Posts Tagged ‘variation’

No oral modification clauses: Rock Advertising v MWB Business Exchanges Ltd (Part 2)

July 14, 2018

In Rock Advertising Ltd v MWB Business Exchanges Ltd ([2018] UKSC 24) the UK Supreme Court had to consider the effectiveness of a No Oral Modification (‘NOM’) clause (see here for Part 1 of the blog post about this case setting out the facts and the decision). This post considers the underlying principles that the judgments had to confront.

The clause in question provided:

‘This Licence sets out all the terms as agreed between MWB and Licensee. No other representations or terms shall apply or form part of this Licence. All variations to this Licence must be agreed, set out in writing and signed on behalf of both parties before they take effect.’

The UK Supreme Court had to consider whether the parties were bound by an orally agreed modification of the licence agreement between them.

There were two aspects to this question: (1) was the clause binding according so that oral modifications were of no legal effect; and (2) if the clause did not preclude oral modifications, whether a subsequent oral agreement purporting to modify the original agreement indicated an intention to dispense with the NOM clause.

When parties who have accepted a NOM clause agree to an oral modification, they have expressed two conflicting intentions. Which is to prevail? If the courts give effect to a NOM clause are they respecting or denying freedom of contract?

The essential objection to the idea that the clause always precludes effective oral modifications is that this would contravene freedom of contract: ‘Those who make a contract may unmake it. The clause which forbids a change may be changed like any other (Beatty v Guggenheim Exploration Co (1919) 225 NY 380, 387 – 388, Cardozo J.).

Nevertheless, Lord Sumption (and the majority of the Supreme Court) thought that the NOM clause was effective and that the subsequent oral modification was of no effect: ‘Party autonomy operates up to the point when the contract is made, but thereafter only to the extent that the contract allows … The real offence against party autonomy is the suggestion that they cannot bind themselves as to the form of any variation, even if that is what they have agreed.’ ([11])

Lord Sumption saw three good commercial justifications for NOM clauses:

  1. ‘it prevents attempts to undermine written agreements by informal means’;
  2. ‘it avoids disputes not just about whether a variation was intended but also about its exact terms’; and
  3. giving effect to NOM clauses: ‘makes it easier for corporations to police internal rules restricting the authority to agree [variations]’.

Lord Sumption thought that these justifications should carry weight since ‘the law of contract does not normally attempt obstruct the legitimate intentions of businessmen except for overriding reasons of public policy’ ([12]).

If the parties were to act on an oral variation in the belief that it was effective then estoppel might come into play but:

‘the scope of estoppel cannot be so broad as to destroy the whole advantage of certainty for which the parties stipulated when they agreed upon terms including the No Oral Modification clause. At the very least, (i) there would have to be some words or conduct unequivocally representing that the variation was valid notwithstanding its informality; and (ii) something more would be required for this purpose than the informal promise itself: see Actionstrength Ltd v International Glass Engineering In Gl En SpA’ ([2003] 2 AC 51′ ([16]).

Lord Briggs took a different line on the first of the two questions. He thought that it was conceptually impossible for the parties to impose a formalities requirement on themselves, ‘not to be free, by unanimous further agreement, to vary or abandon [the contract] by any method, whether writing, spoken words or conduct, permitted by the general law’ ([26]).

On the other hand, turning to the second question, Lord Briggs was of the view that ‘an agreed departure [from the NOM clause] will not lightly be inferred, where the parties merely conduct themselves in a non-compliant manner’ ([27]). So normally, as in the present case, the approach of the majority and that of Lord Briggs would lead to the same conclusion.

Where, however, there are circumstances, such as an urgent need to agree a variation without waiting for the production of a written variation, then Lord Briggs thought that an agreement to depart from the NOM clause might be inferred ([30]).

Michael Lower

 

 

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Variation of an express trust or a common intention constructive trust

September 24, 2017

In Insol Funding Company Ltd v Cowlam ([2017] EWHC 1822 (Ch)) Ms Cowlam and Mr Cowey began to co-habit in 1994 and had a son in 1995. They lived in a property owned by Ms Cowlam. They sold it and in 1998 they bought a new property to be the family home (‘the property’). The transfer of the property into their joint names recorded that they held it as beneficial joint tenants. They did not sign the transfer form.

The purchase of the property was funded by the proceeds of sale of Ms Cowlam’s home and by a mortgage. Initially, they each contributed to the repayment of the mortgage. Ms. Cowlam later injected further substantial capital sums into the property helping to pay off the mortgage and to finance improvement works.

In November 2001 the couple agreed that, in the light of Ms Cowlam’s greater contributions to the property, she had an 80% share and Mr Cowey had a 20% share.

Mr Cowey received GBP85,000 as a severance payment from his employers. He used this to finance his new business. He refused to use any part of it towards the property. He also made it clear that he did not intend to marry Ms Cowlam. From 2006, Ms Cowlam made nearly all of the mortgage payments. From 2007 onwards she made all of the payments.

The court had now to consider the extent of the respective beneficial interests of Ms Cowlam and Mr Cowie (since Mr Cowie’s charge was subject to an equitable charge in favour of Insol Funding Company Ltd).

The declaration in the 1998 transfer of the property to the couple would have been decisive had it been signed by the couple ([76]). It could not have been displaced by a common intention constructive trust ([77] – [79]). It could have been affected by proprietary estoppel ([79]).

