Archive for the ‘contractual interpretation’ Category

Interpretation of DMC apportionment provision and order for sale of defaulting owner’s shares

June 11, 2017

In Hertford Mansion (Un Chau Street) (IO) v Wong Shing Kwan ([2017] HKEC 1154, DC) the Management Committee of an Owners’ Corporation decided to carry out major renovation works at the property.

The building’s DMC provided that each owner would contribute the proportion of the expenses of managing the property set out in the Fifth Schedule to the DMC. This made the defendant liable for 110 / 1300 of any expenditure. The Management Committee demanded that proportion of the costs of the renovation works.

The Third Schedule to the DMC contained another charging provision. It required the owners to pay a ‘due proportion’ of management expenses including costs of repair, renewal and redecoration.

The defendant refused to pay the proportion of the renovation costs demanded of him. He argued that he was only responsible for a ‘due proportion’ of these costs and that the due proportion should be calculated (in the absence of any indication to some other effect) by reference to the proportion of the undivided shares in the building owned by the defendant. Thus calculated, the due proportion would be less than the sum demanded.

Judge Andrew Li rejected the defendant’s argument. The ‘due proportion’ (on a proper interpretation of this DMC) could only be the proportion specified in the Fifth Schedule. The Third Schedule required owners to pay a due proportion ‘in accordance with the provisions of this Deed’. The Fifth Schedule was the relevant provision of the deed for this purpose. It would be absurd to suppose that the Third and Fifth Schedule contained divergent mechanisms for apportioning exactly the same expenditure.

The defendant repeatedly refused to pay the contribution demanded. The DMC provided that unpaid sums were to be charged on the defaulting owner’s shares. The Management Committee registered a Memorandum of Charge accordingly. They now sought an order for sale of the defendant’s undivided shares.

The order for sale was granted. The DMC made the charge enforceable by the Management Committee. The defendant had ignored repeated warnings.

Michael Lower

Sale of land as ‘agricultural land’ in the New Territories

March 20, 2017

In Splendid Resources Inc v Secretary for Justice ([2017] HKEC 504) the plaintiffs had constructed columbaria on land owned by them. The Government contended that this was a breach of the terms of the Government lease.

The lease did not contain an express covenant not to use the land for any purposes other than as agricultural land. It had, however, been sold as ‘agricultural land’.  The question was whether this was purely descriptive of the use at the time of sale or implied a covenant only to use the land for this purpose.

Deputy Judge Le Pichon pointed to various features of the New Grant that could only be explained on the basis that the words imposed a restriction on the use to which the property could be put. These included a provision requiring the land to be cultivated.

The judge referred (at [35]) to a statement in Halsbury’s Laws of Hong Kong that ‘[w]ithout special permission from the Government, all Government leases granted in the New Territories are for agricultural purpose and can not be used for other profitable purposes.’

Further, ‘where an interpretative ambiguity arises in the context of a Government lease, a presumption in favour of the Government applies’ (at [36]).

The landowner’s argument that the covenant was purely personal to the original lessee was also rejected.

Finally, Deputy Judge Le Pichon held that the columbarium was a structure; it was a breach of the covenant not to build any structure on the land.

Michael Lower

Contractual obligation to produce an architect’s certificate before completion: an implied term that it will be produced within a reasonable time before completion

February 24, 2016

In Guo Jianjun v Dragon Fame Investment Ltd ([2015] HKEC 1986, CA) S entered into an agreement to sell to P four office units (all on the same floor of the building). The agreement contemplated that there would be a re-partitioning of the office units owned by S. The units to be sold were the units as they would be after the re-partitioning. The contract contained a clause obliging S to obtain the certificate of an ‘Authorized Person’ to confirm the legality of the re-partitioning works. The agreement went on to provide that P would not raise any requisitions, queries or objections concerning the re-partitioning works. The re-partitioning works were carried out soon after the agreement was entered into. S produced an architect’s certificate of compliance. This satisfied S’s contractual obligations but it was produced at 6.07 pm on the completion date. It was common ground that the midnight rule applied. P argued that S was in breach of an implied obligation to produce the certificate at a reasonable time. It rescinded and sought the return of the deposit and damages. S argued that there was no implied term and that it was enough for it to have produced the certificate before midnight on the completion date.

