a Profit Share payment. The Council refused to accept that this was the case. There was a tension between the wording of the contract and the alleged commercial purpose. The contract did not expressly rule out an intra-group transaction in its definition of event (ii) (a sale triggering the obligation to pay). On the other hand there was evidence from other provisions within the contract pointing to a contractual intention that the Profit Share would be calculated by reference to the property’s open market value.

The Supreme Court decided that there was a clear commercial intention that the Profit Share would be calculated by reference to the open market value.  They preferred to think of this in terms of an implied term rather than as a process of interpretation (though the result is the same whichever route is used ([33] Lord Clarke). A term was to be implied to the effect that where the sale was not at arm’s length, an open market valuation (rather than the actual price paid) would be used in the calculation of the Profit Share ([20] Lord Hope; [32] Lord Clarke).

Michael Lower

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