Statutory demands – setting aside under s 459G – what is a ‘genuine’ dispute or offsetting claim?

When a company is served with a statutory demand it may apply to Court to set it aside under s 459G Corporations Act 2001 (Cth) (see also s 459J). Where the ground for the application is that the company disputes that it owes the debt, or has an offsetting claim, s 459H requires that this be genuine (see s 459H(1) and the definition of ‘off-setting’ claim in s 459H(5)). So – when will an alleged dispute or off-setting claim be accepted as genuine? Or what should be pointed to as demonstrating that it is not?

Practitioners will in some cases quickly form a preliminary view on this based upon the old ‘smacks of recent invention’ hallmark. Certainly that preliminary view may be borne out on closer examination, as was the case in a Court of Appeal decision in which I appeared some years ago – Rescom Asia Pacific v Reapfield Property Consultants Pty Ltd [2014] VSCA 92. However there is of course more to it than that. Often a fair amount of evidence is filed, which must be addressed by the parties and considered by the Courts in making a determination. Hence it is worth having regard to the principles that govern this issue.

Principles – ‘genuine’

The principles to be applied in applications to set aside statutory demands are well settled, though they are sometimes restated or collected together in different ways or with different emphases in the authorities. On this particular issue / element, my distillation of the key principles are as follows:

To be accepted as ‘genuine’[1] a dispute or offsetting claim must be shown to be both real, have some merit, and be plausible,[2] as well as authentic, not spurious or artificial or have been ‘manufactured or got up’.[3] In summary – 

  1. “The threshold is not high or demanding; a genuine dispute means there must be a plausible contention requiring investigation; and it is only if the applicant’s contentions are so devoid of substance that no further investigation is warranted that the applicant will fail. The court is not called on to determine the merits of, or to resolve, the dispute.”[4] The essential task is relatively simple – to identify the genuine level of a claim (not the likely result of it) and to identify the genuine level of an offsetting claim (not the likely result of it).[5]
  2. “This does not mean that the court must accept uncritically as giving rise to a genuine dispute, every statement in an affidavit ‘however equivocal, lacking in precision, inconsistent with undisputed contemporary documents or other statements by the same deponent, or inherently improbable in itself, it may be’ not having ‘sufficient prima facie plausibility to merit further investigation as to [its] truth’.”[6]
  3. The questions for the Court have been identified as: “whether there is such a dispute and, if there is, whether it is genuine.” [7]
  4. “The claim must not be spurious or artificial, or have been ‘manufactured or got up simply for the purpose of defeating the demand made against the company’.”[8] “If the dispute is of that quality and is accordingly not advanced in good faith, it is not ‘genuine’.”[9]
  5. “[T]he court must decide whether the grounds of dispute delineated by the affidavit are grounds which, when viewed in the whole of the circumstances emerging from the evidence, indicate a plausible defence propounded in good faith and not one merely constructed in response to the pressure represented by the statutory demand.”[10]
  6. “Where an applicant to set aside a statutory demand contends for the existence of an offsetting claim it bears the onus of establishing that it is genuine in the sense of being authentic or bona fide, and real, not spurious, and not frivolous or vexatious.”[11]

In terms of the evidential burden and onus on the applicant – 

  1. “In order for [an alleged claim] to be genuine, there must be sufficient factual material to support the essential elements that go to make up that claim.”[12]
  2. “…the onus rest[s] on the [applicant] to provide a sufficient account of its dealings…to raise a genuine dispute and take the matter beyond mere assertion.”[13] 

Case Study

In Alpine Valley Flour Mill Pty Ltd v Grainlink (NSW) Pty Ltd [2020] VSC 85, Alpine Valley applied under s 459G (engaging s 459H and 459J) to set aside a statutory demand for just under $160,000 served on it by Grainlink in 2019 for unpaid invoices for grain supplied in 2018. The two companies had been trading since 2013.

Alpine Valley alleged an offsetting claim due to the alleged presence of weevils its customers had found in grain Alpine Valley had supplied to them, which it had acquired from Grainlink. Alpine Valley contended the grain was contaminated with weevil larvae at the time it was supplied by Grainlink, which had made the grain adulterated and unfit for purpose, causing Alpine Valley loss and damage. Alpine Valley estimated the value of that offsetting claim as almost $228,000, exceeding the amount of the statutory demand. (see [6]-[7],[23], [30])

Grainlink gave evidence as to is rigorous treatment and testing procedures for eliminating weevil and larvae from all grain (see [65]). Grainlink argued that Alpine Valley’s alleged offsetting claim was unsupported by probative evidence and was spurious (see [9] and [133]). Whilst Alpine Valley alleged that weevils had been a ‘constant issue’ (see [29]), Grainlink pointed out that the first time any issue was raised with them was when Alpine Valley filed its application to set aside the statutory demand in 2019 (see [132]).

