Archive for the ‘Contracts’ Category

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

November 14, 2013

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

Owners’ meeting: validity of decision to dissolve the meeting and of the proceedings of a ‘break-away’ meeting

July 11, 2013

Discovery Bay Services Management Ltd v Hannon Ltd ([2013] HKEC 958, LT) concerned the validity of a decision to dissolve a meeting of the Headland Village Owners’ Committee and of the proceedings of a break-away group of owners who purported to continue the meeting after the chairman had attempted to dissolve it.

There is a DMC for Discovery Bay as a whole and sub-DMCs for the villages within it. There is no owners’ corporation. CM is the manager under the DMC.

CM convened a meeting of the owners of Headland Village to elect the officers of the village owners’ committee for the coming year. The meeting began but was dissolved by the chairman. He dissolved the meeting because he disputed the validity of the appointment of the representative of CM (which was entitled to be present at the meeting and count as part of the quorum  but not to vote). He also contended that the sub-DMC only allowed owners or their spouses or family members to attend and vote. There was no scope to appoint anyone else as a proxy. He contended that the meeting was inquorate if one left ineffective proxies out of account.

A group of owners then went to another room and continued the meeting. They elected new officers. The chairman protested that the meeting was inquorate and its proceedings invalid.

DB sought, and obtained, declarations that the chairman had been wrong to dissolve the first meeting and that the second part of the meeting, and the resolutions passed there, were valid.

The chairman disputed the effectiveness of the letter by which CM appointed an individual to act as its representative at the meeting. The letter had been signed by a director of CM but did not bear CM’s chop or seal. This failed: as a matter of construction, the sub-DMC did not require the company’s chop to be effective. The normal rules for the appointment of an agent were all that mattered and they had been adhered to. In any event, CM had later formally ratified the appointment. This came after the village owners’ meeting but the ratification cured any potential defect in the original appointment.

The chairman contended that the sub-DMC only allowed owners or their spouses or family members to attend and vote. Thus, proxies given to other parties (such as CM) should be ignored. The result was that the meeting was inquorate. The Tribunal confirmed the chairman’s reading of the relevant provisions of the sub-DMC. Even allowing this, however, the meeting was still quorate. (There is an interesting comment at [56] on the idea of a ‘family member’).

Finally, there was the question as to whether the second meeting (or the second stage of the meeting) was quorate. It was. The chairman counted as part of the quorum since he was present even while he vociferously denied the validity of the proceedings. The same was true of the other owners who were of the same view as the chairman.

It was clearly a very lively meeting and there was a police presence nearby for part of it ([72]).

Michael Lower

Delay in accepting repudiatory breach.

June 27, 2013

In Cheung Ching Ping Stephen v Allcom Ltd ([2010] 2 HKLRD 324, CA) S and P entered into a provisional sale and purchase agreement. P paid an initial deposit of $1 million. The agreement provided that if S were to fail to complete it would refund the deposit and pay a further $1 million as liquidated damages.

S failed to complete on time. P wrote twice to S, reserving its rights but seeking information as to S’ progress in dealing with the matters that had to be attended to before completion could take place. After two months, P wrote to S to withdraw from the transaction. P sought the return of the deposit and the further sum of $1 million by way of liquidated damages.

The first question was whether P had lost the right to accept the repudiatory breach by waiting for two months. It was held that this delay did not mean that it had lost the right to accept the breach. The question was whether the delay was only consistent with an affirmation of the contract (or perhaps whether something material had happened in the interval between the breach and the acceptance of it) ([21]). P was entitled to accept the breach despite the delay.

P was not entitled to the $1 million by way of liquidated damages. There was nothing to show that this was a genuine pre-estimate of the damage caused by S’ breach. This was an application for summary judgment. There was to be an enquiry as to damages and the question as to whether $1 million was a genuine pre-estimate could be argued at that enquiry.

Michael Lower

Deposit or penalty? The court can order repayment of a penalty that has already been paid.

June 26, 2013

Workers Trust & Merchant Bank Ltd v Dojap Investments Ltd ([1993] AC 573, PC) was an appeal to the Privy Council from the Court of Appeal of Jamaica. A purchaser had paid a 25% deposit and this had been forfeited by the vendor when the purchaser failed to complete on time (time being of the essence for completion). The purchaser successfully sought relief from forfeiture of the deposit.

Lord Browne-Wilkinson explained that in general a provision that a party in default is to pay or forfeit a sum of money is an unlawful penalty unless the sum in question can be shown to be a genuine pre-estimate of damages. There is an exception to this general rule in the case of deposits; these can be forfeited even where they bear no relation to the anticipated loss of the innocent party (p. 578).