The declaration was not enforceable, however, since it was not manifested and proved in writing signed by the parties as required by section 53(1)(b) of the Law of Property Act 1925 (cf Conveyancing and Property Ordinance, s. 5(1)(b)).

There was, however, a presumption of a beneficial joint tenancy under a common intention constructive trust given the domestic context and the fact that the title was in joint names ([86]). There was nothing here to rebut the presumption. The presumption reflected the reality that in 1997 Ms Cowlam and Mr Cowie were a mutually committed couple ([89]).

It is, however, possible for a common intention constructive trust to be varied where the later emergence of a different common intention can be proved.

Such a variation could be shown here. The principal evidence of this was the express agreement between the parties in 2001 that Ms Cowlam had an 80% share. The variation was confirmed by Mr Cowey’s refusal to apply the severance pay to the property and by Ms Cowlam’s assumption of sole responsibility, in fact, for the mortgage payments.

This latter fact was also the necessary detrimental reliance on the changed common intention. Detrimental reliance remains an essential element of the common intention constructive trust ([99]). The fact that Ms Cowlam was also motivated by a concern to maintain a home for her son did not affect this conclusion ([102]).

Ms Cowlam had an 80% beneficial share in the property. Master Bowles would have been prepared to reach the same conclusion had he relied on the principles of proprietary estoppel ([109] – [110]).

Michael Lower

Post-acquisition variation of existing common intention?

November 5, 2016

In Chen Lily v Yip Tsun Wah Alvan ([2016] HKEC 2326, CA) a couple acquired a flat in which they intended to cohabit prior to marriage. The property was acquired in their joint names. The couple broke up and the defendant moved out. There was a dispute as to their respective beneficial entitlements. At first instance it was held, following Stack v Dowden, that given that the couple had purchased the flat as their family home the presumption was that they were beneficial joint tenants.

The plaintiff accepted that the original common intention was that the property would be held as beneficial joint tenants. She argued, however, that there was a subsequent variation of the original common intention so that she would have a larger share of the beneficial ownership. The plaintiff argued that the original joint tenancy was agreed to by her on the basis that the defendant would be solely responsible for the costs of acquiring the flat (both the up-front cost and the mortgage payments). She contended that the common intention was varied when it became clear that she would have to contribute to the acquisition costs because the defendant could not meet them entirely out of his own resources.

The Court of Appeal, Yuen JA giving the main judgment, accepted that such a variation could be inferred from conduct. It was for the plaintiff to prove this variation but she was unable to do so. There was no evidence of any changed common intention. This was a domestic joint venture and attempts to draw up a ‘balance sheet’ based on contributions made were ill-conceived. There was no evidence of any change in the original common intention to hold as beneficial joint tenants.

The domestic joint venture context no longer applied after separation and an order requiring the defendant to bear half the mortgage costs after separation reflected the parties’ intention in the changed circumstances. In any event, the plaintiff was entitled to recover these on the basis that they were payments that were made in order to preserve the property for the parties’ joint benefit ([28.3]).

Michael Lower

Common intention constructive trust – abandonment after Jones v Kernott

December 1, 2014

In Quintance v Tandan ([2012] EWHC 4416 (Ch)) a co-habiting couple bought a property in joint names. They agreed to hold it on trust for themselves as beneficial tenants in common in equal shares. Q made no contribution to the purchase price (though he was a party to the mortgage). Within weeks of acquisition of the property, Q abandoned T. T made all the payments as she had already been doing up until then). When the property was sold, Q claimed that he was entitled to half of the net proceeds of sale. This claim failed. The approach taken in Jones v Kernott was applied. Q’s conduct showed an agreement to abandon his half share. This could be expressed either as a variation of the original agreement inferred from post-acquisition conduct or as the fair outcome where there was no evidence that the parties had formulated any actual intention ([17] per HH Judge Waksman QC)). The question of fairness is fact-sensitive ([19]).

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

Joint name case: quantifying the beneficial interest by reference to the whole course of conduct

November 1, 2011

Hapeshi v Allnatt ([2010] EWHC 392) concerned a dispute as to the ownership of property bought in the joint names of a mother and her son M. There was an agreement that another son, K, was to have a beneficial interest in the property (para. 42). There had been no express agreement that the mother, M and K would hold as beneficial joint tenants. Although there was an express agreement that the mother and M were to hold as beneficial joint tenants, the judge thought that the mother (who spoke no English) had not understood the idea and that the property was actually held by them as tenants in common (para. 47). The mother and M died and the court had to decide how the beneficial ownership was to be divided between K and the estates of the mother and M. The judge referred to Stack and, based on an assessment of the whole course of conduct, decided that the mother’s estate was entitled to 50% of the equity, and that K and M’s estate were each entitled to 25% of the equity. Megarry & Wade’s explanation of the current law as to when a common intention constructive trust can arise (Megarry & Wade (2008) para. 11-025) was quoted with apparent approval (para. 18). This passage suggests that a common intention constructive trust can be inferred from the parties’ whole course of conduct. The finding at para. 42 seems to mean, however, that (in relation to the primary question as to the existence of a constructive trust) there was no need to rely on the whole course of conduct in the present case.

Michael Lower