Fraud and more than Barnes v Addy – VSCA on accessorial liability for breach of fiduciary duty or trust

In the wake of a fraud the missing money has sometimes vanished for good – spirited overseas perhaps or lost to the fraudster’s gambling habit. There may be a lack of other assets held by the fraudster against which any judgment could be executed. This is why claims that can be made against third parties who were not the fraudsters themselves but were sufficiently involved in what happened, can be so important. In some circumstances, even where they did not receive the stolen or misappropriated money, the third party’s involvement as an accessory is such as to make them liable, and losses can be recovered from them.

On Tuesday the Victorian Court of Appeal handed down its decision in Harstedt Pty Ltd v Tomanek [2018] VSCA 84. It is a significant judgment for their Honours’ remarks as to the different forms of accessorial liability for breach of fiduciary duty – it is not confined only to the second limb of Barnes v Addy (knowing assistance). Further, the judgment is significant for the principles it identifies as to what will constitute “assistance” for the purposes of the second limb (knowing assistance). There is also useful guidance in relation to the five Baden catetogories of knowledge relevant to knowing assistance.

The judgment was unanimous. The bench comprised their Honours Santamaria, McLeish and Niall JJA. I will briefly summarise the facts and decision in this case, before laying out the learnings to be gained from this judgment.

The facts

The appellant Harstedt Pty Ltd had invested $250,000 in one of those investment schemes which in hindsight was probably too good to be true. Investors were promised sizeable profits to be generated by the investment of capital by a humanitarian organisation. Investors deposited money into a CBA account in the name of the corporate vehicle Apollo Development Enterprises Pty Ltd, which they were told was a ‘non-depleting amount’; the funds were to be held inviolate and were not to leave the account.  They were told CBA had agreed to lend three times the amount held in the account, which presumably was to be used to generate profits via the investment platform. In the event, however, the funds (over $4m) were transferred to an account in Spain where they vanished without a trace.

Harstedt sued the company Apollo and others associated with Apollo, including the company secretary Mr Tomanek. Harstedt made various claims, including fraudulent breach of trust by Apollo and a claim against Mr Tomanek for knowing assistance under the second limb of Barnes v Addy. Harstedt was successful at trial against Apollo, but dismissed the claim against Mr Tomanek. Harstedt appealed.

On appeal the Court of Appeal held that Mr Tomanek knew of the essential facts which constituted the dishonest and fraudulent breach of trust by Apollo (see [105]-[108]). However the appeal failed, primarily on the basis that Harstedt had not established “assistance” on the part of Mr Tomanek. Their Honours held that on the evidence, and on the case as advanced (see below), Harstedt had not established anything beyond knowledge on the part of Mr Tomanek of Apollo’s dishonest and fraudulent design. That knowledge, in and of itself, did not facilitate Apollo’s breach of trust and cause the loss arising therefrom. On the evidence, it was insufficient to constitute “assistance” in the relevant sense (see [119]-[121]).

1.Fraud may give rise to different claims against third party accessories 

Note that on the facts of this case, the claim of knowing receipt (first limb of Barnes v Addy) was not considered, nor was there any question of tracing or following the money. This appeal decision only considered the case where a third party may be liable as an accessory to another’s breach of trust or fiduciary duty.

As their Honours acknowledged, the state of the law on accessorial liability in this context has been riddled with uncertainty and disunity; they set out the relevant authorities and case law in footnotes which I have not reproduced here.

Their Honours observed at [68] that there are different forms of accessorial liability for breach of fiduciary duty, which must be kept distinct. Their Honours identified two forms of liability and went on to describe two other situations in which accessorial liability for breach of fiduciary duty may arise. The two forms of accessorial liability their Honours set out were –

  1. Knowing assistance in the breach – the second limb of Barnes v Addy. This was the claim brought in this case. To be liable under this form, the breach of duty or trust must amount to a ‘dishonest and fraudulent design’ (see [68] and the elements set out at [70]). Note, however, that the dishonesty required is on the part of the fraudster, not the third party (see [97] and see also Farah Constructions Pty Ltd v Say-Dee Pty Ltd [2007] HCA 22; (2007) 230 CLR 89 at [160], [163] and [179]).
  2. Knowing inducement or immediate procurement of the breach. The High Court in Farah drew attention to a line of cases preceding Barnes v Addy in which it was accepted that a third party might be liable as an accessory to a breach of trust (or, their Honours noted, fiduciary duty) on this basis. Procuring or inducing a breach of fiduciary duty is distinct from participating in it (see [68]). The Full Federal Court in Grimaldi v Chameleon Mining NL (No 2) [2012] FCAFC 6; (2012) 200 FCR 296 observed that for this head, as with corporate alter ego cases (see next) it is not necessary to show any dishonest or fraudulent design here, or improper purpose on the part of the trustee or fiduciary (see [245] of Grimaldi; see [161] of Farah). Their Honours in Harstedt sets out the cases under this head at footnote 28 and 29, but see also Marriner v Australian Super Developments Pty Ltd [2016] VSCA 141 and the decision of Sloss J at first instance in Australian Super Developments Pty Ltd [2014] VSC 464 from [274].

The two “other situations” their Honours discussed at [69] in which accessorial liability for another’s breach of fiduciary duty may arise were –

  1. Alter ego of the wrongdoer. Their Honours described this as where a company is the corporate creature, vehicle, or alter ego of a wrongdoing fiduciary or trustee, and the wrongdoer uses the company to secure the profits or inflict the losses of their breach (see [69], citing Grimaldi at [243]). In these cases the corporate vehicle is fully liable for the profits made from, and the losses inflicted by, the fiduciary’s wrong. I note that as the Full Federal Court observed in Grimaldi, the basis for third party liability in these cases is said to be that the company had full (imputed) knowledge of all of the facts, and either has a “transmitted fiduciary obligation” or “jointly participated” in the breach. Liability does not turn on the need to show dishonesty, although it often provides the reason for the interposition of the company. (See [243] of Grimaldi.)
  2. Trustee de son tortThis is where the third party is not a trustee but nevertheless presumes to act as a trustee and then commits a breach or profits from the position. In those circumstances the third party can be liable as a trustee de son tort (see [69], citing Mara v Browne [1896] 1 Ch 199, Nolan v Nolan [2004] VSCA 109 at [25]-[29]).

I will not launch into a doctrinal debate about these forms of liability here, although I note that pleadings in these cases need to be carefully considered and framed. However it is worth pausing to comment further on the basis of liability  for number 1 immediately above – where the third party is the corporate alter ego of the wrongdoer. Regarding that type of case, it has been noted it is ‘rather artificial’ to use Barnes v Addy to explain this liability (see [243] of Grimaldi.) Having said that, in Grimaldi, Mr Grimaldi’s company Murchison Pty Ltd was found liable for Mr Grimaldi and Mr Barnes’ diversions of money away from Chameleon Pty Ltd…under both limbs of Barnes v Addy (knowing assistance and knowing receipt). Murchison Pty Ltd was also found liable for aiding and abetting the contraventions of ss181 and 182 of the Corporations Act committed by Mr Barnes as was Mr Grimaldi. (See [312]-[321] where the trial judge’s findings are set out, and the Full Court’s agreement with those findings at [322]-[345] of Grimaldi). As an aside, I note that the defendants had claimed the diverted funds were payments properly posted to their loan accounts – see what the Full Federal Court had to say about that at [336] – the funds were not stolen but they were misappropriated.

I note too that in 2012 in Grimaldi, the Full Federal Court outlined four “quite different manifestations of [third party] participation” in another’s breach of fiduciary duty or breach of trust, rendering them liable in equity. These were framed somewhat differently to those identified here by the Victorian Court of Appeal; for those interested, see Grimaldi at [243]-[248]. My 2012 article discussing the Full Federal Court’s decision in Grimaldi may be read here, and my 2012 discussion of the issue of de facto directors and officers as dealt with in the judgment may be read here. Mr Grimaldi was unsuccessful in obtaining special leave to appeal to the High Court – see here.

2.Assistance  

As noted above, this week’s judgment in Harstedt is also significant for the principles it identifies as to what will constitute “assistance” in the breach of trust or fiduciary duty for the purposes of the second limb (knowing assistance).

