When construing a restrictive covenant, a careful analysis of its various components is needed to understand its true effect, and indeed, whether it is effective at all.
For example, one covenant in Toorak dating back to the 1960s, purported to prevent part of the land from being developed to more than one storey. The sole beneficiary was the neighbouring land to the south. The dwelling had been constructed on the assumption the covenant was valid. However, close consideration of the chronology revealed that the purported covenantee had already sold the benefitted land by the time the covenant was signed and registered. The Supreme Court therefore agreed that the covenant was unenforceable, given that the covenantee had lost his ability to enter into the agreement at the time the covenant was purportedly made.
In another case, a restrictive covenant in Altona had been the subject of extensive advertising in an application to modify what was believed to be a single dwelling restriction. However, closer examination revealed that the covenant suffered from the same flaw that was the subject of the following comment by Morris P in Thornton v Hobsons Bay City Council:
11 In the present case the transferor has sought to identify the land to be benefited by reference to land remaining untransferred in a particular certificate of title. That method of identification purports to be a precise method. It follows, as Ms Tooher submitted, that there is less scope in such circumstances to use surrounding circumstances to identify the benefited land. The problem is that, at the time the transfer was made on 25 April 1953, certificate of title volume 6836, folio 089 was no longer in existence, it having been cancelled on 15 September 1952. Thus at that time there was no land remaining untransferred in that certificate of title. Hence notwithstanding the exactitude with which the draftsman of the covenant sought to achieve, in fact all he has achieved is a nonsense.
The Supreme Court agreed that the restrictive covenant was a nonsense and declared the restrictive covenant unenforceable.
A degree of uncertainty now surrounds surprisingly common covenants that purport to require plans to be approved by a now deceased person or deregistered corporation. In Crest Nicholson Residential (South) Ltd v McAllister the approval of the vendor, in that case a company, was required for any construction on the subject land. The vendor company had subsequently been dissolved, and given the lapse of time could no longer be re-registered. Neuberger J noted that reading the restriction as now absolute, conformed with its strict literal interpretation. However, he found that the restriction was discharged now that the vendor could not consent. Crest Nicholson was said to be “strongly persuasive” in 196 Hawthorn Road Pty Ltd v Duszniak.
It should not be assumed that you will necessarily need to apply to the Supreme Court to have a covenant removed for reasons of defect or express limitation. For example, a covenant on the Mornington Peninsula was expressed to be for the benefit of the original vendor, its successors and transferees. The Covenant did not identify the land to be benefitted by the restriction contained in the Covenant. A letter to the Registrar of Titles was sufficient to have the covenant removed through the exercise of the Registrar’s powers under section 106 of the Transfer of Land Act 1958.
(04) 1122 0277
 Re Thaqi: S ECI 2020 01338.
  VCAT 383.
 Re Tran S CI 2018 02425.
  1 ALL ER 46,  (Neuberger J).
  VSC 235.
A common challenge in settling an application to modify a restrictive covenant pursuant to section 84 of the Property Law Act 1958 is dealing with beneficiaries’ concerns that “if we agree to this application, future developers will rely on it as a precedent”.
Practitioners should be aware that most, if not all, judges are prepared to accommodate such concerns by spelling out in detail, why a modification in one case, should not be seen as a precedent for similar applications in the future.
A good example is the recent decision of Mukhtar AsJ in Tabrizi v Pedler & Ors S ECI 2019 05629 (3 July 2020) who took care to explain why the future applications might be considered differently:
In my judgment I think there are enough features of this application to say that on the confines of the peculiar or particular facts of this case, there is no good reason to refuse the consent order as sought. One cannot presage what other landowners in this neighbourhood or commercial developers may attempt to do in the future with this or any other application for a modification of a single dwelling covenant. However, because of the peculiar facts here, and in fairness to the defendants, what ought be stated here is that this decision is confined to its unique facts and not attributable to any neighbourhood-wide change to the neighbourhood that alters its predominant character as a single dwelling area.
Needless to say, there will need to be distinguishing characteristics in the application to attract such commentary by the Court, but most applications typically enjoy some form of distinguishing feature in order to be seriously considered for modification in the first place.
For the time being, it is business as usual with the Supreme Court, insofar as the judges and their associates are still processing s84 applications, typically on the papers.
This may change at any time, with the imminent introduction of stage 2 of the COVID-19 shutdown in Victoria.
We are yet to know how trials are going to be processed, but there is a commitment amongst the legal and related professional communities to continue operating in a manner where those operations are consonant with sound public health outcomes.
Trials may well proceed either by way of video conferencing or subject to social distancing protocols such as having a limited number of people in the Court room at any one time.
