Wednesday, 20 January 2021

Are there any cases about the Victorian retail tenancies moratorium due to the Covid-19 pandemic?

In C B Buffet (Burwood) Pty Ltd v Delloyd Pty Ltd [2020] VCAT 1234 VCAT member Kincaid heard an application for an injunction to restrain a landlord from taking possession of retail premises. 

The case is of interest as it considered the application of the moratorium on rent in retail leases introduced by the Victorian government for the Covid-19 pandemic. 

As readers will know, in order to establish an entitlement to interlocutory injunctive relief an applicant must first demonstrate that there is a serious question to be tried as to its entitlement to relief. In respect of this question, the applicant must make out a prima facie case in the sense of demonstrating that, in the circumstances, there is a sufficient likelihood of success at trial, in respect of the question, to justify the preservation of the status quo pending the determination of the parties’ rights at trial. This does not mean that the applicant has to establish that it is more likely than not that it will succeed at trial. How strong the probability needs to be depends upon the nature of the rights asserted, and the practical consequences likely to flow from the relief sought.

An applicant must also establish that the balance of convenience favours the granting of an injunction. The Tribunal should take whichever course appears to carry the lowest risk of injustice should it turn out to have been wrong, in the sense of granting an injunction to a party who fails to establish its right at trial or failing to grant an injunction to a party who succeeds at trial.

Background

The tenant alleged that it operated a Chinese buffet style restaurant, and that it suffered a decline in business “from around January 2020” due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The member stated that it was noteworthy that in late January 2020 the first Australian cases of Covid-19 were reported, mainly incoming travellers from China. The first Australian death from Covid-19 was reported on 1 March 2020, and the WHO declared the pandemic on 11 March 2020. News reports at the time indicated, however, that by early February 2020 Chinese restaurant businesses in Melbourne had substantially lost their customer base, and by mid-February 2020 many well-known Chinese restaurants in Melbourne had been forced to close.

The tenant gave evidence that in “early February 2020” its business was closed.

On 13 March 2020 the tenant received from the landlord a notice of default, which required the tenant to remedy certain defaults within 14 days. 

On 27 March 2020 the landlord took possession of the premises due to the non-payment of rent and other outgoings claimed in the notice of default.

On 29 March 2020 the National Cabinet announced a set of principles by which there should be a moratorium on evictions of commercial and residential tenants over the next six months for tenants who were unable to meet their commitments due to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. The principles were formalised on 3 April 2020, and were subsequently contained in what was called the National Cabinet Mandatory Code of Conduct-SME Commercial Leasing Principles During Covid-19 (the “Code of Conduct”).

These principles subsequently became the subject of legislation in Victoria (the “Covid-19 legislation”), comprising:

(a) COVID-19 Omnibus (Emergency Measures) Act 2020 (the “Act”), which came into operation on 25 April 2020;

(b) COVID-19 Omnibus (Emergency Measures)(Commercial Leases and Licences) Regulations 2020 (the “Regulations”), made 1 May 2020 under section 15 of the Act, but taken to have come into operation on 29 March 2020; and

(c) Coronavirus Economic Response Package (Payments and Benefits) Rules 2020 (the “Rules”)which came into effect on 9 April 2020.

In summary, the Regulations provide that where a tenant has an “eligible lease” as defined in section 13 of the Act, it is entitled to avail itself of a rent relief regime as described in the Regulations. When promulgated, the Regulations were to expire on 29 September 2020, but they have since been extended.

One of the requirements for qualification as an “eligible lease” was that the lease was in effect on the day the first regulations made under section 15 of the Act came into operation. That date was 29 March 2020. The landlord submitted that the lease, having been brought to an end on 27 March 2020, did therefore not qualify as an eligible lease. 

The landlord also submitted that this was relevant when considering the tenant’s alternative claim for relief against forfeiture, and the liabilities the tenant would have to meet as the usual condition of granting relief.

Interestingly for our purposes, the tenant alleged that the landlord was not entitled to re-enter the retail premises other than by having first complied with the provisions of the Act and the Regulations.

Regulation 9(2) of the regulations provides:

A landlord under an eligible lease must not evict or attempt to evict a tenant under the eligible lease to whom sub-regulation [9(1)] applies.

As noted, an eligible lease under the Act, being a lease that therefore had the protection of the rent relief provisions of the Regulations, was one that was in effect on 29 March 2020. The Tribunal found in this case that there was no serious question to be tried concerning the right of the landlord to bring the lease to an end by re-entry on 27 March 2020, and as a consequence the Tribunal found that there was no serious question to be tried concerning the right of the tenant to the protections against ejectment provided by the Covid-19 legislation.

As well as injunctive relief, the tenant claimed in the alternative relief against forfeiture. 

The landlord submitted that as to the future rent, the tenant may not be able to pay it for months or years as its capability of doing so, being linked to the tenant’s turnover, would require the tenant promptly to operate at the same level as the period prior to the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

The Tribunal concluded that the tenant did not intend to seek relief from its obligation to pay rent and outgoings pursuant to the Covid-19 legislation, such that the amount of rent payable by the tenant until its business started operating again would be a matter for determination, failing agreement between the parties.  

The Tribunal accepted the evidence of the tenant’s director to the effect that the tenant is enrolled in the JobKeeper Scheme, and that the director is an “eligible business participant” engaged in the business of the tenant and entitled to receipt of the Jobkeeper payment. The Tribunal also accepted that the tenant qualified for the JobKeeper Scheme, as “carrying on business” in Australia on 1 March 2020, notwithstanding the landlord having taken possession of the premises on 27 February 2020. 

However, the Tribunal concluded that in regard to the tenant's obligation to pay rent and other amounts in arrears as a condition of the granting of relief against forfeiture, there was no serious question as to whether the tenant was entitled to take advantage of the rent relief provisions contained in the Covid-19 legislation. The Member accepted the landlord's submission that the lease was not an “eligible lease” within the meaning of section 13 of the Act because there was no serious question as to whether it was in effect on 29 March 2020. The tenant would therefore not be entitled to any rent relief or relief from any liabilities under the Covid-19 legislation.

Ultimately the Tribunal granted the tenant’s application for relief against forfeiture on the basis that all rent and outgoings that would otherwise have been paid by the tenant to the landlord to the date of the decision, had the landlord not taken possession when it did, must be paid by the tenant as a condition of granting relief.

This case shows the analysis that the Tribunal must undertake in order to determine whether a case falls within the moratorium granted by the  Code of Conduct and the Act and regulations created under it. 


W G Stark 

Hayden Starke Chambers

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