Their Honours acknowledged that the authorities offer little guidance, and that plainly whether a third party has assisted relevantly is a question of fact for each case. However their Honours distilled two principles as having emerged from the authorities and commentary on this point (at [116]-[118]) –

  1. There will be assistance where, but for the action or inaction of the third party, the breach of fiduciary duty would not have occurred. Their Honours observed that a common example is the role of a bank or other financial intermediary the function of which is essential to effect a transaction that amounts to a breach of trust.
  2. There may also be assistance where the third party has facilitated a breach of fiduciary duty that would have occurred in any event. (emphasis added)

Before any bankers reading this sit up in alarm at their Honours’ comment under principle 1 immediately above, it should be noted that a finding of assistance alone will not be enough to found liability as an accessory. Indeed there are four necessary elements of liability under the second (knowing assistance) limb of Barnes v Addy. These were set out by their Honours at [70], citing Farah and Grimaldi, and are –

  1. The existence of a fiduciary duty owed by the fiduciary (trustee or otherwise),
  2. A ‘dishonest and fraudulent design’ on the part of the fiduciary,
  3. Assistance by the third party in that design, and
  4. Knowledge on the part of the third party of the circumstances constituting that design.

Turning briefly then to the last of these – knowledge.

3.The Baden categories of knowledge

Their Honours’ judgment in Harstedt also provides useful guidance in relation to the five Baden categories of knowledge relevant to ‘knowing assistance’ at [85]-[87].

The Baden categories are –

  1. Actual knowledge
  2. Wilfully shutting one’s eyes to the obvious
  3. Wilfully and recklessly failing to make such inquiries as an honest and reasonable person would make,
  4. Knowledge of circumstances which would indicate the facts to an honest and reasonable person, and
  5. Knowledge of circumstances which would put an honest and reasonable person on inquiry.

Their Honours noted that the first two speak for themselves. In Harstedt, their Honours’ findings as to Mr Tomanek’s knowledge of the three essential facts which constituted the dishonest and fraudulent breach of trust by the company Apollo fell into the first and second categories (see [105]-[108]).

As to the third category – wilfully and recklessly failing to make inquiries as an honest and reasonable person would make – their Honours observed that this ‘involves such a calculated abstention from inquiry as would disentitle the third party to rely upon lack of actual knowledge of the trustee’s or fiduciary’s wrongdoing’ (see [86]).

I pause to note that last year in Sino Iron Pty Ltd v Worldwide Wagering Pty Ltd [2017] VSC 101, Hargrave J found the third category of knowledge on the part of the director and general manager of the betting company which had unknowingly received over $2m in stolen funds, as at the date they then credited it to the fraudster’s betting account. His Honour took the view that based on what (little) they did know, the inquiries they made were manifestly inadequate. He held that they ought to have made the ‘simple inquiry’ of identifying and contacting the depositors of the stolen funds, and asking if they intended to pay the money to the sports betting company for the benefit of the customer claiming it. My article reviewing and analysing that case can be read here.

As to the fourth category – knowledge of circumstances which would indicate the facts to an honest and reasonable person- their Honours observed that this category ‘is designed to prevent a third party setting up his or her own “moral obtuseness” as the reason for not recognising an impropriety that would have been apparent to an ordinary person’ (see [86]).

The fifth category derives from the doctrine of bona fide purchaser for value without notice (see [86]).

The Court of Appeal noted that the High Court in Farah endorsed the Baden scale and indicated that knowledge falling within any of the first four categories, but not the fifth, represents the law in Australia (see [87]).

Conclusion…and a window left open – omission/acquiescence

The Victorian Court of Appeal’s judgment in Harstedt is worthwhile for practitioners to be across. Their Honours’ remarks as to the different forms of third party liability as an accessory to breaches of fiduciary duty or trust are instructive. Further, the judgment contains useful guidance as to what will constitute “assistance” for the purposes of the second limb (knowing assistance), and as to the five Baden catetogories of knowledge.

One final aspect: Their Honours noted that Harstedt advanced its case as to “assistance” as one of active involvement by Mr Tomanek. Their Honours remarked that Harstedt did not contend that Mr Tomanek’s “assistance” comprised his acquiescence with the breach, which acquiescence caused the loss. Therefore, so their Honours noted, it was unnecessary to decide whether an omission or acquiescence may amount to “assistance” under the second limb (see [119]). Their Honours observed that the authorities on this point appear to be in disharmony. They set out a list of such cases at footnote 84.

Clearly their Honours have left this matter open. It raises interesting questions as to whether a failure to stop a fraud could constitute “assistance”; whether sitting on one’s hands could be held to be enough to facilitate a fraud, sufficiently to amount to “assistance” and satisfy that element of a claim for liability in respect of the fraud against a third party. I would speculate that may depend upon the knowledge of the third party. If the third party’s level of knowledge of the fraud reaches a high enough Baden category, then a failure to take any action to stop the fraud may be more likely to be found to constitute sufficient “assistance” in the fraud. It will be interesting to see what happens in the cases to come.

Newsflash – Amerind is headed for the High Court

Papers have reportedly been filed with the High Court by creditor Carter Holt Harvey Wood Products Pty Ltd. Watch this space.

In the meantime, for my review and analysis of the Victorian Court of Appeal decision in Amerind see here, and for my article considering the recent Full Federal Court decision in Killarnee and the landscape for liquidating corporate trustees of trading trusts in light of both decisions see here.

New article on Killarnee – trading trusts, statutory priorities on the liquidation of trustee companies, lack of power to sell trust assets

I have added a new article to my website reviewing the recent, important decision of Jones (liquidator) v Matrix Partners Pty Ltd, re Killarnee Civil & Concrete Contractors Pty Ltd (in liq) [2018] FCAFC 40 (Killarnee). The full article can be accessed here.

As noted in my alert, last week the Full Court of the Federal Court handed down its much anticipated decision in Killarnee. The issue for the Full Court broadly was how a liquidator is to deal with trust assets in the liquidation of a company which had been trustee of a trading trust.

The three member bench comprised Allsop CJ, and Siopis and Farrell JJ. Unlike in the decision last month in Amerind where the Victorian Court of Appeal spoke with a single unanimous voice, their Honours of the Full Court wrote three separate judgments, with the Chief Justice writing the lead. Overall, while there is sound reasoning and analysis and useful clarity on some points, the Full Court’s decision may be likely to create some other concerns for insolvency practitioners dealing with trustees of trading trusts.

There was unanimity on some issues but not others and, there was a sting or two in the tail. The issue now appears to be resolved that a trustee company’s right of exoneration over the trust assets is property of the trustee company. The Full Court was clear in their view in obiter that trust assets may only be applied in payment of trust debts in exercise of a trustee’s right of exoneration (not non-trust debts). Their Honours also addressed and made clear their position as to the lack of liquidators’ power to sell trust assets, and the need for court order.

On the scheme of priority issue: the majority of the Full Court ostensibly joined with Amerind and resolved some of the uncertainty of the past few years as to whether liquidators should apply the statutory scheme of priorities under the Corporations Act when liquidating companies which have conducted their business through trading trusts and exercising the trustee’s right of exoneration over trust assts to pay creditors. The majority held that the scheme of priorities applies…mostly. This was one of the stings. Whilst the priority afforded employee entitlements was endorsed, as was that for liquidators’ costs, their Honours in the majority queried whether every element of the priority scheme in s 556 should apply in every case (indeed whether some such debts would even qualify as trust debts in every case) – see the discussion below. Their Honours’ comments and the doubt created in this area suggest that court directions are likely to be advisable for a liquidator dealing with trading trust assets on the question of distribution. Resolution of this uncertainty either by the High Court or by legislation – the latter of which was strongly encouraged by Farrell J – would be welcome, although it may need to be carefully done. This also is discussed in the article.

The specific questions considered by the Full Court on the particular case before them, and their Honours’ answers to those questions, are already set out in my alert of last week and can be read here.

To get straight to it, on my analysis, the propositions to be distilled from the Full Court’s decision in Killarnee are these –

  1. The right of exoneration and the lien over trust assets in its support are property of the trustee company. The Full Court agreed with the Victorian Court of Appeal in Amerind on this.
  2. Power to sell assets lacking under s 477 as liquidator. The assets of a trust are not themselves assets in the winding up of the trustee company, though they are subject to the right of indemnity and lien. It follows that the liquidator generally lacks power under s 477 to sell the trust assets.
  3. Power to sell assets lacking where company no longer trustee. Where the company ceases to be trustee of the trust upon its liquidation under the terms of the trust, it will then generally hold the trust assets as bare trustee (and as former trustee liable for unpaid trust debts, retaining its right of indemnity against those assets). As bare trustee, with a duty and power only to hold and preserve trust assets, the company will generally lack a trustee’s power to sell the trust assets.
  4. Power to sell trust assets can be acquired by court order for judicial sale, usually with appointment as receiver of the trust assets to carry out the sale and for the distribution of the proceeds. The liquidator of a trustee company ought approach the courts for authority to sell the trust assets.
  5. Scheme of priorities applies (mostly). The majority of the Full Court held 2:1 that the statutory scheme of priorities laid down in the Corporations Act applies to the distribution of trust assets where subject to a right of exoneration. Note however that the majority judgments raise some doubt as to whether this is achieved by the legislation applying or by Equity echoing the scheme. Siopis J dissented on this, but conceded that a similar result could be produced by way of the court, in its equitable jurisdiction, giving directions to a receiver appointed over the trust assets as to the distributions to be made to trust creditors, subject to the circumstances of the particular case.
  6. However some elements of the priority scheme may not apply in every case.
    The sting: While the majority of Allsop CJ and Farrell J accepted that the priority scheme generally applies, both queried whether all elements of the scheme applies in every case. Their Honours took the view that each paragraph of s 556 must be interrogated for its meaning and endorsed some – but not all – of the priority debts listed in the scheme. Farrell J specifically questioned whether the costs of the winding up application could even be seen as a trust debt. The Court’s position on the various types of priority debt are identified and discussed in my article (here).
  7. Trust assets are not generally available for distribution to non-trust creditors. They may only be used to pay trust creditors. Trust assets may only be applied in payment of Trust debts, where this is done in exercise of the trustee’s right of exoneration (as opposed to the right of recoupment). In re Suco Gold is correct. Re Enhill is not.