The Court of Appeal (Lam V-P giving the judgment) looked at the English and Hong Kong authorities setting out the modern approach to contractual interpretation. This required the court to look at the rest of the contract and the whole of the relevant context / factual matrix. It also looked at what was said in Belize Telecom concerning the implication of terms (and linking this process to the broader process of contractual interpretation).

The obligation had to be construed in the context of the related clause which barred the raising of requisitions concerning the partitioning. It was also necessary to take account of the obvious commercial purpose served by the obligation: if S did not produce an adequate certificate there could be a doubt as to the legality of the works which could prevent P from giving good title on any future sale. Thus, there was to be implied a term ‘that the certificate would be a proper certificate prepared by an authorized person in good faith’ ([34]).

Given that the architect was commissioned by, and would report to, S P had to be given a reasonable time to assess whether or not the certificate satisfied the contractual obligation. They had to be given a reasonable time in which to do so. A term to this effect was to be implied ([41]).

What was a reasonable time? Had the implied obligation been observed in this case? The court referred to its earlier decision in Summit Link v Sunlink Group:

‘What should be considered as a reasonable time must be considered in the light of the prevailing circumstances, including the parties’ knowledge at the time if it can be proved and what the parties would each be reasonably contemplating at the time.’ (at 735 – 6 per Woo JA).

The court also referred to the headnote to the report of Kensland Realty Ltd v Whale View Investment Ltd ((2001) 4 HKCFAR 381):

‘The time which a vendor must allow, was the time reasonably required by the purchaser to perform its obligations, in relation to completion, in the ordinary course of business. This would include the purchaser’s dealing with bankers and solicitors.’

Lam V-P explained what this meant in the present case:

‘I am therefore of the view that the certificate should have been provided to the plaintiffs’ solicitors within a reasonable time before the end of the office hours [on the completion date]. The reasonable time should be long enough to afford the plaintiff’s solicitors a reasonable opportunity to conduct the checks which are reasonably necessary and to do so in the normal course of business. The time should not be so short that the solicitors would have to stretch all their available resources to the extreme so as to accomplish the tasks.’ ([46]).

Further, ‘one should proceed on the general assumption that purchasers will rely on mortgage financing in a conveyancing transaction’ ([50]).

Production of the certificate after the close of business on the date of completion did not satisfy the reasonable time requirement.

Michael Lower




Break clause: implied term that rent paid in advance in respect of a period after termination should be repaid?

January 6, 2016

In Marks & Spencer plc v BNP Paribas Securities Services Trust Co (Jersey) Ltd ([2015] UKSC 72) BNP granted a lease to M & S. The lease contained a break clause. The lease required M & S to pay rent quarterly in advance. The break right could only be validly exercised if there were no rent arrears at the time when the lease would end assuming the valid exercise of the break right (the ‘break date’). M & S had also to make a further payment to BNP if it exercised the break right. M & S served a clause to trigger the break right, paid the quarterly rent due immediately before the break date and made the further required payment. It now sought to recover the proportion of the rent attributable to the period from the break date up to what would have been the next quarter date under the lease. It argued that a term requiring BNP to make such a repayment should be implied into the lease. The Supreme Court upheld the Court of Appeal’s decision that there was no such implied term.

