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Significant Supreme Court Win in Commercial Lease Dispute

In recent days a commercial tenant client was successful in an appeal to the Supreme Court of Victoria against a decision made by a Senior Member in the Retail Leases List at VCAT.

On behalf of our client, the tenant of a large cool-store facility, we contended that the Retail Leases Act applies to the lease. Ultimately, the recent decision of Justice Croft vindicates that contention.

Put simply, there are significant benefits for a tenant if the Retail Leases Act applies. They include:

  • The Landlord is prohibited from recovering land tax from the tenant;
  • The Landlord has a positive obligation to maintain the structural integrity of the premises;
  • The Landlord has quite strict disclosure obligations; and
  • Various other benefits.

On behalf of our tenant client we briefed barristers Robert Hay QC and Leana Papaelia. Robert Hay QC is widely acknowledged as one of Victoria’s leading commercial leasing lawyers. In an interesting twist, the case came before Justice Croft in the Supreme Court of Victoria. Justice Croft is the co-author with Robert Hay QC of a leading Victorian legal textbook on commercial leasing.

In a blog post published soon after the decision, Robert Hay QC summarised the significance of the decision as follows:

“Where a tenant provides services from leased premises in accordance with the permitted use the lease is likely to be a “retail premises lease” and therefore governed by the Retail Leases Act 2003 (Vic).

In every case it is necessary to identify precisely the service being provided, consider what activity is permitted under the lease and whether the service provided accords with the permitted use.

The Act applies to a “retail premises lease”.  “Retail’ is not defined; however, the expression "retail premises" is defined (s.4(1)):

“….premises, not including any area intended for use as a residence, that under the terms of the lease relating to the premises are used, or are to be used, wholly or predominantly for -

(a)   the sale or hire of goods by retail or the provision of services;”

(underlining added).

The authorities provide strong support for the ‘ultimate consumer’ test as the touchstone of retailing. In Wellington Union Life Insurance Society Limited [1991] 1 VR 333, Nathan J said at 336:

“The essential feature of retailing, is to my mind, the provision of an item or service to the ultimate consumer for fee or reward. The end user may be a member of the public, but not necessarily so.”

Wellington Union concerned the provision of a service: patent attorneys providing advice to large foreign chemical companies from rented premises. In some cases the advice passed through the hands of an intermediary to the ultimate consumer. Nathan J held that the premises were “retail premises”.

In Fitzroy Dental Pty Ltd v Metropole Management Pty Ltd [2013] VSC 344 (which also concerned the provision of a service) Croft J referred to Wellington Union at [16]:

“The fact that the advice of the patent attorneys may pass through the hands of an intermediary to the ultimate consumer or end user was not regarded as significant, provided it came into the hands of that person in a form that could not be amended and hence remained the product of the intellect of the deliverer. More generally, this highlights and emphasises the importance of characterising the nature of the “service” that is being provided. Thus, in the context of Wellington, it would follow that if the position was that the patent attorneys provided advice to, for example, a solicitor who would, in turn, provide advice to his or her client, the ultimate consumer, using the patent attorney’s advice merely as an “input” in his or her advice, wholly or partially with additions and modifications on the basis of his or her professional opinion, the position would be different. In those circumstances the patent attorney’s advice could not, in a relevant sense, be said to pass through the hands of an intermediary to the ultimate consumer. It does not, however, follow that in these circumstances the solicitor may not be regarded as the “ultimate consumer” of the service for the purposes of his or her own practice; as is likely to be the case with other “inputs” for the practice such as, for example, legal research services, stationary and office supplies.”

Most reported cases concern whether goods are being sold by retail. At [17] in Fitzroy Dental Croft J considered whether the sale of goods could be said to be “retail”;

“….. a sale of “widget type A” from premises by A to B who, in turn, “converts” the good “widget type A” to “widget type B for sale to C would not involve the sale of “widget type A” to C as the ultimate consumer of that type of good. Depending on the nature of the goods involved these transactions may involve sale by wholesale to B and a retail sale to C – or, alternatively, two retail sales of different goods, “widget type A” to B and “widget type B” to C."

And at [18];

“… that the fact that a good or a service is provided to a person who uses the good or service as an “input” in that person’s business for the purpose of producing or providing a different good or service to another person does not detract from the possible characterisation of the first person (and perhaps also the second person, depending on all the circumstances) as the “ultimate consumer” of the original good or service.”

In CB Cold Storage Pty Ltd v IMCC Group Pty Ltd [2017] VSC 23 Croft J had to again consider whether rented premises were “retail premises”. The tenant conducted the business of a cold and cool storage warehouse storage from the premises which accorded with the permitted use under the lease. The tenant’s customers ranged from large primary production enterprises to very small owner operated businesses. VCAT held that the tenant’s rented premises were not “retail premises” on the basis that a “consumer” was a person who used goods or services to satisfy personal needs rather than for a business purpose and therefore the tenant’s customers were not consumers of the tenant’s services. The tenant appealed VCAT’s decision. Croft J allowed the appeal and held that the premises were “retail premises”. The Tribunal erred in holding that customers that used a tenant’s service for a business purpose were not “ultimate consumers”; the Tribunal treated the services provided at the premises as an “input” into the tenant’s customer’s business arrangements with the consequence that the tenant’s customers were not the ultimate consumers of the tenant’s services. The matter was not remitted to VCAT because the Tribunal had been satisfied of all other matters necessary to support a conclusion that the premises were “retail premises”: the premises were being used in accordance with the lease, were “open to the public” and there were no findings to support a conclusion that the premises were not “retail premises”.

CB Cold Storage highlights the importance of identifying the nature of the service being provided and the user or consumer of that service. In most cases the provision of a service will be “retail".”

This latest case further refines what had been a somewhat contentious area of the law in Victoria. It has great significance for landlords, tenants, managing agents and those who might lend on the security of the title to commercial premises.

Prudent landlords, tenants and managing agents should now review their lease documents and address any ambiguity because the consequences of getting it wrong as to the application of the Retail Leases Act can be very significant and expensive.

At Burke & Associates Lawyers we have an extensive practice in property law including commercial leasing law and welcome your enquiries.

Anthony Burke is an Accredited Business Law Specialist, for more information about Tony, please click here.

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Anthony Burke

Consultant

Anthony Burke

Consultant
B.A LL.B DIP.FIN. MGT
Tony is an LIV accredited business law specialist and a VCAT appointed Administrator. In 2008 he was President of the Law Institute of Victoria and served for two years as a director of the Law...

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