I’ll update with further developments as they become known.
Quite a few changes are now underway in Lonsdale Street, triggered in part by the retirement of Derham AsJ and the never-ending number of applications to vary covenants pursuant to section 84 of the Property Law Act 1958. Amongst these changes is the appointment of Judicial Registrars to hear first returns to determine the extent of notice to beneficiaries and the welcome return of Efthim AsJ to hear restrictive covenant and other cases in Court 2.
The focus of the Court seems to be on clearing a backlog of unpublished decisions and otherwise improving the speed with which with covenant cases are resolved. While these steps are good for the efficient conduct of the business of the court, the faster pace of hearings also places a greater obligation on practitioners to ensure that draft orders and submissions are forwarded to the judge’s associate a clear day or two in advance of the hearing, and with even greater attention to detail. The court appears to be particularly grateful for short written submissions to accompany applications on their first return.
The retirement of Derham AsJ is the end of an era for the restrictive covenant jurisdiction. His Honour presided over a veritable renaissance of restrictive covenant modifications that arguably began with Morris J’s analysis of what amounts to “substantial injury” in Stanhill v Jackson  VSC 169 and his Honour’s summary of how to construe a restrictive covenant in Clare v Bedelis  VSC 381 has likely been cited in every contested s84 application since its publication.
A new set of guidelines for practitioners is also believed to be awaiting finalisation that may lead to further efficiencies in procedure.
In April 2019, in Re: EAPE (Holdings) Pty Ltd  VSC 242, the Supreme Court found that when advancing a case for the modification of a single dwelling covenant, it is legitimate to say that the proposal for modification should be compared against a rooming house–an as-of-right land use arguably providing accommodation to the lowest end of the rental market.
This is potentially significant, because until this time, the comparator typically used in argument before the Court is a large single dwelling that would not need planning permission. In other words, applicants often argue:
– I can build this large house without modifying the covenant;
– given that my proposal for two or more dwellings is lower in impact than a large house, I should be allowed to modify the covenant for there is, relatively speaking, no substantial injury to beneficiaries by the covenant being so modified.
Now, applicants before the Court can legitimately invite the court to compare the proposed modification with the impact that beneficiaries might experience if the land was instead developed and used as a rooming house, with the increased activity, noise and parking impacts that routinely accompany such uses.
In EAPE the Court placed considerable emphasis on the plaintiff’s apparently genuine intentions to pursue the rooming house option in the event the modification was not granted, but one can imagine judges in future cases simply being convinced that a rooming house was a reasonably likely outcome of its refusal to modify a covenant: see Prowse v Johnston  VSC 4 at 120.
It has been estimated that there may be as many as 35,000 covenants created by in Victoria by the Urban Land Authority, or statutory corporations that have carried on similar functions, including:
- Urban Land Corporation;
- Urban or Regional Land Corporation;
- Victorian Urban Development Authority; or
- Development Victoria.
These restrictive covenants can contain a combination of orthodox and unorthodox covenants, for instance:
i) there will not be erected on the land hereby transferred any building other than one house and usual outbuildings; and
ii) such house will not have less than seventy five percent (75%) of all external walls (save for provisions of windows, doors, fascias and gables) of brick or brick veneer; and
iii) such house will be for his own occupation; and
iv) he shall occupy the said house as his home for a period of at least five years.
Significantly, these covenants are unlike ordinary covenants that transfer the benefit to enforce a covenant to other landowners in the neighbourhood. Rather, the covenants are created by statute, and the only party with the ability to enforce the covenant may be the statutory corporation that created the covenant (or its successor).
However, officers of those authorities have expressed the view that they will not consent or assist in the removal of existing covenants. That is, they say, a matter for the responsible authority pursuant to the Planning and Environment Act 1987–typically Councils, or VCAT on review.
Yet at least one Council says it has no ability to remove the covenant, via the Planning and Environment Act 1987. Thus, there seems to be a lack of consensus on how these covenants may be modified or removed.
However, we now know that the Supreme Court of Victoria does have the power, and is prepared to modify statutory covenants in appropriate circumstances. See Re: Hamdan S CI 2018 02512.
An article from the June 2018 Victorian Planning and Environmental Law Association’s quarterly journal, VPELA Revue, entitled “Changes to Supreme Court Practice”–a review of recent changes to Supreme Court practice in the modification and removal of restrictive covenants.
At the second return of an application for the modification of a restrictive covenant (usually, the first hearing after notification to beneficiaries), the judge may ask whether you wish to set the matter down for mediation.
If one or both parties agree, the judge may add the following words into the draft orders:
– The proceeding be referred to a mediator to be agreed between the parties or in default of agreement to be appointed by the Court, such mediation is to take place by [date].
