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

An overview of the process for modifying a restrictive covenant under the Property Law Act 1958 with precedents

Originating motion in support of an application to modify or remove a restrictive covenant

If you are yet to decide which process to follow to modify or remove a restrictive covenant, you should read this article first. If you have already elected to pursue the Property Law Act 1958 or Supreme Court process, then the following discussion is an overview, along with some precedents you may wish to use. These are updated regularly.

To begin, when applying to remove or modify a covenant in the Supreme Court, an Originating Motion will need to be prepared, setting out the relief sought. Most applications will only need a simple Originating Motion such as this, this, this or this. More complex examples that incorporate applications for declarations can be found here, herehere and here.

In determining how to phrase the modification sought, you should seek the minimum change necessary to achieve your objectives. That is, if you are after a dual occupancy, seek to replace ‘one dwelling’ with ‘two dwellings’ or draft a variation to allow a particular form of development. Although a practice has been to vary covenants with the addition of the following words “… but this covenant will not prohibit the construction of any development generally in accordance with the development described in the plans prepared by ABC Architects dated 1 July 2016 numbered A00 to A30”, this technique known as the ‘proviso’ has recently fallen out of favour with the Court because it means attaching plans to an instrument of transfer that may sit in the Office of Titles for decades to come. For this reason, orders that incorporate a simple building envelope are preferred. The broader point, however, is that if you ask for removal of the covenant and you don’t actually need it, you may attract unwarranted opposition. Moreover, the Court is increasingly unwilling to allow the complete removal of anything but obsolete covenants.

No summons is required at this time given that the first hearing will ordinarily be ex parte.

While the schedules of parties may have been removed from the attached examples, such a schedule is ordinarily not added until after the first return of the application, for the identity of the Defendants is not likely to be known until that time.

Overarching Obligations Certification and Proper Basis Certification should also be provided.

The Court will also want an application form completed.

A helpful Guide for Practitioners has also been prepared by the Supreme Court. This provides a checklist for applications and some draft precedents. This version was updated by the Court in December 2016, but to be prudent, download the latest version from the Supreme Court website. As at March 2018, it is understood that a review is presently underway.

Affidavit in support of and in opposition to an application to remove a single dwelling covenant

Current practice is to include an affidavit from the Plaintiff setting out the intended use and development for the property. If the land is to be sold, that should be disclosed and the Court given a realistic understanding as to how the land might be used or developed. An example of a Plaintiff’s affidavit can be found here. Traditionally, solicitors would give this information to the Court on instructions, but the emerging best practice is to hear from the applicant directly.

The Court will also want to know whether there has been previous applications to modify or remove a restrictive covenant on the land.

If the land is under contract, full details of that should be out too. Indeed, there is an argument to suggest that the application should be made under the name of the owner, even if the land is under contract.

The objective is to provide the Court with reliable information about the covenant; its purpose; the identification of land with the benefit of the covenant; and any relevant circumstances surrounding the application. Ensure you have an up-to-date certificate of title for the land and that the application is made on behalf of that party or those parties.

If relying on a map showing the location of beneficiaries, ensure the map is clear and legible and accurately reflects the location of beneficiaries.

The quickest and most cost-effective means of establishing who has the benefit and the burden of the relevant covenant is to call a professional title searching service such as Feigl and Newell on (03) 9629 3011. Dinah Newell should be able to provide you with a colour-coded cadastral plan such as this. However, you should double-check any advice you receive to identify transcription or other errors. Mistakes made at this point of the process can be expensive to fix later on.

Evidence in support and in opposition to the modification of a covenant

Once you have the above information, you can provide it to a town planner for the preparation of a planning report. Two further examples can be found here and here. This version was in support of an application to modify a covenant restricting the height of a dwelling and was praised by the Court for its clarity.

A letter instructing a town planner in a s84 application can be found here. If you want the names of planners to prepare evidence in support of (or against) an application to modify or remove a covenant, find someone who has given evidence in a contested s84 application. You can look through Supreme Court cases in relation to restrictive covenants here. Unfortunately, all too often, planners approach the task as if it were a common or garden planning application in VCAT relying on principles of public policy rather than analysing impacts on proprietary rights. This evidence will almost certainly be useless. Just as importantly, a ‘cheap’ planning report may end up becoming expensive once it becomes clear how much additional work it will create for the lawyers to fix it up. Applicants are reminded that the Supreme Court is not the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal where the tribunal member can patch up evidentiary gaps with their own knowledge and experience. In the Court, judges are confined to the evidence and if your planner does not adequately address the merits of the application in his or her written evidence, at trial, any significant omissions can be fatal.

