Supreme Court approves covenant variation previously refused by VCAT

In 2011, in Zwierlein v Baw Baw SC [2011] VCAT 74, the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal refused an application for a three lot subdivision on land in Warragul after finding it was “unable to say that a beneficiary of the covenant will be unlikely to suffer loss of amenity or loss arising from change to the character to the neighbourhood or any other material detriment.”

However, some ten years later, in Zwierlein v Coelho [2021] VSC 451, the Supreme Court has allowed an application that was in certain respects similar to that refused by VCAT.

As Hetyey AsJ in the later decision explained:

“the decision of VCAT is of limited relevance to the present application because it pertained to a different statutory test set out in s 60(2) of the Planning and Environment Act 1987 (Vic). That provision essentially states that a permit for the variation or removal of a restriction in respect of land must not be granted unless the responsible authority is satisfied that a beneficiary of a covenant will be unlikely to suffer financial loss, loss of amenity, loss arising from change to the character of the neighbourhood, or any other material detriment as a consequence of the removal or variation of the relevant restriction. There are also differences between the nature of the proposal which was then before VCAT and the proposal the subject of the present application.

A careful reading of the two decisions provides further support for the view that section 84(1) of the Property Law Act 1958 is a kinder avenue for applicants, even for covenants created on or after 25 June 1991.

VCAT offers a potentially inexpensive means of testing a building materials covenant

In Rose Burwood Pty Ltd v Whitehorse CC [2021] VCAT 755, the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal adopted a potentially inexpensive means of construing a building materials covenant.

The parties appear to have made written submissions to the Tribunal and a determination was made on the papers.

The Tribunal found that the grant of a permit would not authorise anything that would result in a breach of the covenants that required that the dwellings be constructed substantially of brick or brick veneer:

I find that the use of the face brickwork inlays on the external parts of the building to be the same as brick veneer. They will give the appearance of brick and sit upon an internal structure but do not form part of the structure of the building.  Although anyone viewing the walls will not be able to distinguish this feature.  There are sections of the external walls that will not be covered in the brick inlay tiles however the plans indicate that the external walls will be substantially brick veneer in the form of brick inlay tiles. The requirements of the covenants are therefore satisfied.

The building material considered was an inlay brick system that embeds clay brick tiles into precast concrete panels: https://www.pghbricks.com.au/inbrick

While the process may have avoided the costs associated with an appearance at VCAT, the decision suggests the permit application was made in 2019; the application for review lodged in 2020; and the decision handed down in July 2021.

In contrast, in Re Orangi, the Supreme Court heard and determined a buildings material covenant application in a little over three months. C/f: Dwivedi v Whitehorse CC [2015] VCAT 176.

The Supreme Court will not enforce all breaches of a restrictive covenant

It is important to remember that the Supreme Court will not enforce each and every breach of a restrictive covenant.

A plaintiff discovered this, to his detriment, in Manderson v Smith S ECI 2020 03378.

This case concerned a resident of Barwon Heads who applied for a mandatory injunction to compel his neighbours to remove at their cost, a fence constructed on their land, that the plaintiff asserted was in breach of a restrictive covenant.

Efthim AsJ found that while there had been a breach of the restrictive covenant, his Honour refused to uphold Manderson’s application:

56 Here the defendants’ fence was not erected entirely on the boundary line. A small part of it is erected outside Lot 3 and at best the fence encroaches the hatched area by approximately 6cm. The fence does breach the Covenant. However I agree with the defendants that any incursion by the front fence into the hatched area is de minimis. If I ordered that the fence be removed, then there is a possibility that vegetation would need to be removed or damaged. It could do more harm than leaving the fence where it is.

A curious aspect of the case was that the Plaintiff’s own fence was also in breach of the covenant:

28 In cross-examination Mr Manderson agreed that all properties in Warrenbeen Court have fences. He also agreed that he had a fence and a gate, and believes that the fence encroaches further than 6cm, and more like one to two metres, on to the hatched area on his lot (which is the area on which no buildings can be erected).

Manderson v Smith also serves as an important reminder to consider first and foremost, the underlying purpose of a restrictive covenant, rather than taking a technical or literal approach to the meaning of particular words. Here, the court agreed that while a fence might be a building as a matter of law; properly construed, the covenant was never intended to prevent boundary fences.

How to avoid creating a precedent in a section 84 modification application

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.

Court clarifies notice required to create a binding building scheme

In Randell v Uhl [2019] VSC 668, Derham AsJ has clarified the notice required before the Court will find a party to be bound by the terms of a building scheme.

Where a building scheme is established, all purchasers and their assigns are bound by, and entitled to the benefit of a restrictive covenant.

