Posts Tagged ‘time of the essence’

Failure to pay deposit by stipulated date: the seller did not waive the breach by cashing a cheque for the deposit after communicating an intention to treat the agreements as terminated

February 11, 2017

In Fast Happy Ltd v Lee Chun Pong Bruce ([2017] HKEC 121) the plaintiffs entered into provisional sale and purchase agreements (‘the agreements’) for the sale of land by the plaintiffs to the defendants. The initial deposit was to be paid in two instalments on dates specified in the agreements.

The cheque for the first instalment was not honoured when presented. The cheque for the second instalment was proffered after the date specified in the agreements. Time was of the essence for making the payments.

The sellers’ solicitors sent an email and a letter to the estate agents handling the transactions terminating the agreements on the grounds of the buyers’ breach. The plaintiffs’ bank then re-presented the cheque for the first instalment of the deposit and it was honoured.

The defendants registered the agreements at the Land Registry and the plaintiffs sought the vacation of these registrations. The defendants argued that the plaintiffs had waived the breach by presenting the cheque for the first instalment of the deposits after the defendant’s breach.

The defendant’s argument failed. The sellers were entitled to cash the deposit cheque and to forfeit the deposit without waiving the breach. This was especially the case since the sellers had by then given clear notice of their intention to treat the agreement as having come to an end.

This was a case where the estate agents were acting for both parties and not only for the sellers. Thus notice of termination given to the agents was an effective way of giving notice to the defendants.

Michael Lower

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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

Completion: the duties to deliver executed assignment and to pay the completion monies trigger each other (in the absence of a contrary stipulation)

November 3, 2014

In Chong Kai Tai Ringo v Lee Gee Kee ([1997] HKLRD 461, PC) D entered into a provisional sale and purchase agreement to sell a flat in Hong Kong to P. P was at the end of a chain of sub-sales and, as a result, the purchaser under a contract higher up the chain was to execute the assignment to P. Time was of the essence for completion. The contract included a liquidated damages clause in the event of default by either party. P failed to provide the completion monies by the time stipulated for completion. D argued that this was a repudiatory breach and it purported to accept it. P sought specific performance.

The Privy Council (Lord Hutton giving the only full judgment) held that the obligations to pay the purchase price and to deliver the executed assignment are to be carried out simultaneously (in the absence of an express or implied agreement to the contrary). D was not in a position to deliver the executed assignment by the completion date because it had not arranged for the purchaser higher up the chain to execute the assignment (D anticipated dealing with this after completion). Since it was not ready to complete, P’s duty to provide the completion monies was not triggered.

The result was not to bring the contract to an end but that time ceased to be of the essence  and completion was to take place within a reasonable time. D was not entitled to rescind.

D argued that the liquidated damages clause meant that specific performance was no longer available. The Privy Council declined to consider whether this was true as a general proposition. D’s argument failed because it had not offered to pay the liquidated damages. In that case, the liquidated damages clause did not prevent the award of specific performance.

Michael Lower

‘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

Seller entitled to rescind and recover deposit where deposit cheque is accidentally dishonoured and time is of the essence?

October 20, 2014

In Howarth Cheung Natalie Jane YS v Tsang Hong Kwang Ok ([2014] HKEC 1683, CA) S entered into a preliminary agreement for the sale of property to P. The agreement provided for P to pay a deposit of just under 5% of the purchase price. The cheque was not honoured as the bank thought that there was a discrepancy between the signature on the cheque and the specimen signature that they had. S accepted the repudiatory breach and P sought specific performance. S counter-claimed for payment of the deposit.

It was accepted by both parties that time for payment of the deposit is of the essence in Hong Kong even in the absence of an express stipulation to this effect. So the delay in paying the deposit was a repudiatory breach ([4.1] – [4.5] per Cheung JA). P argued, however, that the contract included an implied term to the effect that the stipulation as to time was suspended because the extraordinary event that had happened was beyond P’s control. This failed. The obligation was specified in clear terms ([5.9]); S should not be affected by disputes between P and her agent ([5.10]); the term was not needed to give business efficacy to the contract ([5.11]); nor was it capable of clear expression ([5.12]).

P argued that she should be granted equitable relief from termination of the agreement. This was rejected. First, the point had already been dealt with by the Privy Council in Union Eagle ([6.1]). The Australian courts took a different approach and granted equitable relief where the delay was occasioned by fraud, mistake, accident or surprise (and the High Court of Australia considered the ambit of these exceptions in Tanwar Enterprises Pty Ltd v Cauchi (2003) 201 ALR 359). Even if the Australian approach were followed, it would not allow for relief in the present case:

‘The parties themselves have stipulated the time for payment which is of the essence of the contract. The purchaser had chosen to pay by cheque which in law is in the nature of payment by cash. This by itself precludes any argument on suspension of this obligation. Further, the possibility of the bank not honouring the cheque is not beyond the reasonable contemplation of the parties as mishaps do happen. Hence payment of the deposit can be subject to an exculpatory provision which has not been sought for by the purchaser in the first place. As presently drafted, the payment term is not subject to the purchaser tendering another payment upon discovering that the cheque has not been made. In any event, HSBC is not a third party in the strict sense of the term but an agent of the purchaser. To decree relief will deprive the vendor of an essential right of the agreement. The whole circumstances just do not come within the ambit of the requirement for relief that, although the accident was not occasioned by the vendors who were innocent, it was sufficient of itself to render it unconscionable or inequitable for the vendors to insist upon its legal rights.’ ([6.20] per Cheung JA).

Finally, S could recover the unpaid deposit from P. Contractual damages aim to put S in the position that he would have been in had the contract been performed (and in that event the deposit would have been paid). Alternatively, the effect of the acceptance of a repudiatory breach is to discharge the parties from all executory obligations but does not affect rights and obligations that have already accrued (Damon Compania Naviera S.A. v. Hapag Lloyd International S.A. [1985] 1 WLR 435). This approach has been taken by the Hong Kong courts (for example, Sun Lee Kyoung Sil v Jia Weili [2010] 2 HKLRD 30).

Michael Lower