The Supreme Court has reaffirmed the principle in Re: WIthers [1970} VR 319, that in restrictive covenant cases, defendants are ordinarily entitled to their standard costs, even if they lose the contested proceedings.
In a carefully considered decision, in Wong v McConville & Ors (No.2)  VSC 282, AJ Derham rejected the plaintiff’s application for indemnity costs, notwithstanding that she made two “Calderbank offers”, or offers of compromise foreshadowing an application for indemnity costs should the defendants achieve a worse outcome at trial than the offer contained in the Calderbank letter.
Although a number of aspects of his Honour’s judgement turned on the particular facts of the merits hearing (see Wong v McConville & Ors  VSC 148), the decision underscores the difficulty Plaintiffs face when endeavouring to settle an application to modify or remove a restrictive covenant prior to a contested hearing.
Some principles emerge from the case:
Calderbank offers are unlikely to be effective before all relevant evidence has been circulated:
There are usually no pleadings in cases of this kind, and there were none in this case. At the time the offer was made, and closed, the defendants had not, and had not been required to, file their evidence, including expert evidence. Nor had significant evidence in response to the evidence of the defendants, notably the Supplementary Report of Mr Easton, been filed or served. Thus the stage at which the offer was made preceded a full consideration of the relevant material. The prime focus of that material was the expert opinion of Mr Gattini, upon whose views the defendants were well entitled to depend in considering the offer, and Mr Easton’s response to it in October 2013. Another important element of the defendants’ evidence was the evidence of Mr Zhang concerning the effects of the proposed modification on the amenity of his, and his family’s, occupation of the neighbouring land. The defendants were entitled to consider the entirety of the evidence when considering their position. [Emphasis added]
Additional time, relative to ordinary proceedings, should be allowed to consider a Calderbank offer given the difficulty of getting instructions from a large group of objectors:
30… 14 days was allowed. Considered in isolation, that time is not umeasonable. This factor, however, must be considered in this case in conjunction with the first factor. The ability of the defendants, as a group, to consider the offer and arrive at a reasoned view must necessarily have been affected by the fact that they are brought together as neighbours. They were apparently not otherwise associated with one another. They lived at quite separate locations within the subdivision. They were encouraged by the Court’s orders to combine their resources so as to reduce costs. This, I infer, was likely to make it more difficult and time consuming to arrive at a decision. This is a matter that the plaintiff’s advisers ought to have known. Having regard to the state of the evidence at the time, either the offer was made too early, or insufficient time was given for them to consider the offer. [Emphasis added]
A good deal of ingenuity will be needed to devise an offer that is both attractive to defendants, but that will bind future owners of the land
35. The submission by the defendants that the concessions offered by the plaintiff in relation to setbacks and landscaping, in each of the 8 August and 10 October offers, could not form any part of an order of the Court modifying the covenant, has particular significance in this case. In this regard, the plaintiff submitted that the setback provision in the offer of 8 August could be made the subject of a negative stipulation (for example, that any dwelling at the rear of the burdened land shall not be closer than three metres to the southern boundary). The plaintiff’s counsel also submitted that the other elements of the offers could also be the subject of negative stipulations. I do not think that this is correct. It is, in my view beyond human ingenuity to turn a positive agreement to plant tall screening plants along the western and southern boundaries of the land into a negative stipulation. It must be remembered in this context, that it is immaterial whether the wording of the covenant is positive or negative. What is essential is that the covenant is negative in substance: Shepherd Homes Ltd v Sandham (No 2). [Emphasis added]
Read as a whole, the decision does not suggest Calderbank letters will be of no use in restrictive covenant cases. Rather, it perhaps suggests that they are unlikely to be effective much earlier than immediately before trial and that considerable efforts will be needed to devise an offer that is unreasonable for the defendants to reject on the merits. Solicitors will need to do far more than offer to reimburse the defendants’ costs in exchange for their collective capitulation.
Owen Dixon Chambers
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