Previously, it was not entirely clear how far a purchaser would need to search the Register of Titles to be on notice as to the existence of a building scheme.

In Randell, his Honour found a building scheme had been established, but found the plaintiff not bound by its terms because the existence of a scheme was not evident on the face of the title, or any documents referred to therein:

82      … If it were sufficient notice that the Head Title in this case bears the notification of a building scheme, it would require a person interested in purchasing the Land to search the Register further than the title search indicated and to go back to the Head Title and the original, or first edition, of the Subdivision. That would render conveyancing a hazardous and cumbersome operation beyond what is reasonable to expect.

83      In summary, I am satisfied that a building scheme was established but the notification of it was not sufficient to give notice of it to the plaintiffs because a search of the title of the Land by the plaintiffs did not, and would not, reveal the existence of the scheme either directly, or indirectly by reference to any instrument referred to in the search of the title.

References to purported Building Schemes commonly appear on title documents in Victoria, but under close judicial scrutiny they are rarely proven. A question now exists whether Randell has made this process of atrophication effectively complete.

Supreme Court accepts a rooming house is a legitimate ‘comparator’ when modifying a single dwelling covenant

In April 2019, in Re: EAPE (Holdings) Pty Ltd [2019] 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 [2012] VSC 4 at 120.

The brutal consequences of breaching a restrictive covenant

In Manderson v Wright (No 2) [2018] VSC 162, the Supreme Court revealed the devastating potential consequences of breaching a restrictive covenant.

In this case Justice John Dixon ordered the demolition of about $1 million of building renovations at a property at Barwon Heads, saying the building works occurred outside the permitted building envelope governed by a restrictive covenant, “I am not persuaded in all of the circumstances that the hardship to the defendant from a demolition order is out of all proportion to the relief assured to the plaintiff.”

A subsequent decision on costs of the proceedings, saw the unsuccessful defendant, Ms Wright, liable for 50% of the costs of the proceeding, claimed by the plaintiff to be $460,000.

Restrictive Covenants FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)

What is a restrictive covenant?

A restrictive covenant is a contract that runs with the land, that is negative in nature. More particularly, a restrictive covenant is an agreement creating an obligation which is negative or restrictive, forbidding the commission of some act. In its most common form it is a contract between neighbouring land owners by which the covenantee determined to maintain the value of a parcel of land or to preserve its enjoyment, acquires a right to restrain the other party, namely the covenantor, from using the land in a certain way: Fitt v Luxury Developments Pty Ltd (2000) VSC 258. The land subject to a restrictive covenant is known as the burdened land and the land with the corresponding ability to enforce the covenant is known as the benefited land.

How do I know if land is burdened by a restrictive covenant

If a restrictive covenant burdens or runs with a parcel of land, it should be noted under the heading “Encumbrances, Caveats and Notices” on a certificate of title available from Landata. You can then search Landata again for the relevant covenant that is often contained within a Transfer of Land, or ask a title searching firm to do this for you. One such title searching firm is Feigl & Newell on (03) 9620 7022.

How do I know if land has the benefit of a restrictive covenant?

Typically, the extent of beneficiaries can be discerned from a careful reading of the words of the covenant itself, but this may require further title searches and a careful examination of the Parent Title. Some covenants purport to convey the benefit of a covenant to all land in a subdivision, which may not be legally effective, see Re Mack and the Conveyancing Act [1975] NSWLR 623. Before you become a party to proceedings concerning the modification or enforcement of a covenant, seek advice from a lawyer with experience in this area. Many people assume that because their land is located within an estate burdened by a network of similar covenants, they are necessarily a beneficiary to other comparable covenants, which may not be the case. See too, the section on Building Schemes, below.

How do I vary or modify a restrictive covenant?

There are several ways in which restrictive covenants can be varied or modified, but the two most common means are via a planning permit application to the local council or by application to the Supreme Court.

There is an initial appeal to applying for a permit to modify a covenant via the planning permit or Planning and Environment Act 1987 process, because it is seen to be cheaper and easier, but this appeal diminishes when one understands that all beneficiaries need to be notified (unless a pre-existing breach is being regularised) and for covenants created before 25 June 1991, only one genuine objection from a beneficiary is sufficient to bring the process to an abrupt halt.

For this reason, applications that might be seen as even slightly controversial, such as increasing the number of dwellings on a lot, routinely go straight to the Supreme Court. Most applications to the Supreme Court are successful as they proceed through the process without sustained objection, but the challenge here is to pitch your application at something a judge will be comfortable with, for the Courts have traditionally acted with caution when it comes to modifying restrictive covenants.

For more information about the various options for modifying or removing a restrictive covenant in Victoria see here.

How do I modify a covenant through the Supreme Court?

