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
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[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].

Regularising a longstanding breach of a covenant

There is a little known provision in the Planning and Environment Act 1987 (Act) that has been interpreted to allow the modification of a covenant without notice if the covenant has been breached for a period of two years or more. Section 47(2) of the Act provides:

(2)          Sections 52 and 55 do not apply to an application for a permit to remove a restriction (within the meaning of the Subdivision Act 1988) over land if the land has been used or developed for more than 2 years before the date of the application in a manner which would have been lawful under this Act but for the existence of the restriction.

Section 52 of the Act deals with advertising of applications for permits to potentially affected third parties and section 55 deals with referral to bodies such as DELWP, Telstra, VicRoads and so on.

In Hill v Campaspe SC [2004] VCAT 1399, the Tribunal explained:

26           My conclusion is that if part of a covenant is breached, and the breach continues for 2 years without any action on the part of those having the  benefit of the covenant, it is reasonable that no notice should be given of  an application to vary by removal part of the covenant of which there is a breach.  But this exemption from notice pursuant to section 47(2) of the Act should not extend to the removal of any aspect of a covenant of which there is no breach.

Although the proper interpretation of this provision is not free from doubt, this decision suggests that if a use or development has been in breach of a covenant for more than two years, a permit can be granted to remove or modify the covenant to regularise the use or development. If you rely on this provision, the relevant responsible authority under the Act should issue the permit to remove or amend the covenant without notifying other beneficiaries. However, as DP Gibson cautions, the power is limited, so any application should be judiciously drafted.

Matthew Townsend
Owen Dixon Chambers
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townsend@vicbar.com.au (04) 1122 0277
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Building materials covenants still have work to do in Victoria

In Gardencity Altona v Grech [2015] VSC 538 Associate Justice Lansdowne refused an application to remove a covenant requiring the main walls of any dwelling or shop on the land to be of brick and/or stone, on the basis that it could not be said that the covenant was obsolete, or that it’s removal would not occasion substantial injury to those with the benefit of the covenant.

No single dwelling covenant attached to the land, and so arguably, only the building materials covenant prevented the applicant from realising his development plans for the land.

Instrumental to her Honour’s reasoning was that the defendants had a genuine preference for the use of brick as a building material.

Her Honour also left open the possibility that if it were shown that removal of the brick or stone restriction would make a taller building less likely that may be a further benefit conferred by the restriction and so further reason why the restriction is not obsolete.

Significantly, the application was made in a neighbourhood found to be predominantly constructed with brick or stone:

142 I find on the whole of the evidence that the buildings in the neighbourhood predominantly have their main walls constructed in brick or stone. As indicated, I refer in this finding to the actual incidence of the use of brick or stone, rendered or exposed, not the visual incidence of exposed brick. By ‘predominantly’ I mean well more than half, and on a broad estimate at least two thirds.

This feature of the case will require close scrutiny for parties wishing to rely on the decision as a precedent.

Of particular interest is that the Court declined to apply the 1956 decision of Jacobs v Greig [1956] VLR 597, often cited as authority for the proposition that a requirement to build out of brick requires ‘double brick’ construction rather than brick veneer:

134 Having regard to Mr McLaughlin’s expert evidence that brick veneer is now an acceptable use of brick in construction, I consider the particular outcome in Jacobs v Greig to be limited to its particular facts and time. On the principle identified in that case, I find that an ordinary resident of Victoria would consider the covenants here in question do not now exclude brick veneer. Accordingly, I find that for this case at least, brick veneer is ‘brick’ for the purposes of the covenants, and like covenants in the area.

This is a welcome development given that double brick is now rarely used in Victoria for reasons of cost and energy efficiency.

Matthew Townsend
Owen Dixon Chambers
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townsend@vicbar.com.au (04) 1122 0277
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The Court reaffirms defendants’ right to costs, notwithstanding Calderbank offers

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) [2014] 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 [2014] 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.

Matthew Townsend
Owen Dixon Chambers
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VCAT confirms 60(5) of the Planning and Environment Act 1987 is only useful for removing “deadwood” restrictive covenants

In the Red Dot decision of Giosis v Darebin CC [2013] VCAT 825, the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal comprised of Senior Member H. McM Wright QC confirmed that 60(5) of the Planning and Environment Act 1987 (Act) is useful for little more than removing “deadwood” or non-contentious restrictive covenants.

The case concerned an applicant seeking to review the decision of the Darebin City Council to refuse a permit to vary a restrictive covenant burdening land at 26 Maclagan Crescent, Reservoir (refer detail from Land Victoria, plan below).

The part of the covenant sought to be varied vary provides as follows.

(c)           no shops, laundries, factories or works shall be erected on this Lot and not more than one dwelling house shall be erected on any one Lot and the cost of constructing each house shall not be less than Four Hundred Pounds (inclusive of all architect’s fees and the cost of erecting any outbuildings and fences). [emphasis added]

The variation sought to replace the words “one dwelling house” with the words “three dwellings” thereby enabling the application to be made to redevelop the land for three units or dwellings.

There were five objectors, three of which were beneficiaries, all of whom lived 100m away from the burdened land.

The Council had refused the application on the grounds that:

The proposed variation to the Covenant … to allow not more than three dwellings to be constructed on the lot will result in detriment to beneficiaries and is therefore contrary to Section 60(5) of the Planning and Environment Act 1987.

