Archive for the ‘Interpretation’ Category

‘Hong Kong style’ completion and sub-sales

October 27, 2014

In Wellfit Investments Ltd v Commence Ltd ([1997] HKLRD 857, PC) the Privy Council had to consider the impact of an agreement to effect a Hong Kong style completion and the fact that both parties were aware that the transaction was a sub-sale on the construction of the provisions as to completion in the sub-sale agreement.

The agreement was for the sub-sale of an apartment. Time was of the essence in the agreement. The funds from completion of the sub-sale were to be used to finance completion of the head contract. The sub-sale was to be completed by 3pm on the stipulated date and the deadline for completion under the head contract was two and a half hours later. The sub-contract was ‘subject to and with the benefit of’ the head contract. The sub-contract provided that on completion, the seller would execute a ‘proper assurance’ and give vacant possession. The parties agreed to a ‘Hong Kong style’ completion (on completion, the seller gave an undertaking to forward the executed assignment within 17 days of completion). The sub-purchaser had not provided the completion monies by 3pm and the sub-seller rescinded 24 minutes later. The sub-purchaser sought specific performance.

The buyer’s argument that the deadline had been waived or varied  by virtue of a telephone conversation between the solicitors acting for the parties failed. The words used did not amount to a clear representation that the sub-seller would not insist on its contractual rights.

The buyer argued that the seller was in breach since on completion it would not be in a position to execute a proper assurance or give vacant possession (it could only do this when the head contract was completed). This failed since these obligations were to be interpreted in the light of the agreement to complete by undertakings and because both parties were aware of the sub-sale context and had factored this into their contract.

The sub-purchaser sought relief in equity. This judgment was handed down a few months before Union Eagle. The Privy Council expressed no view as to whether such jurisdiction existed. We had to wait for Union Eagle to learn the answer to this. The Privy Council held that it would not grant such relief even if it had the power to do so. Given the linkage between the sub-contract and the head contract, there was nothing unconscionable in the sub-seller’s insistence on its strict contractual rights.

Michael Lower

Using extrinsic evidence where the property description is unclear

August 25, 2014

In Superene Ltd v Metro Fair Ltd ([2014] HKEC 99, CA) the Court of Appeal had to consider whether an assignment had included the whole of a column next to the front entrance of the property that had been assigned or only part of it. The assignment described the property by reference to a plan. Although the plan was rough and ready, the Court of Appeal felt that it was sufficiently clear to allow a conclusion to be reached without any need to refer to extrinsic evidence. It decided that only half the column had been included in the assignment. 

The judgment of Barma JA notes the argument of counsel for the defendant ([12]) that extrinsic evidence (here a description of the property in a tender document) is admissible either (i) as part of the factual matrix according to the established principles of contractual interpretation or (ii) where the instrument in question does not clearly define the land transferred (Scarfe v Adams [1981] 1 All ER 843 at 851, CA (Eng) per Griffiths LJ).

Michael Lower

Implication of a term is an aspect of contractual interpretation

June 15, 2014

In A-G of Belize v Belize Telecom Ltd ([2009] UKPC 10, PC) the question was whether a term should be implied into the articles of association of a company (‘the company’) that had been formed to carry on the business of the Belize Telecommunications Authority. Belize Telecom (‘BT’) was the majority shareholder in the company. The company’s shares were divided into classes. BT, as holder of  C shares that exceeded 37.5% of the issued share capital, had the right (under the terms of the company’s articles) to appoint two of the members of the board of directors. When BT defaulted on loans made to it by the Government, it had to transfer a substantial number of shares to the Government. The result was that its C shares no longer amounted to 37.5% of the issued share capital.

The question was whether its appointees to the board remained members of the board. There was no express term dealing with this contingency. Was there an implied term to the effect that a director appointed by virtue of a specified shareholding should vacate his office if there is no longer any holder of such a shareholding.

Lord Hoffmann gave the only full judgment. He emphasised that the law on the implication of contract terms was an aspect of the general law concerning contractual interpretation:

‘It follows that in every case in which it is said that some provision ought to be implied in an instrument, the question for the court is whether such a provision would spell out in express words what the instrument, read against the relevant background, would reasonably be understood to mean.’ ([21])

The term contended for was implied, ‘to avoid defeating what appears to have been the overriding purpose of the machinery of appointment and removal of directors, namely to ensure that the board reflects the appropriate shareholder interests in accordance with the scheme laid out in the articles’ ([32]).