To modify a covenant through the Property Law Act 1958, or Supreme Court, process, an applicant will typically need a planning report prepared by a planner with experience in this area of law and an Originating Motion drafted by a solicitor. There are numerous other procedural requirements that invariably require the involvement of an experienced and competent lawyer.

Once the application is lodged with the Court, a hearing is convened at which directions for advertising is given by an Associate Judge. Typically the notification process will take eight to ten weeks before a further hearing is convened at which objections may be considered by the Court.

If no objectors appear to be heard, which is routinely the case, the Court will consider granting the relief sought, but a judge may still want to be convinced about the appropriateness of the application. If it is positively received, relief may be granted at that time. However, if the matter is contested, directions may be given for the exchange of evidence and submissions and the hearing may be listed some six months or so later for determination.

A detailed description of the process of modifying or removing a restrictive covenant in the Supreme Court is set out here along with a comprehensive collection of precedents.

How do I object to an application to vary a restrictive covenant?

An objection to vary a restrictive covenant does not need to take any particular form. However, it is useful to understand what the Court deems to be a relevant or persuasive reason to object against what is typically seen as being irrelevant or difficult to establish. A useful indication was given by Justice Cavanough in Prowse v Johnston who gave weight to objections that complained of loss of character, loss of privacy, the bulk of the proposed building, additional noise, traffic, parking and access issues and most importantly, that of precedent, that is, is this proposal the thin edge of the wedge?

An article setting out the process of objecting to a restrictive covenant in Victoria is set out here.

The Supreme Court published a guide for objectors in December 2017.

What is a building scheme?

Where a building scheme, or scheme of development is established, all purchasers and their assigns are bound by, and entitled to the benefit of, the restrictive covenant. However, notwithstanding the frequency with which they are discussed, in Victoria, they are not often established. The real difficulty in attempting to uphold a building scheme in this state is establishing that a purchaser of land was or should have been aware that a building scheme was in place prior to purchase and therefore ought to be bound by its terms. See Randell v Uhl [2019] VSC 668. An authority that helpfully sets the relevant principles is Vrakas v Mills [2006] VSC 463.

How to interpret a restrictive covenant

An article setting out some principles for the construction or interpretation of a restrictive covenant in Victoria is set out here.

Should I buy land subject to a restrictive covenant?

If the land is of no use to you unless the covenant is modified, it is probably unwise to buy it. The process of modifying a covenant is often too uncertain, too time consuming and too expensive to justify taking the risk. Covenants can cost as little as a few thousand dollars to modify if things go well. On the other hand, parties have spent close to half a million dollars to modify covenants without success. Equally, some modifications may be completed within weeks. Others may take years. Most applications to modify covenants receive little or no sustained opposition, others ignite well orchestrated and well resourced community campaigns. Any estimate as to prospects is just a well informed guess. If you’re not dissuaded, get a beneficiary report from Feigl and Newell and then find a lawyer with experience in the modification of restrictive covenants to give you an estimate of the likely opposition to change. You may be lucky and find there only a few beneficiaries who live some distance away.

How can I find a restrictive covenant lawyer?

The modification or removal of restrictive covenants is a specialised area of law and regularly done by only a handful of lawyers in Victoria. An article setting out a reliable means of finding a lawyer with experience in the jurisdiction is set out here.

Costs in an application to modify a restrictive covenant

An article summarising the principles in relation to orders of costs in s84/Supreme Court proceedings is set out here.

Representing yourself in an application to modify a restrictive covenant

Judges make every effort to accommodate self-represented litigants. The Supreme Court even has a self-represented litigant coordinator who may be able to provide you with some guidance.

Traditionally, the practice has been to set the matter down for a contested hearing in the normal manner, with the exchange of evidence and submissions. This can involve much time and a large amount of preparation. But more recently, the Supreme Court has facilitated self-represented litigants in covenant cases, by giving people an opportunity to present a short submission at the second return of the application, that is, immediately after advertising. In this way, litigants in person can put a short summary of their views to the judge, without becoming a party to the proceedings; without the need to prepare evidence or cross examine witnesses; and without the potential costs consequences of running a contested case to its conclusion. It must be remembered though, that this will occur in the course of a busy Court list and the judge’s capacity or preparedness to entertain detailed submissions will be limited. The Plaintiff also may elect to not press its case at this second return, and may ask the Court to set the case down on a future occasion, at which time the application can be heard and determined in a more considered manner.

Further, although there are cases in which the court has refused applications to modify covenants, even where there are no parties in opposition such as in Re: Jensen and in Re: Morihovitis, in practice, it is probably fair to say that a defendant has far lower prospects of success if they are not represented, and the plaintiff’s case is not thoroughly tested.