For a sum to be treated as a deposit it must be a sum that can reasonably be described as a deposit. Since it is difficult to say what sum would be a reasonable deposit, the approach is to accept (without searching for any further explanation) that it is long established custom and usage in the United Kingdom and Jamaica to accept a 10% deposit as being reasonable in those jurisdictions. It is for a seller wishing to rely on any larger sum to show what special circumstances would justify the larger deposit (p. 580). A reference to market practice at the time of the contract does not amount to such a justification (pp. 579 – 580).

Here the vendor had not been able to show why a larger (25%) deposit was justified. As a result, the entire sum (not merely the excess over 10%) was treated as a penalty. The court had jurisdiction to order the vendor to repay the entire sum less the amount of any damage actually suffered by the vendor as a result of the purchaser’s breach (p. 582).

Michael Lower

Removing internal staircase: infringement of right of way: encumbrance?

June 17, 2013

In Ho Ching Group Ltd v Tsang Pui Lin ([2013] HKEC 780, CFI) S agreed to sell the property (a ground floor shop) to P. There had been an internal staircase leading from the shop to the cockloft above (in separate ownership) and the owner of the cockloft had a right of way to use the staircase to get to the cockloft. The staircase had been removed and S acknowledged that this amounted to an infringement of the easement. The internal staircase had been replaced by an external staircase before S bought the property in 1998 and there had been no complaint by the owner of the cockloft. On the other hand, when approached by P, the owner of the cockloft refused to renounce its right to use the internal staircase. The question was whether the infringement of the easement amounted to an encumbrance on title.

The court held that it was not an encumbrance. J Poon J. stated the test thus:

‘In considering if a risk of litigation may constitute an encumbrance, the court will ask : are the facts and circumstances of the case so compelling to the mind of the court that the court concludes beyond reasonable doubt that the purchaser will not be at risk of a successful assertion against him of the encumbrance.’ ([12]).

Here, there had been no complaint by the owner of the cockloft. There had been no threat of action concerning the removal of the staircase by other owners in the building or the Government. It seemed clear that the owner of the cockloft had abandoned the right of way. The risk of litigation was fanciful ([13]).

The sale and purchase agreement contained a clause requiring P to accept the situation as regards the staircase but the presence of this clause was not a factor in the judgment.

Michael Lower

Periodic tenancy: effect of exercise of landlord’s right to increase the rent

June 7, 2013

In West Coast International (Parking) Ltd v Secretary for Justice ([2001] HKEC 442, CA) L granted T a lease for a two year fixed term. At the end of the two years, the agreement provided for the tenancy to continue from quarter to quarter until terminated by either party as provided for in the agreement. The lease gave the landlord the right to revise the rent at the end of the third year of the agreement. The landlord exercised this right. The tenant completed a reply slip indicating its willingness to pay the increased rent and to pay an additional deposit (the agreement provided for an increase in the rent but not in the amount of the deposit). Not long after, the landlord served a notice to quit. The question was whether the agreement as to the revised rent and increased deposit simply amounted to a variation of the terms of an ongoing periodic tenancy or amounted to the surrender of the lease and the grant of a new two year term that would later become a periodic tenancy.

As a matter of construction of the correspondence concerning the increase (in the context of the relevant terms of the tenancy) the Court of Appeal held that this was a variation of the terms of the existing periodic tenancy. Hence L was entitled to serve notice to quit.

Michael Lower

Provision for forfeiture for non-payment of rent is a usual covenant in Hong Kong

May 30, 2013

In Sun Hing Company v Brilliant Investment Co Ltd ([1966] HKLR 310, FC) L and T entered into a provisional agreement for lease but no formal agreement was entered into (though the ‘provisional’ agreement envisaged that this would happen). The provisional agreement did not contain a forfeiture clause and T fell into arrears with the rent. The question was whether the provisional agreement (enforceable by virtue of Walsh v Lonsdale) included a forfeiture provision as a ‘usual’ covenant. It was held that a forfeiture clause for non-payment of rent is a usual covenant and was enforceable under the rule in Walsh v Lonsdale.

Stamp Duty had not been paid on the provisional agreement. The court had a duty to take notice of that fact and no order would be made until the landlord’s solicitors had undertaken to submit the agreement to the Inland Revenue and to pay the stamp duty.