Michael Lower


Ownership of roof voids depends on proper construction of the relevant deeds

May 5, 2014

Hong Kong Mansion, Causeway Bay (IO) v Bothlink Ltd ([2014] 2 HKLRD 78, CA) concerned the ownership of roof voids. The incorporated owners argued that they were common parts and sought to recover them from the defendant (B) who argued that they had been assigned to his predecessor in title. The voids were in the roof space and were the lower portion of a space, the upper portion of which housed the maintenance platform for the lifts.

The Court of Appeal looked at the question as being one that turned on the construction of the first assignment in the building. This had included the right to ‘the remaining self-contained portions’, flat roofs and other roofs. It had not included property intended to be used for the common enjoyment of co-owners and co-occupiers. The question was as to whether the roof voids had been included in the first assignment or were property intended for common enjoyment. The Court of Appeal (like the Court of First Instance) held that the roof voids were intended for common enjoyment.

The question was as to the parties’ contractual intention at the time of the first assignment. The elements of the factual matrix all supported the incorporated owners’ contention that the voids were common parts: they were not included in the calculation of the gross floor area or building volume calculations in the approved building plans; the plans did not distinguish between the upper and the lower levels of the spaces in question (and it was agreed that the upper levels were common parts); the plans suggested that the relevant structures (in their entirety) were intended to house lift machinery; and at the time of the first assignment there was no means of access to the lower levels of the voids ([29] – [30]).

Michael Lower

The limited role of admissible background in the case of registered documents

February 10, 2014

In Cherry Tree Investments Ltd v Landmain Limited ([2012] EWCA Civ 736, CA (Eng)) C had granted a charge of property to D pursuant to the terms of a facility agreement. The facility agreement extended the statutory power of sale in section 101(3) of the Law of Property Act 1925 by providing that the power of sale could be exercised at any time after the execution of the charge. This extension of the statutory power of sale did not appear in the charge. The charge was registered at the Land Registry but the facility agreement was not registered. D sold the property to L in exercise of the power of sale. It could only do so if the statutory power of sale had been extended as set out in the facility agreement. No claim was made for rectification of the charge. The primary question was whether the power of sale implied into the charge could be ‘interpreted’ in such a way as to include the extension found in the facility agreement. The English Court of Appeal decided (Arden LJ dissenting) that the charge could not be so interpreted.

Lewison LJ thought that he was bound to hold that the facility letter was admissible evidence for the purposes of interpreting the charge. But it was still necessary to consider the effect of this: what use could be made of the facility letter ([104] and [128])? The fact that the charge was a document that would be registered at the Land Registry was highly significant. The factual background carries a different weight in such cases than it would in other sorts of contract:

‘The reasonable reader’s background knowledge would, of course, include the knowledge that the charge would be registered in a publicly accessible register upon which third parties might be expected to rely. In other words a publicly registered document is addressed to anyone who wishes to inspect it. His knowledge would include the knowledge that in so far as documents or copy documents were retained by the registrar they were to be taken as containing all material terms, and that a person inspecting the register could not call for originals. The reasonable reader would also understand that the parties had a choice about what they put into the public domain and what they kept private. He would conclude that matters which the parties chose to keep private should not influence the parts of the bargain that they chose to make public.’ ([130])

A little later, Lewison LJ observed:

‘Even the staunchest advocates of the court’s ability to consider extrinsic evidence stop short at saying that by the process of interpretation the court can insert whole clauses that the parties have mistakenly failed to include.’ ([132]).

The charge could not be interpreted in such a way as to confer the more expansive power of sale contained in the facility agreement.

Longmore LJ agreed with the conclusion and reasoning of Lewison LJ ([150]).

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

Holding over: parties at cross-purposes

June 5, 2013

In Shum Tsing Fai v Chiap Heng Cheng (HK) Ltd ([2001] HKEC 296, CFI) a fixed term tenancy came to an end. The tenant had an option to renew for a further two years but did not exercise it. As the tenancy approached its end, the parties discussed a new tenancy and agreed a rent below that specified in the option. The parties were at cross-purposes: the landlord thought that the tenant was, in effect if not formally, exercising the option. The tenant intended the arrangement to be temporary until it had bought replacement premises. The tenant gave notice to quit after a few months and the question was whether it was entitled to do so or whether it was bound for the full term envisaged by the option. It was decided that the tenant was a periodic tenant and had been entitled to give notice to quit.