Lord Neuberger gave the main judgment. The decisive factor was ‘the established legal background against which the Lease was entered into, and in particular the general attitude of the law to the apportionability of rent payable in advance.’ ([42]) Rent is not apportionable in time in common law ([43]). Section 2 of the Apportionment Act 1870 varied this with regard to rent payable in arrear but not rent payable in advance ([45]). Thus:

‘Save in a very clear case indeed, it would be wrong to attribute to a landlord and a tenant, particularly when they have entered into a full and professionally drafted lease, an intention that the tenant should receive an apportioned part of the rent payable and paid in advance, when the non-apportionability of such rent has been so long and clearly established. Given that it is so clear that the effect of the case-law is that rent payable and paid in advance can be retained by the landlord, save in very exceptional circumstances (eg where the contract could not work or would lead to an absurdity) express words would be needed before it would be right to imply a term to the contrary.’ ([50])

There was a broader discussion of Lord Hoffmann’s statement in Belize Telecom that the process of implying terms into a contract was part of the general process of contractual interpretation. Lord Neuberger was critical of this view. He saw construction of the express terms of the contract as being logically prior to the question as to whether or not a term was to be implied ([28]) and as being ‘a rather different exercise’ ([29]). Lords Carnwath and Clarke, on the other hand, expressed support for Lord Hoffmann’s formulation. Lord Carnwath expressed the view that Lord Hoffmann’s formulation did not involve any watering down of the previous authorities to the effect that the implication of terms is based on necessity ([58] – [60]). Thus:

‘While I accept that more stringent rules apply to the process of implication, it can be a useful discipline to remind onseself that the object remains to discover what the parties have agreed or (in Lady Hale’s words) “must have intended” to agree. In that respect it remains, and must be justified as, a process internal to the relationship between the parties, rather than one imposed from outside by statute or the common law’. ([69])

Lord Clarke said:

‘like Lord Neuberger (at para 26) I accept that both (i) construing the words which the parties have used in their contract and (ii) implying terms into the contract, involve determining the scope and meaning of the contract. On that basis it can properly be said that both processes are part of construction of the contract in a broad sense.’ ([76]).

Michael Lower

Legal tenancy in common: contractual interpretation

November 4, 2015

In Lam Kwok Hing v Lam Siu Keung ([2015] HKEC 2228, CFI) four brothers were tenants in common in equal shares of land in the New Territories (‘the Land’). They were also co-owners of several adjoining lots. The brothers entered into four contemporaneous transactions in 1972 to re-arrange the ownership of the Land and the adjoining lots. The 1972 transaction concerning the land assigned it to two of the brothers, LLW (2/5 shares) and LTW (3/5 shares). A separate ‘Division of Property’ document, signed by the four brothers, confirmed the overall effect of the four transactions. In a  document called ” 執照 ” and dated 2 September 1974, the District Commissioner, New Territories certified that LLW owned 2/5 and LTW owned 3/5 of the shares in the Land. LLW died in 1976 and in 2005 his family contended that his share was 9/20 rather than 2/5 (that he owned an additional 1/20).

The court now had to decide on the parties’ respective shares. The fact that the 1972 assignment recorded LLW as owner of 2/5 provided the starting point. All of the relevant legal and factual material available to the court supported the contention of the LTW family that the assignment accurately recorded the parties’ contractual intention. The undivided shares reflected the physical division of the Land between the two families. the Division of Property and the 執照 confirmed the ownership intention. Finally, the Schedule of Property annexed to the Letters of Administration of LLW’s estate also referred to his ownership of a 2/5 share.

The case is interesting since there was no recourse to the concept of the common intention constructive trust. In Hong Kong, unlike England, disputes as to ownership shares can be resolved through a process of contractual interpretation that focuses on ownership of the legal title.

Michael Lower

Making time of the essence for completion

September 9, 2015

In Many Gain Investment Ltd v Chan Fai Ho ([[2015] HKEC 1553, CFI) P, a property developer agreed to buy a property from D. P raised a requisition about D’s title and there was a dispute as to whether or not it had been properly answered. This dispute continued up to the contractual completion date of 31st May 2011. The parties agreed to extend the completion date to 14th June 2011. The next day, 15th June, D’s solicitors wrote to P’s solicitors requiring completion by 20th June. Despite this, on 16th June, D entered into an agreement to sell the property to another buyer. P now withdrew the requisition and sought specific performance. The question was whether P’s delay in completing amounted to a repudiatory breach entitling D to rescind.