Gardiner AsJ held that the offsetting claim was not genuine, based on the fact that the claim was only made after service of the demand, and was preceded by numerous promises to pay, with the reasons proffered for non-payment being cashflow problems and the internal turmoil within the company (the directors were in dispute). His Honour found that the alleged offsetting claim was not genuine, rather, it was spurious and had been ‘got up’ as an attempted means to defeat Grainlink’s demand. The application was dismissed. (see [148])

In particular, Gardiner AsJ found that the following features of the dealings between the parties in this case were ‘particularly powerful’ in convincing him that Alpine Valley’s alleged offsetting claim was not genuine (see [146]) –

  1. There was no notification of any kind by Alpine Valley of its alleged offsetting claim to Grainlink until it first served its material to set aside the statutory demand.
  2. There was evidence that Alpine Valley’s customers had received contaminated product from Alpine Valley. There were no contemporaneous documents generated by Alpine Valley connecting any of those complaints with Grainlink.
  3. Even if Alpine Valley had demonstrated that it had a genuine and arguable claim that Grainlink was responsible for the contaminated product, which his Honour found it had not, there was insufficient evidence to support the quantification of loss Alpine Valley claimed to have suffered as a result.
  4. Alpine Valley now claimed that throughout the trading period there was an endemic problem with weevil infestation in the grain. However Alpine Valley had paid all of Grainlink’s invoices between July 2013 and July 2018 without complaint.
  5. In December 2018, when Grainlink was pressing for payment of its invoices and any alleged claim would have been known to Alpine Valley, it simply conceded the amounts were overdue and a payment plan would be implemented.
  6. In January 2019 when Grainlink followed up, Alpine Valley responded that they hoped to pay $10,000 or $20,000 by the end of the month and hopefully a larger amount the following month.
  7. Grainlink then passed the matter to is collection agency. If Alpine Valley genuinely considered it had an offsetting claim, it would have raised it in its communications with the agency, and would not have been making promises to pay the debt in full.
  8. On 16 May 2019 shortly before the issue of the statutory demand, Alpine Valley made a payment of $10,000. Alpine Valley never explained why it would do so if it had a belief it had a genuine offsetting claim for a greater amount than it owed Grainlink.
  9. The age of the alleged offsetting claims, now said to have arisen throughout the trading period, was implausible.

While it is often said that the bar is not high or demanding in applications to set aside statutory demands, it still must be cleared. That an alleged dispute or off-setting claim is ‘genuine’ must be shown. In assessing the evidence, what the contemporaneous documents do – and do not – show will always be significant. For another recent example of a case involving promises to pay made without mentioning offsetting claims later raised to support an application to set aside a statutory demand, see Re CMG Automotive Pty Ltd [2020] VSC 779 – see [161], [164], [174].

[1] Within the meaning of s 459H(1) and (5).

[2] See quotes from authorities drawn together in Viva Olives Pty Ltd v Origin Olives Australasia Pty Ltd [2012] FCA 545 at [7] per Perram J; See also Abadeen Group Pty Ltd v Bluestone Property Services Pty Ltd [2011] NSWSC 137 at [33] per Ball J and the authorities there cited.

[3] See below.

[4] SGR Pastoral Pty Ltd v Christensen [2019] QSC 229 per Bowskill J, citing Citation Resources Ltd v IBT Holdings Pty Ltd [2016] FCA 1265; (2016) 116 ACSR 274 at [17] per McKerracher J.

[5] Re Morris Catering (Australia) Pty Ltd (1993) 11 ACSR 601, 605 per Thomas J; cited with approval in In the matter of Essential Media and Entertainment Pty Ltd [2020] NSWSC 990 at [81] per Rees J.

[6] Eyota Pty Ltd v Hanave Pty Ltd (1994) 12 ACSR 785, 787 per McLelland CJ in Eq, oft-cited and applied, as for example in Grandview Ausbuilder Pty Ltd v Budget Demolitions Pty Ltd [2019] NSWCA 60 at [63] per Bell P.

[7] Viva Olives Pty Ltd v Origin Olives Australasia Pty Ltd [2012] FCA 545 at [8] per Perram J.

[8] SGR Pastoral at [52], quoting from JJMR Pty Ltd v LG International Corp [2003] QCA 519 at [18]; See also the citing of the ‘must not have been manufactured or got up’ principle from JJMR Pty Ltd in: Brandon Industries (Vic) Pty Ltd v Locker Pty Ltd [2016] VSC 373 at [150] and Alpine Valley Flour Mill Pty Ltd v Grainlink (NSW) Pty Ltd [2020] VSC 85 at [17].

[9] Grandview Ausbuilder Pty Ltd v Budget Demolitions Pty Ltd [2019] NSWCA 60 at [95] per White JA, quoting from Creata (Aust) Pty Ltd v Faull [2017] NSWCA 300; 125 ACSR 212 at [47] per Barrett AJA.

[10] Ligon 158 Pty Ltd v Huber [2016] NSWCA 330 at [10] per Barrett AJA, McColl and Meagher JJA agreeing.

[11] Alpine Valley Flour Mill Pty Ltd v Grainlink (NSW) Pty Ltd [2020] VSC 85 at [15] per Gardiner AsJ.

[12] Abadeen Group Pty Ltd v Bluestone Property Services Pty Ltd [2011] NSWSC 137 at [40] per Ball J.

[13] Bendigo and Adelaide Bank Ltd v Pekell Delaire Holdings Pty Ltd [2017] VSCA 51 at [78], citing Eyota Pty Ltd v Hanave Pty Ltd (1994) 12 ACSR 785 at 787 (McLellan CJ in Eq), TR Administration Pty Ltd v Frank Marchetti & Sons Pty Ltd [2008] VSCA 70; (2008) 66 ACSR 67 at [71] (Dodds-Streeton JA,Neave and Kellam JJA agreeing).

2 thoughts on “Statutory demands – setting aside under s 459G – what is a ‘genuine’ dispute or offsetting claim?

  1. This article is marvellous – it is not only interesting, but will be of enormous practical use as a reference point for solicitors (such as myself) needing to put together urgent “withdraw your demand by 5PM today or else” correspondence.

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