The full article can be accessed here.

Newsflash – judgment in Killarnee is in

Late this afternoon the Full Court of the Federal Court of Australia delivered judgment in Jones (liquidator) v Matrix Partners Pty Ltd, re Killarnee Civil & Concrete Contractors Pty Ltd (in liq) [2018] FCAFC 40. The bench comprised Allsop CJ, Siopis and Farrell JJ. The judgment can now be read on Austlii here.

Their Honours delivered three separate judgments. There was unanimity of decision and reasoning on some of the questions answered, but not others. The Court answered the questions posed for decision as follows –

  1. The assets of the Trust are not assets in the winding up of the trustee company Killarnee, such that the liquidator did not have power under s 477 to sell the Trust assets (unanimous).
  2. Two parts –
    1. The proceeds of realisation of Trust assets are to be applied by the Liquidator in accordance with the priority regime under ss 555, 556, 560 and 561 of the Corporations Act (2:1 – Allsop CJ answered yes, Farrell J answered yes but for different reasons, Siopis answered no).
    2. The unfair preference proceeds are to be applied in accordance with the priority regime (unanimous, although with the qualification that this was common ground, which their Honours noted they accepted without undertaking any legal analysis).
  3. Two parts –
    1. The Liquidator should be directed to deal with the proceeds of realisation of Trust assets as assets in the winding up of the Company (2:1 – Allsop CJ answered yes, Farrell J answered yes in substance, Siopis J answered no).
    2. The Liquidator should be directed to deal with the unfair preference proceeds as assets in the winding up of the Company (unanimous).
  4. Neither the proceeds of realisation of Trust assets or the unfair preference proceeds should be distributed by the Liquidator to unsecured creditors of the Trust pari passu after providing for the costs of the administration (unanimous, although Siopis J’s reasons differed to those of Allsop CJ and Farrell J).

More to follow.

 

Heads up – Judgment in Killarnee to be delivered this afternoon

The Full Federal Court matter of Killarnee is listed for handing down of judgment at 5.15 this afternoon. Watch this space.

For more as to the issues arising at the point where trust law intersects with insolvency law, see my review of the recent Victorian Court of Appeal decision in Re Amerind – here.

 

The Amerind appeal – trading trusts, statutory regime of priority applies on receivership of the trustee, employee entitlements protected

As noted in my alert yesterday morning, the Victorian Court of Appeal has handed down it’s decision on appeal from Re Amerind (receivers and managers apptd)(in liq) [2017] VSC 127; (2017) 320 FLR 118. The appeal judgment is now up on Austlii and can be read here: Commonwealth of Australia v Byrnes and Hewitt as receivers and managers of Amerind Pty Ltd (receivers and managers apptd)(in liq) [2018] VSCA 41.

The five member bench comprised their Honours Ferguson CJ, Whelan JA, Kyrou JA, McLeish JA and Dodds-Streeton JA. The judgment was unanimous. At least for Victoria, it resolves the uncertainty  of the past few years following Independent Contractors and Re Amerind as to whether receivers and liquidators should apply the statutory priorities under sections 433, 556 and 560 of the Corporations Act when distributing the assets of corporations who have conducted their businesses through trading trusts. They should; the statutory scheme of priority applies. The fact that the funds are the proceeds of trust assets does not displace the priority regime.

The judgment was divided into two parts. The first part, commanding the bulk of the judgment, dealt with the issue of how a corporate trustee’s right of indemnity from trust assets is to be dealt with in insolvency, whether the receivership surplus in that case was properly characterised as trust property or property of the trustee, and whether the statutory scheme of priority applied. It is this first part I propose to address below.

The second part of the judgment dealt with the second ground on which Robson J had held that s 433 did not apply, namely that the right of indemnity was not subject to a ‘circulating security interest’.

Summary snapshot

To get straight to it, their Honours on the Amerind appeal held that –

  • A corporate trustee’s right of indemnity from trust assets is property of the trustee company within the meaning of s 433 of the Corporations Act. Not property of the trust, as Robson J had held at first instance.
  • The statutory scheme of priority applies to distribution of the relevant property, being the receivership surplus subject to the right of indemnity. This had the result that the Commonwealth’s claim to priority in the distribution of the receivership surplus by virtue of the payments it had made of employee entitlements under FEGS was vindicated.
  • (In the second part of the judgment – certain assets in dispute fell within the ambit of property secured by a ‘circulating security interest’. Their Honours held that the relevant assets in this context was not the right of indemnity but the trust assets. The correct date for assessing whether property is subject to a circulating security interest under s 433 is the date the receiver is appointed and takes possession. The Court also held that on the proper construction of s 340(1) of the PPSA the two limbs (a) and (b) are alternatives. Either may be satisfied to bring property within the definition of a ‘circulating asset’.)

Their Honours took the opportunity to state clearly that Re Enhill remains authoritative in Victoria and must be followed by trial judges here.

However, the Court left open the question of how non-trust creditors (if any) are to be treated on the insolvency of a trustee company. That is, whether on an insolvency a trustee’s right of indemnity must be used in payment of trust debts only, or of non-trust debts of the company also, ranking pari passu. I discuss this below.

Similar issues were also considered by the Full Court of the Federal Court in August last year in a hearing before their Honours Allsop CJ, Siopis and Farrell JJ in In the matter of Killarnee Civil & Concrete Contractors Pty Ltd (in liq) (WAD181/2016). Their judgment must surely be imminent, and it will be interesting to see how their Honours treat the issues. Given the prevalence of the use of trading trusts in Australia, it would be preferable to have both certainty and a national approach on the receivership or liquidation of corporate trustees.

**This concludes the summary. There now follows a more detailed treatment of the judgment, for those interested in reading on.

**********

The facts

The relevant facts and events are summarised at [3]-[8] and [14] of the appeal judgment and [50] at first instance. The key facts were these –

  • The company Amerind carried on business acting solely in its capacity as trustee of a trading trust
  • It had no assets of its own (save for a nominal sum settled to establish the trust)
  • The liabilities were incurred by Amerind acting as trustee
  • The creditors it had were therefore trust creditors
  • Amerind did not have its own money to meet trust liabilities and then seek to be reimbursed from the trust (by a trustee’s right of recoupment)
  • Rather, Amerind sought to be indemnified from the trust assets for liabilities it incurred in carrying out the trust (also called a trustee’s right of exoneration)
  • As all trust liabilities exceeded the trust assets, the beneficiaries’ interest had been entirely supplanted by Amerind’s right of indemnity
  • The Commonwealth had advanced accrued wages and entitlements totalling $3.8million to Amerind’s former employees pursuant to FEGS (the Fair Entitlements Guarantee Scheme)
  • Following repayment to the Bank through the receivers’ realisation of the Bank’s securities, and after providing for their own estimated remuneration, the receivers held a net surplus of $1,619,018.

Issues then arose as to how that surplus was to be applied. The Commonwealth’s position was that the priority regime provided for in the Corporations Act applied. It followed that by operation of s 560 of the Corporations Act, the Commonwealth had the same rights of priority in respect of the money advanced as do employee claims in a winding up under s 556 of the Act.

The receivers sought directions from the Court.

Submissions and authorities

The receivership surplus was subject to a right of indemnity (supported by a lien) held by the insolvent corporate trustee Amerind. The Commonwealth argued the receivership surplus was therefore the trustee company’s property, not trust property, and it should be applied in accordance with the priority regime provided for under the Corporations Act. The receivers agreed at first instance, and did not take a position on appeal. A creditor Carter Holt Harvey Woodproducts Australia Pty Ltd (CHH) opposed the Commonwealth’s position, contending that the Commonwealth was not entitled to priority because s 433 did not apply. At first instance, Robson J agreed with the creditor CHH. He held that s 433 did not apply to the receivership surplus.

