How to choose a lawyer to run your restrictive covenant case

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”:

http://www.austlii.edu.au/cgi-bin/sinosrch.cgi?method=phrase&query=restrictive+covenant&meta=%2Fau&mask_path=au%2Fcases%2Fvic

The following is a similar search narrowed to Supreme Court proceedings:

http://www.austlii.edu.au/cgi-bin/sinosrch.cgi?method=phrase&query=restrictive+covenant&meta=%2Fau&mask_path=au%2Fcases%2Fvic%2FVSC

And the following is a similar search narrowed to VCAT proceedings:

http://www.austlii.edu.au/cgi-bin/sinosrch.cgi?method=phrase&query=restrictive+covenant&meta=%2Fau&mask_path=au%2Fcases%2Fvic%2FVCAT

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.

Dealing with deregistered companies referred to in restrictive covenants

Restrictive covenants in Victoria often give development discretion to companies that have long been deregistered. A good example is the series of covenants affecting the area around Altona that may provide:

… nor will I or my heirs executors administrators or transferees use any material other than brick and/or stone for the main walls of any such shop or dwelling house without the consent in writing of the said Altona Beach Estates Limited

Altona Beach Estates Limited, the original developer of the land, has long ceased to exist.

A question is then raised: how will the Australian Securities & Investments Commission (ASIC) exercise its discretion if it is called upon to act in the capacity of the deregistered company pursuant to section 601AE(2) of the Corporations Act 2001?

Helpfully, ASIC has produced a practice note of sorts to explain its policy in relation to such requests.

This policy states that ASIC may consider applications for consent under an encumbrance (e.g. plans of subdivision where there is no specific prohibition to subdivision in the encumbrance; construction of a fence within the restrictions/conditions of the encumbrance) and may consider applications to discharge expired encumbrances. However, ASIC will not otherwise vary the restrictions/conditions of an encumbrance or discharge a current encumbrance.

It is not then, as some might have you believe, a fait accomplis that the discretion will be exercised in the applicant’s favour.

The policy can be found here: http://asic.gov.au/for-business/closing-your-company/effects-of-deregistration/property-of-deregistered-companies/there-is-an-encumbrance-also-known-as-a-covenant-or-restrictive-covenant-over-my-property-in-favour-of-a-deregistered-company/

Objecting to an application to modify or discharge a restrictive covenant

If you own land with the benefit of a restrictive covenant, you may receive a letter by mail or see a sign on land giving notice of an application to modify or discharge it pursuant to s84 of the Property Law Act 1958.

If you wish to contest this application you may wish to:

  • write an objection; and/or
  • appear in court to support that objection.

The first step is to ascertain whether you have the benefit of the covenant. Because covenants are essentially contracts that run with the land, the law generally says that if you are not party to a contract you have no standing to enforce it.

If you have received written notice of the application, the chances are that your land has been identified as having the benefit of the covenant. If you have simply seen the sign on the land and live nearby, someone may have formed the view that your land either does not have the benefit of the covenant or that the modification or removal will not affect you. Or it may mean that the address for correspondence on your land title is out of date. This is surprisingly common.

If you are unsure whether your land has the benefit of a covenant, the cheapest and quickest option is to contact an experienced title searcher such as Dinah Newell from Feigl & Newell on (03) 9629-3011 or info@feiglnewell.com.au This is a specialised task and it is risky to leave it to someone who hasn’t done it before.

Once you have established a benefit, the question might then be what to write in your objection. Two decisions of the Victorian Supreme Court provide some guidance. The first is Prowse v Johnston in which Justice Cavanough listed the concerns of residents that he accepted were reasons a single dwelling covenant was not obsolete:

108 The objections of the defendants are set out in the various affidavits sworn by them. They are summarised in their written outline of submissions as follows:

(a) Loss of character of the residential estate being an estate with large single dwelling family homes and substantial gardens;

(b) Loss of privacy and overlooking into neighbouring private outdoor living areas and gardens;

(c) Bulk and dominance of proposed building particularly when viewed from adjoining residences and property;

(d) Loss of large, spacious Edwardian family home on the burdened land and surrounding mature trees and established garden;

(e) Loss of family neighbourhood with front and rear garden;

(f) Loss of spaciousness, beauty and privacy;

(g) Construction of a three-storey building with basement car parking over virtually the entire site in conflict with the prevalent single dwelling residential character of the area;

(h) Additional noise, traffic, parking and access issues associated with 18 units and 33 [actually 36] basement car spaces;

(i) This is the “thin end of the wedge” and the precedent effect of the removal of a covenant for the construction of a large unit development would be very significant;

(j) The character of the Coonil Estate has been maintained for over 90 years and should be preserved;

(k) Much of the Coonil Estate is a recognised heritage overlay area which should be preserved;

(l) The proposed development will be an isolated “eye sore” in stark contrast to the many period and heritage homes surrounding the burdened land; and

(m) The plaintiff’s land was purchased as part of the Coonil Estate, and has benefited from the reciprocal covenants given by others.

109 I accept that these are all admissible objections, though some are stronger than others. They are relevant to show that the covenant is not obsolete. They are also relevant for other purposes, to which I will come. The covenant is not obsolete. The purposes of the covenant are still being achieved throughout the Estate and on the burdened land, with a contribution in that respect from the covenant on the burdened land.

In the more recent decision of Oostemeyer v Powell Justice Riordan set out in paragraphs [36] to [45] the evidence he relied upon to reject an application to modify a covenant made pursuant to s84(1)(c) of the Property Law Act 1958 the so-called “substantial injury” test.

Once you have registered your opposition to the application to modify or remove the covenant you may be required to appear in the Supreme Court to support your objection. That is not to say the court will not consider your objection if you don’t appear. The Court generally reads every objection closely. However, in the standard form notice in the Court’s Guide for practitioners, the court makes it clear that “Written objections without an attendance may not be considered.”

Once at court, the Judge in charge of the list will set the matter down for a contested hearing.

It’s a matter of judgement at what point you wish to get a solicitor and/or barrister involved, if at all. Oostemeyer v Powell (above) demonstrates that unrepresented residents can succeed in fending off an attack on a covenant. However, it is relatively rare that objectors represent themselves in a contested hearing, partly because of the complexity of the proceedings and the time involved; and partly because objectors are typically reimbursed most of their costs, even if they are unsuccessful, in accordance with the principle in Re Withers.

Download a .pdf of this note.

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.

 

Case database relevant to restrictive covenant advice and litigation

The following cases are for use in litigation and advice work. Some of these are available on Austlii, others are not.

If you have any interesting or significant cases that I’ve missed, please email them to me at townsend@vicbar.com.au

A duplicate file may suggest different varying formats (for example .doc and .pdf).

The suffix (ocr) suggests the file has been scanned for optical character recognition.

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

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].