Time was not expressly of the essence for completion and Anthony To J found that time was not impliedly of the essence in this case ([23]). The question then was whether the letter of 15th June made time of the essence (see United Scientific Holdings Ltd v Burnley Borough Council [1978] AC 904). As a matter of construction it did not. Anthony To J preferred P’s interpretation which was that the letter was no more than a demand that P should withdraw the requisition within 5 days ([24] – [27]).

For the sake of completeness, Anthony To J considered whether, if the letter were to be construed as a notice making time of the essence, the 5 day period it specified constituted reasonable notice. He held that it could have amounted to reasonable notice had D taken the necessary steps to make completion possible (including notifying P of the amounts of the split cheques that would be required on completion). The only other step to be taken within that time was that P had to decide whether or not it would insist on the requisition. As D had not taken the steps to make completion possible within 5 days, the 5 day period would not amount to reasonable notice ([33]).

P was granted the order of specific performance that it sought.

Michael Lower

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

August 26, 2015

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

Where there are two arguable interpretations of a contractual provision it is reasonable to have regard to the commercial consequences of the rival approaches

August 24, 2015

Rainy Sky SA v Kookmin Bank ([2011] UKSC 50) arose out of contracts for the building and sale of ships. The purchasers were to pay the purchase price in five installments and the contract provided that the installments would be refunded to the purchasers on the happening of any of certain events specified in the contract. The contracts required the shipbuilder to procure refund guarantees to protect the buyers against the possibility that the shipbuilder might fail to refund advance payments when required to do so under the terms of the contract. Kookmin Bank provided the refund guarantees. After the purchasers had paid the first installments due under their respective contracts, an event occurred entitling the purchasers to call for a refund of the installments. The purchasers invoked this clause but the shipbuilder refused to repay the money. The purchasers then sought payment from the Bank under the terms of the guarantee. The Bank refused to pay arguing that the guarantee did not cover the event that had occurred.

Lord Clarke (with whom the other members of the Supreme Court agreed) considered the rival constructions argued for by the parties and concluded that each interpretation was arguable. In such a case, the court could legitimately have regard to the commercial consequences of the rival interpretations. The interpretation that was most in line with the parties’ reasonable interpretations could be preferred:

‘If there are two possible constructions, the court is entitled to prefer the construction which is consistent with business common sense and to reject the other.’ ([21])

Where, however, the language was unambiguous then the court must apply it ([23]). At first instance an experienced judge of the Commercial Court expressed the view that the Bank’s construction ‘defies commercial common sense’. The purchasers’ construction was, therefore, to be preferred ([45]).

Michael Lower

Interpretation of service charge clauses

July 22, 2015

Arnold v Britton ([2015] UKSC 36) concerned the construction of the service charge clauses in a number of long leases of chalets in a caravan park. The clauses in question required the lessees to pay, as a proportionate part of the landlord’s costs in providing the relevant services, GBP 90 plus VAT in the first year. This sum was to increase by 10% per annum. The startling result was that the GBP 90 had become GBP 3,366 by 2012 and would rise to GBP 1,025,004 by 2072 (the final year of the leases). It was possible that the sum payable by even one tenant occupying on these terms would exceed the actual cost of the provision of services for the whole estate. The leases of most of the chalets on the estate had been granted earlier than the disputed leases. These earlier leases provided for the initial GBP 90 to rise by 10% every three years (or by roughly 3% per annum). These earlier leases were referred to as the ‘triennial leases’. The clause in the triennial leases gave rise to very much more modest liabilities; even by 2072, the service charge would only have risen to GBP 1,900. These figures are taken from the table in Lord Carnwath’s dissenting judgment (see below).

The first question was whether the landlord’s interpretation of the service charge clause (in line with the above description) was correct so that there would be an automatic increase at 10% per annum. The tenants contended for an alternative construction. They pointed to the fact that the obligation was to pay a proportionate part of the landlord’s cost in providing the services and argued that the compounded GBP 90 merely provided a cap on the amount that was to be paid. The majority of the Supreme Court agreed with Lord Neuberger and rejected this interpretation. The wording of the provision was clear and the fact that it had disastrous consequences for the tenants did not entitle the court to rewrite the clause.