Before addressing the issue the Court went on a journey from [19], giving detailed consideration to key principles and tracing through the authorities on the difficult questions that arise in resolving this issue. As it may be useful for practitioners to be aware of what was said, I will summarise those remarks here.

Nature of trust liabilities. Ordinarily a trustee is entitled to be indemnified from the trust assets against liabilities properly incurred. The trustee has a charge or lien over the trust assets for the purpose of enforcing that indemnity. In some circumstances creditors of the trustee whose debts were incurred in discharge of the trust may be subrogated to the trustee’s rights (at [22])

Nature of the trustee’s right of indemnity and creditors subrogation. A trustee’s right of indemnity may take the form of recoupment / reimbursement for trust debts already paid from the trustee’s own money, or of exoneration for trust debts not yet paid (at [23]-[27]).

I pause here to note that unlike the Court in the Re Amerind appeal, in Lane v Deputy Commissioner of Taxation [2017] FCA 953 (discussed below) Derrington J saw this distinction between the two distinct forms of a trustee’s right of indemnity as critical. At [36] of Lane Derrington J observed –

“[T]he right of a trustee to be indemnified from the assets of the trust falls into two distinct parts. First where a trustee has discharged a trust debt out of their own funds, the trustee is entitled to reimbursement out of the trust funds in an equivalent amount. That occurs by money being transferred by trust funds to the trustee who receives an absolute, beneficial interest in that money. That right in relation to satisfied trust liabilities is often referred to as the right of “recoupment”. Second, the trustee is entitled to meet unsatisfied trust debts directly from the trust assets by utilising the right of “exoneration”. Pursuant to this right, the trustee directly applies trust assets to discharge the indebtedness by paying trust funds directly to the trust creditor…This process of “exoneration” does not involve the trustee obtaining any beneficial interest in the assets which are used to discharge the trust debts.”

At [38] of Lane, Derrington J goes on –

“The important distinction between these two aspects of the trustee’s right of indemnity is usefully essayed in…[two texts on subrogation]. In the former work the learned author identifies that a trustee is restricted in the use of the right of exoneration to use it for the purpose of discharging his liability to the trust creditors and no other.”

Finally at [40] Derrington J concludes –

“[S]ome of the authorities concerning the trustee’s right of indemnity from the trust assets do not always maintain this critical distinction between the right of “recoupment” or “reimbursement” on the one hand, and the right of “exoneration” on the other. However the distinction is fundamental. If what comes into the hands of a bankruptcy trustee is a trustee’s right of recoupment, it is a right to take money from the trust funds for the benefit of the insolvent trustee’s estate. It is, in effect, the payment of an amount owing to the trustee for the purposes of reimbursing the trustee’s personal estate. Such a payment is received by the bankruptcy trustee as part of the bankrupt’s personal estate and is available to meet the claims of both trust and non-trust creditors. However, the position is markedly different when what the bankruptcy trustee receives is merely a right or entitlement to have trust assets applied to discharge trust debts. That is a considerably more limited right.”

As will be seen below, this view was not shared by the Court of Appeal.

Returning to the Amerind appeal judgment, from [28]-[56] the Court reviewed English and Australian authorities on this issue handed down between 1802 and 2012. At [57] their Honours distilled these conclusions from those authorities –

  1. There has been long standing, if not uniform, acceptance of the proposition that upon insolvency the trustee’s right of indemnity passes to the insolvent trustee’s insolvency administrator.
  2. Trust creditors deal with the trustee on the footing of the trustee’s personal liability. They may be subrogated to the trustee’s right of indemnity, but any such subrogation cannot yield greater rights than the trustee itself has.
  3. The right of subrogation is better characterised as a remedy. It is based upon the unconscionability of liabilities incurred to augment trust assets not being met out of those assets. Its goal, as revealed by the early cases, was not the protection of trust creditors, but rather the prevention of the unjust enrichment of beneficiaries.
  4. In re Richardson [1911] 2 KB 705 suggests that the right of indemnity cannot be exercised so as to meet the claims of non-trust creditors. Liverpool and the NZ decision in Jarvis would confine In re Richardson to circumstances where the indemnifying party (the beneficiaries, in effect) is ‘concerned’ as to the application of the money. (Note this may rarely be the case on insolvency.)

The statutory insolvency regime. The pari passu principle for the equal treatment of creditors’ claims applying what remains of the insolvent’s property is embodied in s 555 of the Corporations Act. Section 556 then provides for certain debts to be paid in priority to all other unsecured debts. Property held by the insolvent on trust is not property of the company and is excluded from distribution to the company’s creditors.

Employee claims have long been accorded priority over the claims of the holder of a floating charge or circulating security. Section 433 provides that a receiver who takes possession or assumes control of property of the company secured by a ‘circulating security interest’ must pay, out of property coming into his her or its hands, specified debts in priority to any claim for principal and interest under the debentures. Those specified debts include those afforded priority under s 556(1)(e),(g) or (h) or s 560 of the Act. These are the provisions which give priority to employee claims, and to those who advance funds to meet them.

The High Court in Octavo, Buckle and Bruton. The High Court’s decision in Octavo Investments Pty Ltd v Knight [1979] HCA 61; (1979) 144 CLR 360 establishes that an insolvent trustee’s right of indemnity against trust property for trust debts, gives the trustee a proprietary interest in the trust property (at [96]). On liquidation, the trustee company’s liquidator has access to that proprietary interest for the benefit of the trustee’s creditors.

The Court of Appeal expressed the view that Octavo establishes not only that the right of exoneration is property which passes to the trustee in bankruptcy (vests) or the liquidator (control), but also that the respective statutory regimes must apply to the disposition of that property. The Honours’ view was that Octavo does not, however, provide clear guidance on whether distribution is confined to trust creditors (at [100]). Indeed the Court noted that Octavo gives conflicting guidance on this question. The plurality in Octavo made conflicting remarks as to whether the proceeds of a trustee’s right of indemnity would, on insolvency, be confined to trust creditors, or whether the trustee’s non-trust creditors (if any) could share in the distribution (see [98]).

Twenty years later in Chief Commissioner of Stamp Duties (NSW) v Buckle [1998] HCA 4; (1998) 192 CLR 226, the High Court recognised the traditional distinction between rights of exoneration (for trust debts not yet paid) and recoupment (for trust debts already paid by the trustee). However the Court affirmed that the trustee’s right of indemnity, in either manifestation, conferred on the trustee a beneficial proprietary right in the trust assets (at [106]). The High Court affirmed this in Bruton Holdings Pty Ltd (in liq) v Federal Commissioner of Taxation [2009] HCA 32; (2009) 239 CLR 346. The High Court there characterised the trustee’s right of indemnity as a proprietary interest in the trust assets, irrespective of whether it took the form of recoupment or exoneration, by virtue of the lien which survived the loss of office as trustee (at [114]).

The Court of Appeal concluded that the High Court has made it clear that the trustee’s right of indemnity, both as to recoupment and exoneration, constitutes a proprietary interest in the trust assets which, in the corporate insolvency context, is ‘property of the company’. The statutory provisions governing corporate insolvency have changed over time, but none of those changes have altered or affected this position (at [124]).

I pause here to note that it is interesting how different courts in Australia can review the same High Court authorities and draw different conclusions from them as to what they establish as authoritative. In contrast with the Re Amerind appeal decision, see Lane at [96]-[99].

Re Enhill, Re Suco Gold, Independent Contractors. From [125] their Honours reviewed cases applying the English and High Court authorities on the trustee’s right of indemnity and insolvency, prior to the Amerind decision. The main cases considered were these –

Re Enhill Pty Ltd [1983] VicRp 52; [1983] 1 VR 561 is discussed from [136]. There Young CJ observed that the Victorian Full Court had to treat Octavo  as authority for the proposition that the right of a trustee to be indemnified out of the assets of the trust, or the proceeds of the exercise of that right, are assets of the trustee in a winding up.

Young CJ took the view that the proceeds of the trustee’s lien on a bankruptcy or liquidation are available for division amongst the company’s creditors generally, not only among trust creditors (at [144]). Lush J agreed, taking the view that although the case before him in Re Enhill did not concern a competition between trust and non-trust creditors, they should stand on the same footing (at [154]-[155]). He acknowledged however that there can never be exacted from the trust property, by the trustee or by the trust creditors, an amount which is greater than the trust debts (at [158]).

