Construing a covenant: a restatement of principles

In the decision of Clare & Ors v Bedelis [2016] VSC 381 AsJ Derham has usefully restated the principles for construing or interpreting a covenants:

(a)               subject to the qualifications mentioned below, the ordinary principles of interpretation of written documents apply.[1]  The object of interpretation is to discover the intention of the parties as revealed by the language of the document in question;[2]

(b)               the words of a restrictive covenant:

(i)     should generally be given their ordinary and everyday meaning and not be interpreted using a technical or legal approach.[3]  Evidence may be admitted, however, as to the meaning of technical engineering, building or surveying terms and abbreviations;[4]

(ii)  must always be construed in their context, upon a reading of the whole of the instrument,[5]  and having regard to the purpose or object of the restriction;[6]

(c)                importantly, the words of a restrictive covenant should be given the meaning that a reasonable reader would attribute to them.[7]   The reasonable reader may have knowledge of such of the surrounding circumstances as are available.[8]   These circumstances may be limited to the most obvious circumstances having regard to the operation of the Torrens system and the fact that the covenant is recorded in the register kept by the Registrar of Titles.[9]  As the High Court held in Westfield:

The third party who inspects the Register cannot be expected, consistently with the scheme of the Torrens system, to look further for extrinsic material which might establish facts or circumstances existing at the time of the creation of the registered dealing and placing the third party (or any court later seized of a dispute) in the situation of the grantee…[10]

(d)              the words of the covenant should be construed not in the abstract but by reference to the location and the physical characteristics of the properties which are affected by it,[11] and having regard to the plan of subdivision and, depending on the evidence, possibly having regard to corresponding covenants affecting other lots in the estate;[12]

(e)               because the meaning of particular words depend upon their context (including the purpose or object of the restriction in a covenant) cases that consider similar words provide no more than persuasive authority as to the meaning of words in a different document.[13]  Further, the decisions upon an expression in one instrument are of very dubious utility in relation to another;[14]

(f)                 the rules of evidence assisting the construction of contracts inter partes, of the nature explained by Codelfa Constructions Pty Ltd v State Rail Authority of New South Wales,[15] do not apply to the construction of easements and covenants;[16]

(g)               if the meaning remains in doubt after other rules of interpretation have been applied, as a last resort or ‘very late resort,’ the covenant should be construed contra proferentem, that is, against the covenantor;[17]

(h)               whether a covenant has been breached or not is a question of fact to be determined according to the facts of the case and in the light of the actual language in which the restrictive covenant is framed;[18] and

(i)                 generally speaking, the proper construction of an instrument intended to have legal effect is a question of law, not fact.[19]  On the other hand, the meaning of a particular word or expression in such an instrument may be a question of fact, particularly where the Court has already determined as a matter of construction that the word or expression is used in its ordinary and natural meaning.[20]

Matthew Townsend
Owen Dixon Chambers
http://www.vicbar.com.au/profile?3183
townsend@vicbar.com.au (04) 1122 0277
Liability limited by a scheme approved under Professional Standards Legislation

[1]               Bradbrook and Neave’s Easements and Restrictive Covenants, AJ Bradbrook and SV MacCallum, 3rd Ed, (‘Bradbrook & Neave’), [15.3].

[2]               Bradbrook & Neave; But see Prowse v Johnston & Ors [2012] VSC 4 at [55]–[58] (‘Prowse’).

[3]               Re Marshall and Scott’s Contract [1938] VLR 98, 99; Ferella v Otvosi (2005) 64 NSWLR 101 at 107 (‘Ferella’); Ex parte High Standard Constructions Limited (1928) 29 SR (NSW) 274 at 278 (‘High Standard’); Prowse at [52].

[4]               Phoenix Commercial Enterprises Pty Ltd v City of Canada Bay Council [2010] NSWCA 64 at [157]-[158](‘Phoenix); Westfield Management Limited v Perpetual Trustee Company Limited, (2007) 233 CLR 528 at [44] (‘Westfield’).

[5]               Ferella at 107; High Standard at 278;  Prowse at [52].

[6]               Pacific Carriers Ltd v BNP Paribas (2004) 218 CLR 451 at [22], 462 per Gleeson CJ, Gummow, Hayne, Callinan and Heydon JJ); Phoenix at [148]-[149].

[7]               Phoenix at [157]-[158].   

[8]               These are limited by the decision in Westfield and subsequent decisions: see Sertari Pty Ltd v Nirimba Developments Pty Ltd [2007] NSWCA 324; Berryman v Sonnenschein [2008] NSWSC 213; Shelbina Pty Ltd v Richards [2009] NSWSC 1449; Neighbourhood Association DP No 285220 v Moffat [2008] NSWSC 54; Fermora Pty Ltd v Kelvedon Pty Ltd [2011] WASC 281 at [33]-[34]; Prowse at [58].

[9]               Westfield at [37]-[42]; Sertari at [15]; Phoenix at [148]-[158].

[10]             Westfield at [39].

[11]             Richard van Brugge v Hare [2011] NSWSC 1364 at [36]; Big River Paradise Ltd v Congreve [2008] NZCA 78 at [23].

[12]             Sertari Pty Ltd v Nirimba Developments Pty Ltd [2007] NSWCA 324 at [16]; See Fermora Pty Ltd v Kelvedon Pty Ltd [2011] WASC 281 at [33]; Prowse at [58].

[13]             Bradbrook & Neave at [15.4] citing Christie & Purdon v Dalco Holdings Pty Ltd [1964] Tas SR 34 at 41.

[14]             Ferella at [17]; In Re Marshall and Scott’s Contract [1938] VLR 98, at 100 where Mann CJ observed that small differences of language can be of great importance and that the decision often turns on them; Prowse at [54].

[15]             (1982) 149 CLR 337.

[16]             Westfield; Ryan v Sutherland [2011] NSWSC 1397 at [10]; Prowse at [57].

[17]             Ferella at [21]; Bradbrook & Neave’s at [15.6].

[18]             Per Herring CJ in In Re Bishop and Lynch’s Contract [1957] VLR 179 at 181; Prowse at [53].

[19]             See, in relation to statutes, S v Crimes Compensation Tribunal [1998] 1 VR 83 at 88 (J D Phillips JA).  See, in relation to written contracts, FAI Insurance Co Ltd v Savoy Pty Ltd [1993] 2 VR 343 at 351 (Brooking J); O’Neill v Vero Insurance Ltd [2008] VSC 364 [10] (Beach J); Prowse at [53].

[20]             See S v Crimes Compensation Tribunal [1998] 1 VR 83 at 88; cf Phoenix at [158]; Prowse at [53].

One thought on “Construing a covenant: a restatement of principles

  1. Pingback: Construing a covenant: a restatement of principles | Australian Law Blogs

Comments are closed.