Michael Lower

Fully Profit (Asia) Ltd v Secretary for Justice (Court of Final Appeal)

May 21, 2013

In Fully Profit (Asia) Ltd v Secretary for Justice ([2013] HKEC 717, CFA) F owned several neighbouring plots of land. Each lot was the subject of a Government lease containing a restriction against building more than one house on the land. The question was whether building a single 26-storey residential building straddling the lots would be a breach of the covenant not to build more than one house on the land.

The plots had been carved out of a larger lot the subject of Conditions of Exchange which provided that if more than one ‘building’ were erected on the land then there would be a separate lease for each building (special condition 6). They also required the construction of ‘one or more good and permanent buildings’ on the land. There was a prohibition on industrial use and a restriction on building more than twenty houses. The lot covered by the Conditions of Exchange had twenty houses on it, each being the subject of a separate Government lease containing the restriction on building more than one house. There was nothing to indicate that the leases were intended to introduce any additional restrictions beyond those contained in the Conditions of Exchange.

The Court of Final Appeal (reversing the decision of the Court of Appeal) held that the proposed development would amount to a breach of the covenant.

Ma CJ emphasised the key role that context has to play in the process of contractual interpretation ([15]).

Applying that principle to this case, he continued:

‘In context, it is clear that the meaning of the word “house” under the Government Leases must have reference to those characteristics of the houses which were actually standing at the time the Government Leases were entered into … [H]ouses were actually standing on each of the individual, sub-divided Lots at the time the Government Leases were created. In the context of those Leases, the meaning of the word “house” should be taken to mean the type of house existing on the individual lots. ([17])

Michael Lower

Part performance: contract unregistered and in breach of New Grant

May 6, 2013

In Silver Hope Ltd v Chan Kwai Wah Alice ([2013] 1 HKLRD 823, CFI) W had entered into a contract to purchase the property in 1996. The contract amounted to a breach of the New Grant covenants concerning the property. W paid the entire purchase price and entered into possession. The contract was stamped but not registered. In 2012, P obtained a charging order in respect of the property and later an order for sale. W now sought to be joined as a defendant to the proceedings and to stay the execution of the order. To succeed, W needed to show that there was an arguable case that he had an equitable interest in the property. W was met by two arguments. First, that the contract was unlawful and so void (because it was formed in breach of covenant). Second, that the charging order (which had been duly registered) had priority over the unregistered contract.

W succeeded in being joined as a party. He was not relying on the contract but on the equity that arouse out of his having paid the entire purchase price and gone into possession (presumably this is on the basis of the doctrine of part performance). Hence, it could be argued that W would not need to plead the unlawful contract (see Tinsley v Milligan).

As for registration, after Financial and Investment Services for Asia Ltd v Baik Wha International Trading Co Ltd, it is clear that the court can look at the substance of the competing interests (and then consider the impact of registration or a failure to register). This could be seen as a contest between two equitable interests (Hong Kong Civil Procedure 2012 50/9A/17). Thus, it is arguable that W’s equitable interest has priority over the charging order notwithstanding the failure to register it.

Landlord’s failure to give vacant possession: tenant’s duty to mitigate and the calculation of damages

April 12, 2013

In Mega Yield International Holdings Ltd v Fonfair Co Ltd ([2013] HKEC 313, CFI) D entered into an option to grant a lease to P. The option was exercised but D was unable to give vacant possession of the site. Negotiations then began concerning a new lease between the same parties. These foundered because of an inability to obtain express agreement on whether the grant of a new lease would be without prejudice to  P’s claim against D in respect of D’s failure to give vacant possession pursuant to the original agreement. D then granted a new lease to a third party.

D argued that P had failed to mitigate its loss by accepting a new lease promptly. This failed. On the facts of the case, P’s actions had been those of an ordinary and prudent businessman ([46]).

As far as the calculation of damages was concerned, D argued that it was for P to show that it would have been able to recoup its loss or expenditure had the initial lease been performed. This failed: in a loss of bargain case the burden of proof is on D (the contract-breaker) to show that the loss or expenditure could not have been recouped even had the contract been performed ([71]).

The fact that some of the expenditure had been incurred by other companies on P’s behalf (other companies in the same group where the facts were such that a loss to one company would be equally felt by the other) was no bar to their recovery from D ([101]).

P could not recover the difference between the rental it would have paid and the rental payable under the lease of another site that it eventually entered into because the latter was not truly a substitute for the former. The same applied to expenditure on abortive attempts to acquire a lease of another site which would have been complementary to, not a replacement for, the site owned by D.