Shortly after Re Enhill in Victoria, the Full Court of the South Australian Supreme Court handed down Re Suco Gold Pty Ltd (in liq) (1983) 33 SASR 99. As in Re Enhill, the practical problem exposed in Re Suco was that the winding up could not proceed unless the liquidator could have recourse to trust funds to meet the costs and expenses of liquidation. King CJ rejected the liquidator’s submission, based on Re Enhill, that the right of exoneration entitled the trustee to transfer trust property to himself to meet unpaid trust debts, which property then ceased to be trust property and was, on insolvency, divisible amongst the general body of creditors. King CJ noted this to be ‘in conflict with fundamental principles of the law of trusts’ (at [171]).

Unlike Young CJ’s application of Octavo in Re Enhill, King CJ in Re Suco stated that in his view Octavo did not lead to the conclusion that the trust assts (to the extent of the trust liabilities) pass to the trustee in bankruptcy or the liquidator for the benefit of the general body of creditors (at [175]).

King CJ acknowledged that the trustee’s indemnity passes to the trustee in bankruptcy or liquidator, and that the proceeds of that indemnity were therefore part of the estate divisible amongst creditors. However King CJ drew a crucial distinction between the right of recoupment and the right of exoneration. In cases of recoupment, the right of indemnity can produce proceeds for division among the creditors generally. However not so in cases of exoneration. If a trustee takes trust property into his possession to satisfy his right to be indemnified for unpaid trust liabilities, that property retains its character as trust property and may be used only for the purpose of discharging the liabilities incurred in the performance of the trust (at [176]).

On the case before him, King CJ concluded that the liquidator was bound by s 292 of the Companies Act to pay the debts (which were all trust debts) in the specified order of priority, having recourse to the property of each trust to pay the debts incurred in performing it, and if there was any surplus after the priority payments, paying other trust debts pari passu (at [180]).

The turning point came in 2016 in Re Independent Contractor Services (Aust) Pty Ltd (in liq)[No 2] [2016] NSWSC 106; (2016) 305 FLR 222, when Brereton J held that the statutory priority scheme in s 556 did not apply to trust assets, and the creditors share pari passu in the trust assets after providing for the costs of administration. His Honour’s view was that s 556 was concerned only with the distribution of assets beneficially owned by a company and available for division between its general creditors, and trust principles provided that trust creditors’ claims rank pari passu (from [186]).

First instance judgment in Re Amerind.  In Re Amerind (receivers and managers apptd)(in liq)[2017] VSC 127; (2017) 320 FLR 118 Robson J controversially held that the trustee’s right of indemnity was not ‘property of the company’ within the meaning of s 433(3) of the Corporations Act and was not available to meet other liabilities of the company. Rather, the right of indemnity and lien could only be used to satisfy liabilities incurred on behalf of the trust (at [194]). His Honour concluded that the corporate trustee’s right of indemnity and lien, of which the receiver’s surplus was the proceeds, was ‘property held in trust’, rather than ‘the corporate trustees own beneficial personal property’. In his view the indemnity was not a personal asset of the trustee; rather it was trust property (at [197]). Hence he found that the receivers were justified in proceeding on the basis that the receivership surplus was properly characterised as property of the trust (at [201]).

Robson J acknowledged that Re Enhill and Re Suco Gold had both held that the statutory regime did apply where the assets of a company are held on trust. However his Honour preferred Brereton J’s reasoning in Re Independent that the statutory provisions applied only to ‘property of the company’ and that the trustee’s right of indemnity was not ‘property of the company’ (at [203]). His Honour took the considered view that the Victorian Full Court’s decision in Re Enhill, which had not been followed in the Federal Court or any other state of Australia, was not binding on him (at [208]).

Before the Court of Appeal, the Commonwealth submitted that Robson J erred in denying employees their rightful status as priority creditors. His Honour’s reasoning was contrary to the High Court’s recognition in Octavo, Buckle and Bruton that the trustee’s right of indemnity (including for exoneration) was a beneficial interest in trust property amounting to a proprietary interest. That analysis was applied by the Full Courts in Re Enhill and Re Suco Gold so as to conclude that the statutory order of priorities applied to the distribution of the property (at [212]).

Lane v Deputy Commissioner of Taxation [2017] FCA 953. Five months after Re Amerind,  Derrington J held in Lane that contrary to Re Independent and Re Amerind, the trustee’s right of indemnity for exoneration was a proprietary right which vested in an insolvent trustee’s trustee in bankruptcy and, by analogy, would also be ‘property of the company’ in the corporate context. But it was a limited right with a sole purpose to pay trust debts, which did not alter on insolvency (at [239]).

In Lane the question was whether trust funds were distributable to all creditors, or only to trust creditors. His Honour held that the right to be indemnified out of trust property (right of exoneration) was personal property of the trustee, “being a right to exercise power with respect to property within the meaning of s 116(1)(b) [of the Bankruptcy Act]…” (at [244]).

As touched on above, in Lane Derrington J analysed the nature of the indemnity, emphasising the distinction between rights of exoneration and recoupment, and concluded that the trustee is restricted in the use of the right of exoneration to using it for the purpose of discharging his liability to the trust creditors and no other (at [246]). The entitlement of trust creditors to be subrogated to the trustee’s right of indemnity was an important factor in Derrington J’s analysis. It gave them in his view a favoured position, and while it did not make them secured creditors, in Derrington J’s view they were akin to secured creditors in some respects (at [256]). His Honour also doubted whether, in the corporate context, ss 555 and 556 could apply to property comprising a trustee’s right of exoneration (at [258]).

Both Re Enhill and Re Suco Gold had characterised the trustee’s right of indemnity as property of the company divisible among creditors according to the statutory order of priorities (at [260]).

From [263] the Court of Appeal compared the reasoning in Re Enhill with that in Re Suco Gold, on the question of whether the trustees’ right of indemnity for exoneration in insolvency could only be used for the satisfaction of trust creditors’ claims, to the exclusion of general creditors. They noted that this question had less practical significance than perhaps anticipated. Many of the decided cases concerned trustee companies with trust liabilities only. Typically the only claims arguably not trust-related were the liquidator’s claims for costs, fees and expenses. It has been held that where it is established the liquidator’s work and costs were essential or beneficial to the trust, the related claims may be satisfied on the basis of Re Suco Gold, alternatively under the principles of Universal Distributing (at [260]).

Their Honours noted that prior to Lane, it seemed that no court had found it necessary to determine the controversy generated by the different holdings in Re Enhill and Re Suco Gold over whether the proceeds of the right of indemnity for exoneration are divisible amongst all creditors or trust creditors only. That was also the position in the instant case, as Amerind had only trust creditors. (at [261]).

At [266] the Court of Appeal noted that Young CJ in Re Enhill took the view that when insolvency intervened, the antecedent obligation to exercise the right of indemnity to meet the claims of trust creditors only was overriden by the prescribed statutory order of priorities. They noted that this approach had the advantage of consistency, but also drawbacks. It renders the trust creditors’ right of subrogation of little or no substance in the very circumstance which would trigger it. It creates a position where, on one view, there is an unauthorised application of trust assets.

However their Honours did not attempt to resolve the issue of whether the right of exoneration can be applied to pay trust creditors only, or trust and general creditors of the trustee, and seemed to doubt that it could be resolved at all:

“It seems to us to be unlikely that any analysis can comprehensively reconcile the competing considerations at play, all of which are supported to some degree in the diverse relevant authorities.” (at [267])

1. Is the right of indemnity property of the trustee company?

The answer given was yes, the right of indemnity by way of exoneration is property of the insolvent trustee company. They categorically overturned Robson J’s holding on this, stating that:

“The primary judge’s conclusion that the corporate trustee’s right of indemnity by way of exoneration was not ‘property of the company’ cannot be sustained in the light of relevant High Court authority.” (at [269])

They discussed and disagreed with his Honour’s reasoning, and observed that as Derrington J had cogently explained, in the light of the High Court decisions in Savage, Octavo, Bruton, Buckle and CPT, it cannot be seriously doubted that the right of indemnity by way of exoneration is property of the insolvent trustee company (at [273]).

2. Is the distribution of the relevant property governed by the Corporations Act?

The answer given was yes.

In Lane, Derrington J held that the right of exoneration was property of the insolvent trustee, but that the provisions of the Bankruptcy Act governing distribution of the insolvent’s property did not apply. He declined to follow Re Suco Gold and Re Enhill on this point (at [274]).

However the Court of Appeal held that in their view Re Suco Gold and Re Enhill are correct on this issue, repeating twice that:

“Once it is accepted that the right of indemnity is property of the insolvent, the insolvency legislation must apply.” (at [276] and [281])

Their Honours conceded that whilst it might be accepted that, at least where beneficiaries have an interest in the discharge of trust debts, the right of exoneration must only be used for that purpose, the imposition of a requirement of ‘directness’ was not, in their view, a requirement found in the existing authorities (at [279]). In any event, the existence of an inherent limitation on what use the right of indemnity could be put (ie to pay only trust creditors), given that it is ‘property’ in the relevant sense, would not justify a conclusion that the statutory regime did not apply (at [280]).