A planning report should include photographs of the neighbourhood so the Court can gain a clear understanding of the context in which the application is being made.

It should also identify land within the parent title that has been varied since the time of the original subdivision, whether this is by order of the Court, planning permission or simply a breach that has gone unchallenged. Evidence demonstrating how that change has occurred, should be annexed to the planning report when available. Often this will be the pivotal evidence in the hearing and it must be done with precision.

Applicants are sometimes keen to lodge the application without planning evidence to save costs or time, but this risks the application being dismissed for being improperly supported. Any planning evidence should be before the Court at or before the first return of the application.

In some cases, lay evidence may be sufficient, at least in opposition to a modification or removal application. For instance, in Gardencity v Grech, the defendants were successful despite the absence of any expert evidence, for the Court found the plaintiff had failed to prove the absence of substantial injury. Evidence from the defendants in that case can be found here, here and here. An example of an expert report in support of an application to oppose a modification can be found here.

For a separate discussion about what to include in an objection, look here.

The first return of the application

At the first hearing of an application, which is usually done ex parte, the Court is likely to make further orders, similar to the following for a sign to be placed on the land and for direct notice to be given to the closest beneficiaries. This raises a tactical question for applicants for it may be prudent to suggest to the Court that all beneficiaries be notified directly rather risk attracting the attention of non-beneficiaries via a sign on the land.

On the other hand, the Court has been known to be content with simply a sign on the land and no direct notification if there are no nearby beneficiaries.

The Court now also directs applicants to notify the beneficiary at the address indicated on title and at the street address, if different.

As always, practitioners should attend the Court with draft orders, preferably forwarded to the Court a few days beforehand. The Court is now directing the attachment of Information for Objectors to the draft orders. An example can be found here.

The normal standards expected of practitioners in ex parte applications apply, and you should disclose to the Court any necessary countervailing facts even if they are not helpful to your case. For instance, if your client is running a simultaneous application to modify a covenant elsewhere (which isn’t a good idea), the Court will want to know about it.

The second return–if the application is opposed

Once advertising has been carried out, an affidavit should be prepared that describes the process undertaken, the nature of responses received and whether any beneficiaries objected. This is a short example and a more comprehensive example. Leave sufficient time to complete this as it may be time consuming.

A sample letter sent should be included in the affidavit–not a copy of each letter sent.

In answering queries from third parties, including beneficiaries, avoid giving advice about who has the benefit of the covenant. Inquirers need to make their own investigations about their entitlement to participate in the proceedings and the answer is not always clear. Record details of all phone calls and emails as a summary should also be included in the affidavit of compliance.

The Court may then make orders providing for the further provision of evidence and the listing of the matter for hearing. Two examples can be found here and here. The schedule of parties may have been removed.

Increasingly, covenant cases are being set down for mediation.

The second return–if the application is not opposed

If no person seeks to become a Defendant, draft orders should be provided to the Court along with an affidavit to that effect (see examples above). Try to get the papers to the court three or four days in advance of the directions hearing so that the judge has time to read them before the hearing. Two examples can be found here and here.

Significantly, you may find that despite the absence of any defendants, you may still need to make out your argument for modification on the basis of the evidence provided. For instance, in Re Jensen, and Re: Morihovitis the Court refused relief despite the absence of any objectors.

A written outline of argument setting out why the variation or removal of the covenant should be provided to the Court, preferably in advance of the hearing. Two examples can be found here and here.

Submissions in support and in opposition to application to modify a single dwelling covenant

If the matter runs to a contested hearing, you will need to prepare a more comprehensive outline of argument. Submissions in support of a modification application can be found here: from Wong v McConville (opening); Wong (closing) and Re: Milbex. Submissions in opposition to a modification application can be found here from Re Pivotel; Suhr v Michelmore; and Prowse v Johnstone; and Re: Morrison.

To improve your client’s costs position in the litigation, a Calderbank letter or offer of compromise may be appropriate to disturb the defendants’ presumption that their costs will be reimbursed by the Plaintiff at the conclusion of the proceedings, irrespective of the outcome. A Calderbank letter needs to be drafted with precision and according to established principles if it is to be effective. Examples can be provided upon request.

Needless to say, all applications are different and great care should be taken to ensure that the relevant matters are placed before the Court.

Matthew Townsend
Owen Dixon Chambers
https://www.vicbar.com.au/profile/6975
townsend@vicbar.com.au (04) 1122 0277
Liability limited by a scheme approved under Professional Standards Legislation.

The importance of Calderbank letters in restrictive covenant cases

The final orders in Suhr v Michelmore are a timely reminder of the importance of Calderbank letters in restrictive covenant cases, with the court ordering solicitor/client costs after an offer of compromise (in the form of a Calderbank letter) was made and rejected before the commencement of the merits hearing.