– The mediation must be attended by those persons who have the ultimate responsibility for deciding whether to settle the dispute and the terms of any settlement and the lawyers who have ultimate responsibility to advise the parties in relation to the dispute and its settlement.
– Subject to the terms of this order, the solicitor for the plaintiff must, after consultation with all parties, deliver to the mediator a copy of this order and copy of any other relevant information, and take all steps necessary to ensure that the mediation commences as soon as practicable.
– The mediator not later than 3 days after conclusion of the mediation, report back to the Court as to whether the mediation is finished.
– Subject to any further order, the costs of the mediation shall be paid in the first instance by the plaintiff.
For plaintiffs, the benefit of mediating is the prospect of an almost certain outcome in litigation that they are likely to end up financing. It also perhaps comes as the unwelcome news arrives that the case is going to be contested.
For defendants, it may also mean that an acceptable outcome may be achieved, without the expense and inconvenience of having to prepare for a contested hearing.
For both parties, mediation permits creative settlement opportunities that might not be possible in an otherwise binary decision making process. For instance, in Rosenwald v Hogg, Macaulay J observed:
This is a classic example of a case where the parties may well have been able to achieve a ‘compromise’ result, by negotiation and agreement, which the court simply could not give them. That opportunity was given to the parties at the commencement of this case when I pointed out the finely balanced difference between them having regard to their respective experts’ opinions.
One example may be the articulation of building envelopes as occurred in this case.
Another example might be the drafting of a side agreement, for instance, in relation to the retention of protection of vegetation during the development process. Bear in mind, however, that side agreements may be personal and of little use if the relevant land is subsequently sold. Covenants, of course, mostly run with the land.
A mediation will usually take only half a day. They normally commence with the mediator explaining that what is said in the mediation is ‘without prejudice’–that is, it cannot be referred to in open Court. And then the parties may take a few minutes each setting out what they hope to achieve from the mediation. The mediator may then take the parties aside to ‘caucus’ or endeavour to ascertain the underlying objectives of importance to each party. Identifying these underlying issues is likely to assist in achieving an outcome that is acceptable for everyone.
The choice of the mediator is important. Someone who has experience in the jurisdiction is more likely to be able to fairly and accurately assess the likely range of outcomes at a contested hearing. Three names include:
- Bill Rimmer, +61 3 9225 7222; https://www.greenslist.com.au/barrister/William-Rimmer
- David Lloyd, +61 3 9225 6958; https://www.vicbar.com.au/profile/6947 or
- myself, Matthew Townsend, +61 3 9225 8558 https://www.listgbarristers.com.au/barristers/matthew-townsend
A mediator is not there to provide legal advice to act as a party’s advocate. That said, there may be some practical benefit in having a neutral third party explaining the process in objective terms. For unrepresented parties, and for those quite unfamiliar with the process of modifying a restrictive covenant, this may be of particular assistance.
For applicants, it is important to remember that simply because you have a mediated agreement doesn’t mean the Court will necessarily accept that agreement by modifying the covenant in the manner agreed. You may still need to convince a judge that you have established an absence of substantial injury on the totality of beneficiaries, and that there are no other reasons why the judge should exercise his or her residual discretion against the modification proposed. However, a mediated outcome, in most cases, will certainly assist in proving to the Court an absence of substantial injury and one might suggest that it’s still better to fail here, than after the expense of a contested hearing.
Choosing a lawyer to run your application to either modify or remove a restrictive covenant, or to defend such an application, can have considerable bearing on both the substantive outcome of the proceedings and, of course, costs.
In this sub-specialty of property law, only a relatively small number of law firms have had much recent experience, particularly in contested applications.
Getting your choice of lawyer wrong can mean up to twelve months lost by pursuing the wrong type of application or perhaps losing an opportunity to recover a proportion of your costs.
The best means of choosing the right solicitor (or barrister) is to look through recent published cases to see: who has been acting for who, where the relevant land was located; and in which jurisdiction the case was run.
The following search from the independent Australian Legal Information Institute lists all Victorian cases (Supreme Court proceedings, VCAT hearings and panel hearings) using the search phrase “restrictive covenant”:
The following is a similar search narrowed to Supreme Court proceedings:
And the following is a similar search narrowed to VCAT proceedings:
However, be careful about making predetermined judgements about which jurisdiction in which to commence your application. The decision to pursue an application under the Planning and Environment Act 1987 vis a vis the Property Law Act 1958 may prove to be of considerable importance and you should be confident your lawyer is familiar with the advantages and disadvantages of both avenues.