3.  Is the distribution confined to trust creditors? 

The Court of Appeal returned to this issue, but concluded it was unnecessary to decide this question on the application before them. The right of indemnity is property of the company, and the statutory regime applies to its distribution.

“Whether that property has an inherent characteristic which confines its distribution to trust creditors is not one that we need to decide, as all of Amerind’s creditors are trust creditors.” (at [282])

Their Honours recognised that principles of trust law favoured the approach in Re Suco Gold trust giving cogency to the view confining the use of the right of exoneration to the payment of trust debts only (at [283]). However at [284] their Honours then listed four considerations in favour of the Re Enhill approach that trust creditors and general creditors rank equally on a distribution of property constituted by the right of exoneration.

The Court of Appeal concluded that the receivership surplus was not trust property but was trustee property, and that the priority regime in ss 433(3), 556 and 560 applied to that surplus insofar as those assets were circulating assets at the relevant time (at [285]). They then clearly laid down the following guidance –

“[W]hilst the discussion above discloses that there must be some doubt about which of Re Enhill or Re Suco Gold is correct, it suffices to say that unless and until a subsequent appellate decision decides otherwise, the law as it stands in Victoria as articulated in Re Enhill should continue to be followed by trial judges in this State.” (at [286])

Conclusion

As noted above, their Honours concluded that the receivership surplus subject to the trustee’s right of indemnity was not trust property (but rather property of the trustee company), and the priority regime in ss 433(3), 556 and 560 of the Corporations Act applied to that surplus insofar as those assets were circulating assets at the relevant time.

Two final points. First, I would suggest that in bankruptcy cases (as opposed to corporate insolvency) Derrington J’s judgment in Lane is likely to trump the Court of Appeal’s decision on the Amerind appeal as authoritative in the bankruptcy context.

Secondly, Re Amerind had been having a disturbing ripple effect in other insolvent trading trust cases handed down in the intervening months before the appeal decision, which should now ease. For instance, in a case I appeared in for which judgment was delivered by Robson J last week, Re Mamounia Pty Ltd (in liq) (No 2) [2018] VSC 65, a question arose as to whether the liquidators of a trustee company had power to direct payment of a sum held by a firm of solicitors under a solicitors’ general possessory common law lien to be applied in payment of the solicitors’ fees. (Due to the nature of the common law lien, the solicitors’ right was only a passive right to retain the sum, without a power to pay themselves the fees owing by the insolvent client on multiple files.) The doubt arose in light of the then principle in Re Amerind  that a trustee’s right of exoneration itself was a trust asset and not an asset of the trustee, from which it followed that the power the liquidators would otherwise have under s 477 of the Corporations Act in dealing with property of the trustee company may be lacking. The liquidators of Mamounia, a bare trustee, sought power to be conferred upon them or the company under s 63 of the Trustee Act, if otherwise justified in directing the payment to be made. His Honour agreed to make orders conferring the requisite power under s 63 of the Trustee Act, also noting that Universal Distributing may assist the liquidators, at least for the portion of fees owing that related to work performed in producing the sum held.

At least in Victoria, then, calm has largely been restored and life as it was for insolvency practitioners administering insolvent trustees of trading trusts pre-Amerind may resume. However it remains to be seen what the future holds.

No doubt much virtual ink will be spilt in discussing the Court of Appeal’s judgment in the coming days and weeks. We wait with interest to see how the Full Court of the Federal Court treats these issues in its decision which is surely imminent in In the matter of Killarnee Civil & Concrete Contractors Pty Ltd (in liq) (WAD181/2016). Given the prevalence of the use of trading trusts in Australia, it would be preferable to have both certainty and a national approach on the receivership or liquidation of corporate trustees.

Barnes v Addy claims and indefeasibility of title

In a Victorian Supreme Court decision handed down last week, Vickery J has confirmed that a claim under Barnes v Addy is not a personal equity which defeats the indefeasibility provisions (ss 40-43) of the Transfer of Land Act 1958 (Vic) (TLA). The case also illustrates when a security interest described as an “Instrument of Charge” may, despite the words used, give rise to an equitable mortgage, rather than a charge. The case is Mathieson Nominees Pty Ltd v Aero Developments Pty Ltd [2016] VSC 131.

The case involved a claim by the plaintiff (Mathieson Nominees) that it was entitled to an equitable charge over vacant subdivisional land at Point Cook in Victoria (the Property), and that it had an interest in the land capable of supporting a caveat.

Broadly, the facts of the case were these:

The plaintiff Mathieson Nominees had loaned funds of $250,000 to a company called Sprint Homes Pty Ltd to enable it to pay the deposit to purchase the Property from VicUrban. Sprint Homes was unable to raise the funds to pay the balance of $4.5m plus GST and settle the purchase. Its director registered a new company Aero Developments Pty Ltd (the defendant) and Sprint Homes nominated this company to take the transfer of land as nominee under the contract of sale (without notifying Mathieson Nominees).  The defendant Aero Developments subsequently completed the purchase, after a change of ownership and directorship, and became registered on title.

Mathieson Nominee’s loan to Sprint Homes for the deposit had been supported by several securities. One of these was a fixed and floating charge granted by the borrower Sprint Homes under an executed Instrument of Charge. The terms of this instrument included that the Charged Property was all the present and future property of Sprint Homes, wherever situated, that it was a fixed charge on all present and future estates and interests in land, and that Sprint Homes must not, without the consent of Mathieson Nominees, dispose of or otherwise deal with the Charged Property. The Instrument of Charge was registered with ASIC.

Within 6 months – Sprint Homes went into voluntary administration, Mathieson Nominees lodged a caveat over the Property claiming an interest as chargee and appointed a receiver and manager over Sprint Homes, Sprint Homes went into liquidation, and Aero Developments lodged an application with the Registrar of Titles to have Mathieson Nominees’ caveat removed. Mathieson Nominees commenced these proceedings.

In this proceeding, Mathieson Nominees sought various declarations and orders, including –

  • that Mathieson Nominees is entitled to an equitable charge over the Property, and
  • (in summary) that it have possession of and be at liberty to sell the Property.

(It abandoned an allegation that the registration of Aero Developments as proprietor of the Property was affected by fraud within the meaning of ss 42 and 44 of the TLA. It also at trial did not pursue its claims against two other defendants, being the director of Sprint Homes and a related company.)

In the judgment, the Court dealt with a number of issues worth noting.

1. Whether the Instrument of Charge gave rise to an equitable mortgage rather than an equitable charge? 

Even though the relevant instrument was termed an “Instrument of Charge”, there was a question in this case as to whether it instead gave rise to an equitable mortgage. Vickery J observed that this is a matter of the proper construction of the relevant instrument.(See [65]-[89])

His Honour discussed the four kinds of consensual security over property – pledge, contractual lien, equitable charge and equitable mortgage, and noted that an equitable lien may also arise by operation of law. Vickery J canvassed the authorities, particularly as to equitable charges and equitable mortgages.

In relation to equitable charges, his Honour in reviewing the authorities cited inter alia cited the description of the essence of an equitable charge given by Gillard J in AVCO Financial Services v White [1977] VicRp 62; [1977] VR 561, 563 –

“An equitable charge for a debt is a security whereby only a right to payment of the debt out of the property is conferred by the owner of the property to the holder of the security. The remedy of the holder of the security on default in payment of the debt was to apply to a court of equity to have the property sold and the proceeds paid into court.”

Vickery J also noted that an equitable charge is to be distinguished from a purely contractual arrangement giving rise to no proprietary right.

As to the distinction between a charge and equitable mortgage, his Honour quoted from Sykes and Walker where the authors observe:

“The most important result, so far as the difference in substance is concerned, is that the equitable mortgagee has the potentiality of full beneficial ownership through the process of foreclosure; the equitable charge as such can never attain to the position of full beneficial owner.”

His Honour noted the authors of Fisher and Lightwood’s Law or Mortgage state that:

“The principal remedies of the charge are [judicial] sale and the appointment of a receiver.”

His Honour then considered the facts in this case, and held that the Instrument of Charge which gave rise to the security claimed by Mathieson Nominees, when read as a whole, gave rise to an equitable mortgage and not an equitable charge. It gave immediate rights to Mathieson Nominees in the event of default, including the right to take possession of the property. Although Mathieson Nominees could seek a court order in aid of the enforcement process, this was not a pre-condition to enforcement. Its remedies were not confined to a judicial sale and the appointment of a receiver. (See [84]-[87]) However, little turned on this conclusion, in the end. (See [89])

2. Whether the Instrument of Charge became enforceable against the nominated purchaser Aero Developments

Mathieson Nominees argued that the Property was subject to a charge in favour of Mathieson Nominees when it was purchased by Sprint Homes, and the charge remained in place as an encumbrance on the Property, despite the nomination of a substitute purchaser.