An informative paper on Calderbank offers and Offers of Compromise is attached, with thanks to my colleagues Daryl Williams SC and Andrew Downie.

The Supreme Court of Victoria changes the way applications to modify or remove a restrictive covenant are to be advertised

The practice of the Supreme Court is apparently now to require a sign on the land for most applications to modify or remove a restrictive covenant pursuant to s84 of the Property Law Act 1958, along with a letter giving direct notice of the application to nearby beneficiaries (see example of advertising orders, attached).

A sign on the land giving notice of use and development proposals has long been used in the planning jurisdiction by reason of s52(2)(d) in the Planning and Environment Act 1987 expressly contemplating this form of notice.

Historically, orders for the advertising of s84 applications were made by requiring the publication of a notice in The Age and a newspaper circulating generally in the area. However, with fewer people buying print newspapers and fewer still reading the public notice sections of those papers, there has long been a question as to this requirement’s effectiveness.

It remains to be seen what this exposure to foot traffic will mean to the number and quality of objections by beneficiaries.

However, applications to modify or remove a covenant pursuant to the Planning and Environment Act 1987 will still require both a sign on the land and a notice in the newspaper by reason of section 52(1AA):

(1AA)  If an application is made for a permit to remove or vary a registered restrictive covenant or for a permit which would authorise anything which would result in a breach of a registered restrictive covenant, then unless the responsible authority requires the applicant to give notice, the responsible authority must give notice of the application in a prescribed form—

                         (a)  by placing a sign on the land which is the subject of the application; and

                         (b)  by publishing a notice in a newspaper generally circulating in the area in which that land is situated. [Emphasis added]

Costs in restrictive covenant cases in the Supreme Court

Normally, the costs of proceedings under section 84 of the Property Law Act 1958 are paid for by the Plaintiff even where the Plaintiff succeeds in having a covenant modified or extinguished.

In Victoria, the leading case on this principle is arguably Re Withers [1970] VR 319-320 at 320 that held:

… unless the objections taken are frivolous, an objector in a proper case should not have to bear the bitter burden of his own costs when all he has been doing is seeking to maintain the continuance of a privilege which by law is his.

Re Withers applied the principle in Re Rose Bay Bowling and Recreation Club Ltd (1935) 52 WN (NSW) 77, where Long Innes C.J. in Eq. held:

This case is a case in which the applicant has succeeded and objectors have failed. The legal right, however, of the objectors is clear and admitted, unlike the case of In re Edwards where the objector in fact was held to have no rights at all. Having a clear right which was attacked by the applicant I think they were entitled to put their views before the Court. That they have put their views before the Court in a proper manner cannot be disputed, and I do not think that any costs have been unnecessarily or unreasonably incurred by their presence. The applicant in this class of cases, where the objectors have a clear legal right which is being attacked and which is sought to be cut down, is in fact undertaking the task of satisfying the Court that the proposed modification of the restriction will not cause substantial injury to the persons entitled to the restriction, and it is difficult to see how the Court can be satisfied of that fact except after argument or without considering all the material evidence. The applicant cannot be expected to adduce evidence to cut down his own case, nor to argue contrary to his own interests, and consequently in such a case the reasonable and proper costs incurred by the objectors must, I think, be regarded as necessarily incident to such an application, and where those circumstances are present I think it is only right and proper that the applicant should pay all costs reasonable or necessarily incurred by reason of the application, including the proper costs of the objectors. I am of the opinion, therefore, that in this case the applicant should bear the costs as between party and party of the objectors.

Re Withers was subsequently applied by Justice Morris in Stanhill v Jackson [2005] VSC 355 who noted:

The principle set out in Re Withers is consistent with other decisions of the Court, such as that by Gillard J in Re Markin[3], Lush J in Re Shelford Church of England Girls’ Grammar School[4] andMcGarvie J in Re Ulman.[5] In my opinion, it is a sound principle.

Particular care should be taken in the event that one’s status as a beneficiary is in doubt or if declaration proceedings have been commenced, for it may be argued that Re Withers should not apply, in whole or in part.

Also, the Court will ordinarily only allow one set of costs, so it is important for objectors to coordinate their representation and have a pre-agreed arrangement for the distribution of costs in the event that an order for costs is made. Understanding, of course, that an award of standard costs will usually cover most, but not all, costs incurred.


[1] [1970] VR 319-320 at 320

[2] [2005] VSC 355

[3] [1966] VR 494.

[4] Unreported, 6 June 1967.

[5] (1985) VConVR 54-178.