The second question was whether, as the tenants contended, an implied term should be read into the service charge clause. The leases contained a recital to the effect that they were intended to be ‘upon terms similar in all respects to the present demise’. The leases contained a covenant (in clause 4(8)) by the landlord  that the leases of the other chalets ‘shall contain covenants on the part of the lessees thereof to observe the like obligations as are contained herein or obligations as similar thereto as the circumstances permit.’ The questions were whether this created a building scheme or letting scheme and, if so, whether this gave rise to an implied term that would affect the interpretation of the service charge clause. The tenants argued that there was an implied term in the disputed leases to the effect that they were on the same terms as the triennial leases and that this prevented the landlords from increasing the service charge in the disputed leases at a rate that exceeded the rate of increase in the triennial leases.

First, Lord Neuberger was prepared to accept that the relevant terms did indeed create some kind of building or letting scheme and that it was ‘envisaged that there would be a degree of reciprocity and mutual enforceability between the lessees of chalets when it came to the covenants they entered into.’ ([49]). Building schemes can only cover restrictive covenants in the case of freehold land. Lord Neuberger thought it might be possible that they would extend to positive covenants in the case of letting schemes. Even if this were possible, however, it was questionable whether a covenant to pay a service charge or any other sum of money could be within the ambit of a scheme ([51]). In any event, there were other obstacles that, in Lord Neuberger’s view, prevented the tenant’s argument from succeeding: the relevant lease terms appeared to relate to future lettings (not past lettings like the triennial leases); even if there were an implied term as contended for it could not override the obligations that the tenants had expressly assumed; and clause 4(8) referred to ‘like’ or ‘similar’ terms and so envisaged the possibility of some degree of variation. More fundamentally, the implied term that was the best fit with the relevant provisions was to the effect that the triennial leases contained the same service charge provisions as the disputed leases (and not vice versa). While there was a good argument in favour of such an implied term, this did not help the tenants under the disputed leases; they suffered no damage as a result of a failure to impose the same term in other leases.

Lord Neuberger’s judgment contains a section ([14] – [23]) reviewing the major authorities on contractual interpretation. Amongst the points made in this section is that he is ‘unconvinced by the notion that service charge clauses are subject to any special rule of interpretation.’ ([23])

On the major question, the view of the majority is summed up thus:

‘In my judgment, there is no principle of interpretation which entitles a court to re-write a contractual provision simply because the factor which the parties catered for does not seem to be developing as the parties may well have expected.’ ([41] per Lord Neuberger).

Lord Carnwath gave a dissenting judgment. He inclined to the view that service charge clauses did merit special treatment to ensure that they give effect to their intended purpose and to guard against ‘unfair and unintended burdens being placed on the lessees.’ ([123]) Service charge clauses in many residential leases are subject to controls imposed by legislative scheme. There was no obvious policy reason to explain the fact that the disputed leases did not fall within the ambit of this legislation ([90] – [92]).

Lord Carnwath identified the following features of the factual matrix: the huge service charge liabilities that the tenants holding under the disputed leases would face in the later years of the terms and the gross disparity between these sums and those payable under the triennial leases ([104]); the service charge uplift was intended to respond to the very high inflation of the 1970s but the disputed leases were mainly granted between 1977 and 1991 at which time it was possible to anticipate lower rates of inflation ([106]); the lessees were taking the leases as a long term investment and so it is likely that they would have made enquiries of existing lessees (holding under the triennial leases) about their experiences and the costs associated with living on the estate  ([107]).

Something clearly had gone wrong in the drafting of the clause given the disconnection between the idea of contributing a proportionate part of the cost of providing the services and the obligation to pay a fixed sum each year ([125]). It was inconceivable that the lessees under the disputed leases would gamble on inflation being close to or exceeding 10% per annum for over 90 years ([139]). They would have known of the change from the triennial formula to the annual formula in their own leases and the likelihood is that they would have understood it as amounting to a cap or upper limit on their service charge liability ([142]). If questioned by the officious bystander they would have articulated this understanding ([143]).

Michael Lower