In short, after a consideration by Vickery J of the contractual effect of the nomination, this contention was defeated by his Honour’s conclusion that Aero Developments acquired an indefeasible title upon becoming the registered proprietor of the Property pursuant to ss 40-43 of the TLA.

In the oft-cited passage from the judgment of Barwick CJ in Breskvar v Wall (1971) 126 CLR 376, 385-6, the effect of the Torrens scheme of registration of land was described thus –

“The Torrens system of registered title of which the Act is a form is not a system of registration of title but a system of title by registration. That which the certificate of title describes is not the title which the registered proprietary formerly had, or which but for registration would have had. the title it certifies is not historical or derivative. It is the title which registration itself has vested in the proprietor.”

His Honour observed that the scheme of the Torrens legislation is such that, with very few exceptions, a purchaser who becomes the registered proprietor of an interest in land title takes free from all unregistered interests, whether he has notice of them or not (see [128]).

Vickery J noted that the statutory fraud exception arises where there is dishonest conduct on the part of the registered proprietor whose title is challenged. The emphasis in the authorities is on actual fraud on the part of the registered proprietor, although his Honour commented it has been suggested that it may be based on actual knowledge that a fraud was committed or wilful blindness to that possibility (see [124]).

Here statutory fraud was not pressed by the plaintiff, but the in personam exception to indefeasibility was sought to be relied upon. As the Privy Council said in Frazer v Walker, indefeasibility “in no way denies the right of a plaintiff to bring…a claim in personam, founded in law or equity, for such relief as a court acting in personam may grant“. However such claims must be brought under established causes of action, whether legal or equitable. Not all established causes of action, however, will found an exception on indefeasibility of title (see issue 4 below).

Thus the answer to this question of whether the Instrument of Charge became enforceable against the nominated purchaser Aero Developments, depended upon the answer to the next question.

3. Whether Mathieson Nominees had an in personam right capable of defeating the title of Aero Developments

(a) Was there any conduct on the part of Aero Developments giving rise to a personal equity which could defeat indefeasibility of title?

Vickery J held that there was no conduct on the part of Aero Developments, either before registration of its interest or after it, which gave rise to any personal equity in Mathieson Nominees such that the interest of Aero Developments as registered proprietary ought to be rendered subject to the Instrument of Charge (see [131]).

Aero Developments had changed hands and had new directors shortly before taking transfer of the land from VicUrban, and the evidence was that when it did so, it took title without any knowledge of any intention on the part of Sprint Homes or its director Mr Evans to defeat the claims of Mathieson Nominees, if ever that was their intention (see [133]). His Honour held that Aero Developments took the transfer of the Property without notice, actual or constructive, of the equitable mortgage comprised in the Instrument of Charge of Mathieson Nominees ([135] and [153]-[154]). In doing so, he noted that when Aero Developments took its transfer there was no caveat lodged against the title by Mathieson Nominees ([136]).

(b) Did Mathieson Nominees have a Barnes v Addy claim for knowing receipt and/or knowing assistance against Aero Developments

Vickery J considered the pleadings, arguments, authorities, and evidence, and held that they did not ([155]-[197]).

I pause here to note:

For those unfamiliar with what a Barnes v Addy claim is – it is a claim brought by a plaintiff not against the wrongdoer who has acted in breach of trust or of fiduciary duty, but against a third party. Third party liability is more commonly pursued by claimants where misdirected funds or property has ended up in the hands of a third party, and/or where the wrongdoer is insolvent or bankrupt. However, certain elements must be established before such a claim can succeed.

In 1874 Lord Selborne made his now famous remark in Barnes v Addy as to the liability of third parties for the breaches of duty of others in two types of cases. What he actually said was this –

[S]trangers are not to be made constructive trustees…unless [they] receive and become chargeable with some part of the trust property, or unless they assist with knowledge in a dishonest and fraudulent design on the part of the trustees.

Stemming from this brief, deceptively simple remark, much case law and academic writings have ensued. There have been shifting doctrinal analyses about the two “limbs” of Barnes v Addy (being “knowing receipt” or “knowing assistance”), debate as to the level of knowledge required under each limb (largely now settled in Australia) and debate as to the level of “dishonest and fraudulent” design required to be shown on the part of the party who acted in breach of trust or fiduciary duty as an element of the “knowing assistance” limb (there is something of a WASCA (Bell) v NSWCA (Hasler) battle being waged on this issue; I am inclined to see Hasler as the better view (link)).

Returning to the present case, here Mathieson Nominees had argued that the director of Sprint Homes Mr Evans in breach of his fiduciary duty to Sprint Homes had procured for the benefit of Aero a windfall to the detriment of Sprint Homes and its creditors ([158]). However his Honour held that on the evidence there was no breach of any relevant fiduciary duty on the part of Mr Evans to his company Sprint Homes ([171]-[194]). There were sound commercial reasons for the nomination of Aero Developments to complete the contract, and no breach of duty arose.

There having been no breach of trust, there was none of which Aero Developments, its directors and relevant agents could have known. There was no Barnes v Addy claim available to Mathieson Nominees, under either limb ([196]-[197]).

4. A Barnes v Addy claim does not defeat indefeasibility of title under the TLA

Importantly, Vickery J went further and confirmed that it has been authoritatively determined that a claim under Barnes v Addy is not a personal equity which defeats the indefeasibility provisions of the TLA, observing that “the dust has settled” on the issue ([198]-[206]).

In Macquarie Bank Ltd v Sixty-Fourth Throne Pty Ltd [1998] 3 VR 133 Tadgell JA, with whom Winneke P agreed, held at 156-7 that a claim under Barnes v Addy was not a personal equity which defeated indefeasibility of title, saying:

“[T]o recognise a claim in personam against the holder of a mortgage registered under the TLA, dubbing the holder a constructive trustee by application of a doctrine akin to “knowing receipt” when registration of the mortgage was honestly achieved, would introduce by the back door a means of undermining the doctrine of indefeasibility which the Torrens system establishes…In truth, I think it is not possible, consistently with the received principle of indefeasibility as it has been understood since Frazer v Walker and Breskvar v Wall, to treat the holder of a registered mortgage over property that is subject to a trust, registration having been honestly obtained, as having received trust property. The argument that the appellant is liable as a constructive trustee because ‘it had ‘knowingly received’ trust property should in my opinion fail.”

While there had been some debate about this in Queensland ([199] and [203]) and in Western Australia where four judges of the Full Court of the WA Supreme Court followed the reasoning of Tadgell JA and Winneke P in Macquarie Bank v Sixty-Fourth Throne ([204]), in Farah Constructions v Say-Dee [2007] HCA 22; 230 CLR 89, 140 [193]-[196] the High Court resolved the question by adopting the observations of Tadgell JA in Macquarie Bank, and applying it –

“In Macquarie Bank v Sixty-Fourth Throne Pty Ltd Tadgell JA (Winneke P concurring, Ashley AJA dissenting) held that a claim under Barnes v Addy was not a personal equity which defeated the equivalent of s 42(1) in Victoria, namely the Transfer of Land Act 1958, s 42(1)… (at [193])

“That reasoning…applies here…”. (at [194])

“Although the Court of Appeal [ie the NSW Court of Appeal in Farah Constructions v Say-Dee] referred to Macquarie Bank v Sixty-Fourth Throne Pty Ltd on another point, it did not refer to that case or LHK Nominees Pty Ltd v Kenworthy in relation to indefeasibility. It ought to have followed those cases.” (at [196])

Vickery J concluded that although this outcome has been the subject of academic criticism, Farah Constructions v Say-Dee on the issue of indefeasibility has settled the law in Australia. [206]

In the end, his Honour held, Mathieson Nominees’ claims under Barnes v Addy must fail. The caveat was ordered to be removed from the title to the Property.

Take-aways

This decision is a useful reminder of the importance for lenders of lodging caveats on the title of property when a caveatable interest in property is created in their favour. In this case, the Instrument of Charge was executed by Sprint Homes on 18 April 2008, registered with ASIC on 2 June 2008 , but a caveat on the title of the Property (for the payment of the deposit on which the funds had been loaned) was not lodged until 22 January 2010 – 11 days after administrators were appointed to Sprint Homes and 3 months after Aero Developments had been registered on title.

It also contains a useful consideration of when an instrument of security may give rise to an equitable charge or an equitable mortgage, which can run contrary to the name given to the security by the parties, as it did here, and will turn more upon the proper construction of the instrument and the rights that accrue to the secured party under the agreement.