60(5) of the Act provides:

(5)          The responsible authority must not grant a permit which allows the removal or variation of a restriction referred to in subsection (4) unless it is satisfied that –

(a)          the owner of any land benefitted by the restriction (other than a owner who, before or after the making of the application for the permit but not more than three months before its making, has consented in writing to the grant of a permit) will be unlikely to suffer any detriment of any kind (including any perceived detriment) as a consequence of the removal or variation of the restriction; and

(b)          if that owner has objected to the grant of the permit, the objection is vexatious or not made in good faith.

The Tribunal quoted from the second reading speech of the Planning and Environment (Amendment) Act 1993 (Vic) that inserted section 60(5) into the Act. This speech coined the term “deadwood” covenants or covenants without a continuing purpose:

The effect of the clause is that permits should be granted only for “dead wood” covenants if no owner benefitting from the covenant objects to its removal or variation. The alterative avenues to remove or vary a covenant remain in place, being applications to the Supreme Court under the Property Law Act 1958 and the preparation of a planning scheme amendment.

After quoting from Carabott and Ors v Hume City Council (1998) 22 AATR 261 that considered the effect of s60(5) of the Act in some detail, the Tribunal raised a particular flaw with the proposal before it—the absence of plans:

17           Unlike many applications for a variation of a restrictive covenant the present applicant has not concurrently sought approval for any particular form of development. This makes it difficult for the responsible authority to be satisfied as required by paragraph (a) because it must consider all possible forms of three unit multi-dwelling development and conclude that it is unlikely that any of them would cause detriment to a benefitting owner.

The Tribunal found in the absence of a firm development proposal there were an infinite number of three unit or three dwelling developments that could take place in consequence of the variation of the covenant and that it could not be “positively satisfied of a negative, namely, that there is unlikely to be detriment of any kind”:

21           … In my view it is simply not possible to say that none of those developments would be likely to have a detrimental impact of some kind on the benefitting properties, particularly the adjoining units at 28 Maclagan Crescent. The application for permit therefore falls at the first hurdle.

This case therefore underscores the limited utility of applying to VCAT to modify or remove a covenant in the face of heartfelt opposition on the part of one or more beneficiaries. The absence of plans simply made the task more difficult.

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It is permissible to look outside the Register of Titles to properly understand the effect of a restrictive covenant

In a decision handed down in May 2013, the Supreme Court of Victoria confirmed that it is permissible to refer to materials outside the Register of Titles to properly understand the effect of a restrictive covenant.

In Suhr v Michelmore [2013] VSC 284 the Plaintiffs contended that the following covenant was void for uncertainty:

[W]ill not at any time hereafter erect any building of a greater height than twelve feet above the present level of the land hereby transferred and any such [building] shall not be erected within five feet of the southern boundary of the lastmentioned land. [Emphasis added]

All parties agreed that the words “the present level of the land” was a reference to the level of the land in 1937. However, the plaintiffs contended that this level could not be determined on the face of the covenant and could not permissibly be determined by reference to extrinsic evidence.

Pagone J rejected this argument, noting that the covenant clearly directed a reader to something outside the register:

11           The cases decided since Westfield Management Ltd v Perpetual Trustee Company Ltd[1] do not compel the conclusion propounded by the plaintiffs, namely, that the covenant must be void for uncertainty because the determination of the “present level” of the land as at 1937 would require reference to something outside of the Register. Plainly it would be void for uncertainty if its terms were “so vague that it [was] really impossible of apprehension or construction” such as might occur by the omission of any criteria by which the words in the restrictive covenant are to be ascertained. In Miller v Evans[2] Hall J took what might be called a narrow view of the impact of Westfield as limiting the construction of the restrictive covenant to what appears on the “face of the document” and not “to go beyond the text”. A statement to much the same effect may be seen in Ryan v Sutherland.[3] Neither case concerned a restrictive covenant where its terms, as revealed on the face of the Register, directed a searcher unambiguously to something outside the Register.

The Court also noted an important difference between easements and restrictive covenants namely that the former require registration for validity whereas the latter are required to be notified but the recording does not establish or effect validity:

14           A restriction in a covenant to be valid must of course, be capable of operation. However, that does not mean that all of the terms of a covenant must appear on the Register. It is important to bear in mind that the function of registration on title of a restrictive covenant is to give notice rather than to create validity.

In the circumstances, the covenant was capable of being properly construed and that it was therefore permissible for the covenant to refer a reader to extrinsic materials, in particular the condition of the land itself:

17           The covenant in this case, without regard to extrinsic evidence, itself unambiguously directs attention to the land for its operation. The covenant, as was in my view correctly conceded, was valid when first made in 1937, and is not shown by the plaintiffs to have become invalid because of any material change to the land since then. A visual inspection of the land revealed by the numerous present and historical photographs tendered in evidence showed that there had been no construction on the land since 1937 beyond such work as was required to surface or resurface the land for use as a tennis court. Such variation to the level of the land as may have occurred by its surfacing or resurfacing is in my view de minimis. In my view the covenant is not void for uncertainty and does not offend the principles in Westfield.

Matthew Townsend
Owen Dixon Chambers
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townsend@vicbar.com.au (04) 1122 0277
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[1] (2007) 233 CLR 528

[2] [2010] WASC 127

[3] [2011] NSWSC 1397, [10] (Black J)