The court thought that the objective intention was for a temporary arrangement and rejected a tenancy at will or at sufferance. This left the periodic tenancy. It inferred, from the monthly rental payments, an intention to create a monthly periodic tenancy.

As to this, Cheung J. said:

‘Although reference is made [in Woodfall] to the word “presumption”, ultimately it is a matter of inference from all the circumstances of the case as to the nature of the tenancy.’

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

Construction of notice exercising break right

April 25, 2013

Trafford MBC v Total Fitness (UK) Ltd ([2002] EWCA Civ 1513, CA (Eng)) concerned a six year lease. L had the right to bring it to an end at any time by giving two weeks’ notice. L purported to exercise this right on 8 October 2001 by giving 17 days’ notice. The notice confirmed ‘for the avoidance of all doubt’ that it would take back possession at the end of 24th October 2001. T contended that the notice was fatally flawed: it gave two inconsistent expiry dates and T could not know which was intended (T relied on the ‘rule’ in Lester v Garland to the effect that the date of giving the notice is to be excluded from the expiry period so that it was not clear whether the notice was intended to take effect on the 24th or the 25th October).

T failed. It was open to the draftsman to expressly provide that the date of giving the notice was to be included in the 17 day period ( to expressly disapply the Lester v Garland approach). In effect, this was what had been done by making it clear ‘for the avoidance of all doubt’ that the notice would take effect on 24th October 2001. The notice was clear and valid.

Break clauses and notices to quit: validity determined by reference to principles of contractual interpretation

April 24, 2013

In Mannai Investment Co Ltd v Eagle Star Life Assurance Co Ltd ([1997] A.C. 749, HL) two leases contained break clauses giving T the right to terminate the lease by a notice to expire on 13 January 1995. By mistake, the notice to quit referred to 12 January 1995. The question was whether the notice was valid or not. By a majority, the House of Lords held that it was.

The majority emphasised that notices exercising break right belong to the same class of legal document as notices to quit. The modern approach is to interpret a notice in the same way as any other contractual document would be interpreted. An older, stricter approach that saw these documents as being a class apart and as demanding strict compliance for validity (Hankey v Clavering) was disapproved.

Lord Steyn made the following points:

1. This was not a case in which the relevant break clause made the inclusion of certain content in the notice a condition of validity;

2. In general:

‘The question is not how the landlord understood the notices. The construction of the notices must be approached objectively. The issue is how a reasonable recipient would have understood the notices. and in considering this question the notices must be construed taking into account the relevant objective contextual scene.’ (768)

3. The fact that a notice exercising a break right has only one purpose is relevant to the interpretation of the notice:

‘Prima facie one would expect that if a notice unambiguously conveys a decision to determine a court may nowadays ignore immaterial errors which would not have misled a reasonable recipient.’ (768)

4. Break clauses and notices to quit ‘belong to the general class of unilateral notices served under contractual rights reserved.’ (768) Even if they contain an error they may be valid if they are sufficiently clear and unambiguous to leave a reasonable recipient in no doubt as to how and when they are intended to operate.

In this case, a reasonable recipient would have appreciated that the tenant wished to determine the lease on 13 January.

‘The question is not whether 12 January can mean 13 January: it self-evidently cannot. The real question is a different one: does the notice construed against its contextual setting unambiguously inform a reasonable recipient how and when the notice is to operate under the right reserved? As Lord Hoffmann has observed we no longer confuse the meaning of words with the question of what meaning in a particular setting the use of words was intended to convey.’ (772)

Lord Steyn cautioned against drawing the wrong conclusion:

‘I do not accept the extreme argument of counsel for the tenant that whenever a notice to determine refers to a break clause, and whatever the other circumstances of the case, the notice must be valid. That goes too far. One can easily conceive of much weaker cases where the test posed above could not be satisfied.’ (773)

Lord Hoffman, too, emphasised that the normal principles of contractual interpretation had to be applied and that according to these the notice in the present case was clearly valid.

Lord Clyde said:

‘The standard of reference is that of the reasonable man exercising his common sense in the context and in the circumstances of the particular case. It is not an absolute clarity or an absolute absence of any possible ambiguity which is desiderated. To demand a perfect precision in matters which are not within the formal requirements of the relevant power would in my view impose an unduly high standard in the framing of notices such as those in issue here. While careless drafting is certainly to be discouraged the evident intention of a notice should not in matters of this kind be rejected in preference for a technical precision.’ (782)