Finally, this judgment confirms that it is settled law in Australia, since the High Court’s decision in Farah Constructions v Say-Dee in 2007, that a claim under Barnes v Addy is not a personal equity which can defeat indefeasibility of title in Torrens land (see [205]-[206]).

There may remain those who will still seek a way to argue around this conclusion, but the High Court’s decision in Farah v Say-Dee – which dealt with both limbs of Barnes v Addy – is likely to present a sizeable road-block to such an attempt.

For more about Barnes v Addy claims (both limbs), the level of knowledge required to establish them (of the Baden categories of knowledge) and the dishonest and fraudulent design on the part of the party in breach of trust or fiduciary duty required to be established for the “second limb”, knowing assistance, see my 2012 article reviewing the Full Court of the Federal Court’s decision in Grimaldi v Chamelon Mining NL (No 2) [2012] FCAFC 6, which may be read here.

Comment

It is not only freehold titles to which these principles apply. Registration of leases of greater than 3 years under s 66 of the TLA also operate to confer leasehold title upon the registering lessee, and indefeasibility of that title under ss 40-44 of the TLA (see Karacominakis v Big Country Developments Pty Ltd [2000] NSWCA 313 at [51]) and Quest Rose Hill Pty Ltd v The Owners Corporation of Strata Plan 64025 [2012] NSWSC 1548 at [72]-[78]. Similarly, a mortgage acquires indefeasibility upon registration, pursuant to s 74 and ss 40-44 of the TLA: see Macquarie Bank Ltd v Sixty-Fourth Throne Pty Ltd [1998] 3 VR 133 at 156-7, where the registered title in question was that of a mortgagee. And by way of a recent illustration, last year in Perpetual Trustees Victoria Ltd v Xiao [2015] VSC 21, Hargrave J confirmed that the fact that the mortgagor’s signature on a mortgage did not, in the absence of fraud on the part of the mortgagee finance company, affect the indefeasibility of the mortgage when registered (see [82]) or the ability of the financier to enforce the mortgage (but only to the extent of the covenant for payment contained in the mortgage – see [83]-[85] – referring to Pyramid Building Society (in liq) v Scorpion Hotels Pty Ltd [1998] 1 VR 188, 196) – see further [86]-[107].

 

Newflash: The Banks win special leave to appeal Bell Group to the High Court

It is being reported that this morning, Westpac and the other 19 banks in the Bell Group litigation have won special leave to appeal their loss last year in the West Australian courts to the High Court of Australia.

At first instance in 2008 the Banks were ordered by his Honour Justice Owen to pay about $1.58 billion to the liquidators of Bell Group (link). Their appeal of that decision to the Court of Appeal of the West Australian Supreme Court failed – see that judgment here. This morning, the full bench of the High Court granted the Banks special leave to appeal.

The brief media report may be read here. And thus Australia’s reportedly most expensive and longest-running court case continues…

The Rinehart family trust dispute – an overview of trust law principles as to the removal of trustees

On 31 October 2012 Brereton J of the NSW Supreme Court handed down his judgment on an application by Gina Rinehart and her daughter Ginia, for the summary dismissal of the application of her other children Hope Welker, John Hancock and Bianca Rinehart for inter alia the removal of their mother as trustee of the Hope Margaret Hancock Trust – Welker v Rinehart (No 10) [2012] NSWSC 1330.

His Honour summarised the application for removal of Ms Rinehart as trustee as based upon grounds that, particularly in connection with giving consideration to the extension of its vesting date in September 2011, she so misconducted herself as to demonstrate unfitness to retain the office of trustee. At the core of this were allegations that, as the vesting date approached, she misrepresented to the beneficiaries that they would incur capital gains tax liabilities with catastrophic financial consequences for them unless she exercised her discretion to extend the vesting date, but also informed them that she would so exercise her discretion only if they gave her comprehensive releases in respect of the whole of her past and future trusteeship, and they entered into nuptial agreements with their respective partners, thereby placing immense pressure on the beneficiaries to obtain benefits for herself as the price of her performing her duties as trustee. His Honour acknowledged that it remained to be seen whether or not those allegations would be established at trial.

His Honour noted countervailing considerations which may count against the plaintiffs’ application for removal of the trustee succeeding at trial. One of these was the argument  that, the trust having by now vested, the trustee’s duties are limited. However Brereton J concluded that it could not be said that the plaintiffs’ application for removal met the test for summary dismissal of having been shown to be “hopeless”, “without prospects of success” or “doomed to fail”. He also noted there were issues that could be resolved only at trial. The application for summary dismissal failed and the proceeding will continue.

This judgment provides an interesting opportunity for a brief review of the principles of trust law that apply on an application for removal of a trustee. To distill the principles to which his Honour refers at [7]-[10] as drawn from the authorities there cited (note this is my own summary from these passages of Brereton J’s judgment, not his Honour’s own list) –

1. A trustee can be removed where he or she demonstrates a want of honesty, of capacity to exercise, or of reasonable fidelity to, the duties of a trustee. [7]

2. The Courts of Equity will not intervene at every mistake, neglect of duty or inaccuracy of conduct of trustees. [7]

3. There must be something which induces the Court to think either that the trust property will not be safe, or that the trust will not be properly executed in the interests of the beneficiaries. [8]

4. The jurisdiction to remove a trustee may also be exercised with a view to an efficient and satisfactory execution of the trusts and a faithful and sound exercise of the powers conferred upon the trustee. [9]

5. In deciding to remove a trustee the Court forms a judgment based upon a range of considerations which may be many and varied, and which combine to show that the welfare of the beneficiaries is opposed to the trustee’s continued occupation of the office. [9]

6. The judgment a Court forms must be largely discretionary. However a trustee is not to be removed unless circumstances exist which afford sound ground upon which the jurisdiction may be exercised. [9]

7. The due administration of the trust is one of the Court’s central concerns, if not the predominant one. While the safety of the trust estate is undoubtedly an important element of this, it is far from the only one, and a conclusion that a trustee did not understand the nature of the fiduciary obligation, or had manifested an inclination to act inconsistently with it, might well justify removal, even in the absence of any threat to the safety of the trust property. This is because there would in those circumstances be a risk to the due administration and performance of the trust, even if not to the safety of the trust property.[10]

8. Hostility between the trustee and the beneficiaries is of itself not enough – particularly where that hostility is generated by the beneficiaries – nor is a mere preference of a beneficiary to have a different trustee.[7]

More on Willmott Forests (VSCA) & Grimaldi (HCA special leave refusal), plus new edition Mortgagee’s Power of Sale out soon

First, further to my post on Wednesday discussing the Victorian Court of Appeal’s recent decision on disclaimer of leases by liquidators in Willmott Forests (link), my friend and colleague Sam Hopper has put an excellent analysis of the case on his blog here.

Secondly, I posted last month that the High Court of Australia had denied special leave to appeal to Mr Grimaldi, from the Full Federal Court’s important decision in Grimaldi v Chameleon Mining. That post can be viewed here and includes links to my article and other previous posts about this case. If you recall, key issues of equity and company law arose in the Full Federal Court’s decision, including de facto directors, Barnes v Addy (both limbs), secret commission/bribes, directors’ fiduciary duties and equitable remedies.

I had promised to return and post an update as to the High Court’s refusal of special leave to Mr Grimaldi. In short, the transcript (link) shows that the special leave application centred on the issue of de facto directors and officers, and that special leave was refused on grounds which included –

1. Even if Mr Grimaldi was not a director or officer, on his own case he acted as a third party consultant. Chameleon Mining had good prospects of demonstrating on the findings made that in that role he would have owed fiduciary duties to the company, and that he knowingly participated in a breach of duty by an appointed director (Mr Barnes) of the company. Thus Chameleon Mining had good prospects of demonstrating that the relief ordered by Jacobson J (and undisturbed on appeal) is supportable, even if Mr Grimaldi were not a director or officer. The contemplated appeal would therefore be futile;

2. Even if Mr Grimaldi were not a director, he was an officer. The Full Court’s reasoning is consistent with the more recent High Court decision in Shafron v ASIC [2012] HCA 18; (2012) 86 ALJR 584 (link );

3. Mr Grimaldi had insufficient prospects of demonstrating that the Full Court erred on the director issue. He had alleged that the Full Court failed to consider the governance structure of Chameleon Mining. As Heydon J observed, in fact it did.

Thirdly and finally, the third edition of Mortgagee’s Power of Sale will be released soon, written by Clyde Croft J and Robert Hay. The previous edition was released in 2004, so the updated edition will be an excellent and current resource for practitioners. For more details, see Robert’s post on his property law blog here.