As mentioned above, the matters you wish to put before the Court are set out here.

Mediation and applications to modify restrictive covenants

An article explaining the role and utility of mediating covenant disputes in the Supreme Court is set out here.

How do I deal with a restrictive covenant that gives a discretion to a deregistered company?

An article setting out the process for dealing with a restrictive covenant that confers a discretion on a deregistered company is set out here.

For a more detailed analysis…

The attached paper is a presentation to the University of Melbourne’s undergraduate Property Law class in April 2021.

It provides a relatively comprehensive overview of the theory and practice of restrictive covenant law in Victoria.

Matthew Townsend
townsend@vicbar.com.au
(04) 1122 0277

The Court sounds a note of caution to ambitious developers

The Supreme Court has refused an application to modify a single dwelling covenant to allow a 21 apartment development over two lots (~1,400sqm) in 9 Highlands Road in Thomastown–notwithstanding the absence of objectors in Court to oppose the application.

The decision of Re Morihovitis [2016] VSC 684 is somewhat different to the decision of Re Jensen [2012] VSC 638 where the Court refused a relatively modest unopposed application because it was proposed amongst a relatively intact network of single dwellings. Rather, the application in Re Morihovitis was found to be simply too great a departure from what the covenant originally contemplated:

 The absence of a single dwelling covenant on no. 11 immediately exposes the peculiar and testing feature of this application.  Subject to planning laws and considerations, there is nothing on title to prevent the plaintiff as owner of no. 11 from building an apartment block, or at the least, there is no restrictive covenant getting in the way of a planning application to do so.  But the presence of the restrictive covenant on no. 9 Highlands Road obliges the responsible authority under the Planning and Environment Act to refuse to grant a planning permit unless the covenant over that land is removed or varied.  Thus, by this application Mr Morihovitis seeks under s 84(1) of the Property Law Act to modify the single dwelling covenant on no. 9 by deleting and adding words as shown in this way −

… not at any time hereafter excavate carry away or remove or permit to be excavated carried away or removed any earth clay stone gravel or sand from the said land hereby transferred except for the purpose of excavating for the foundations construction of any building and basement to be erected thereon and that not more than one dwelling house and outhouses shall be erected on the said lot hereby transferred

The Court therefore found it would alter the character of the neighbourhood:

The judgment to be made about ‘substantial injury’ turns on the nature and degree of the injury to those benefits.  Here, in my judgment, the location of the proposed development is not so removed from the residential area of the neighbourhood that it can be regarded as being sufficiently far away from it to say that such changes will not be seen and felt.  It will be a conspicuous part of the neighbourhood.  It will be the only apartment block in the neighbourhood.  The scale of the project and its departure from the scale of any existing residential developments in the neighbourhood, means that if it does not of itself create the sort of notorious problems of higher density living as I have identified them, it will in my judgment be the beginnings of altering the character of the neighbourhood.

Although the Plaintiff endeavoured to make the most of the absence of objectors, the Court pushed back on any suggestion it would give the Plaintiff a free rein:

No objectors have attended Court.  However, it is established in the legal authorities on these applications that the absence of objectors does not necessarily satisfy the onus of proof, and it certainly does not amount to implied assent. But as is commonly submitted in these applications, the absence of objectors ought go some way to overcome a court’s caution.  In this case, it was submitted that the absence of objectors willing to advance their objection to a substantial development such as this was especially significant, meaning to say I think the Court should not be overly cautious or assailed by the scale of the development in the assessment of substantial injury.  The submission went a little further.  It was submitted that known cases where such applications were refused were, or tended to be, opposed applications on which the Court could act on grounds of resistance from a beneficiaries according to evidence adduced by them.  In this case, although it was said that the Court has to play devil’s advocate, it was submitted the Court should, in the absence of objectors or any other evidence, act on the plaintiff’s evidence.     

I do not accept the amplitude of that submission.

Ultimately, the Plaintiff was held to the contract he struck when he purchased his land, at least insofar as the present development was concerned:

To put it in plain terms, Mr Morihovitis has bought land knowing of a negative covenant on it which binds him as if he made it by private contract.  He cannot use the land in defiance of that contract.  By statute this Court might discharge that obligation or modify it if doing so will not cause substantial injury to those to whom the promise was made.  That cannot be done by saying or assuming that the planning authority will ensure that the apartment development is in accordance with planning laws and regulations.  The question for the Court is whether the landowner should be relieved of his promise and allowed to build an apartment block in the first place, before it is subjected to planning scrutiny.  For the reasons I have given, in my judgment the plaintiff has not shown that the proposed modification will not cause substantial injury to those to whom the covenant was given.

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/