Setting aside a statutory demand – Another useful summary of the law

Last year I added a post (see http://wp.me/p1UOHK-5y) referring to a clear, brief summary of the requirements for setting aside a demand, set out in the decision in Elite Catering Equipment Pty Ltd v Seroshtan [2012] VSC 241(link).

Another recent case following the same line of reasoning is worth noting.  The decision is Welldog Pty Ltd v World Oil Tools Inc [2013] QSC 180 (link), approving a summary of the law by Robson J in Rhagodia Pty Ltd v National Australia Bank Ltd (2008) 67 ACSR 367 at [91]–[94] (link).

Robson J’s summary has also been approved recently in a decision of Associate Justice Gardiner, in Troutfarms Australia Pty Ltd v Perpetual Nominees Ltd [2013] VSC 228 (link) and by the Victorian Court of Appeal, on appeal from Gardiner AsJ, in Troutfarms Australia Pty Limited v Perpetual Nominees Limited [2013] VSCA 176 (link).

The cited passage from Rhagodia reads as follows (emphasis added):

[91] In TR Administration Pty Ltd v Frank Marchetti & Sons Pty Ltd Dodds-Streeton JA (with whom Neave and Kellam JJA concurred) said:

‘[56] The court, in the context of an application to set aside a statutory demand, must determine whether there is a genuine dispute about the existence or amount of the debt or whether the company has a genuine off-setting claim.

[57] No in-depth examination or determination of the merits of the alleged dispute is necessary, or indeed appropriate, as the application is akin to one for an interlocutory injunction. Moreover, the determination of the “ultimate question” of the existence of the debt should not be compromised.’

[92] Dodds-Streeton JA further said:

‘[71] As the terms of s 459H of the Corporations Act 2001 and the authorities make clear, the company is required, in this context, only to establish a genuine dispute or off-setting claim. It is required to evidence the assertions relevant to the alleged dispute or off-setting claim only to the extent necessary for that primary task. The dispute or off-setting claim should have a sufficient objective existence and prima facie plausibility to distinguish it from a merely spurious claim, bluster or assertion, and sufficient factual particularity to exclude the merely fanciful or futile. As counsel for the appellant conceded however, it is not necessary for the company to advance, at this stage, a fully evidenced claim. Something “between mere assertion and the proof that would be necessary in a court of law” may suffice. A selective focus on a part of the formulation in South Australia v Wall, divorced from its overall context, may obscure the flexibility of judicial approach appropriate in the present context if it suggests that the company must formally or comprehensively evidence the basis of its dispute or off-setting claim. The legislation requires something less.’

[93] In Eyota, McClelland CJ of the Supreme Court of New South Wales said:

‘It is, however, necessary to consider the meaning of the expression “genuine dispute” where it occurs in s 450H. In my opinion that expression connotes a plausible contention requiring investigation, and raises much the same sort of considerations as the “serious question to be tried” criterion which arises on an application for an interlocutory injunction or for the extension or removal of a caveat. This does not mean that the court must accept uncritically as giving rise to a genuine dispute, every statement in an affidavit “however equivocal, lacking precision, inconsistent with undisputed contemporary documents or other statements by the same deponent, or inherently improbable in itself, it may be” not having “sufficient prima facie plausibility to merit further investigation as to [its] truth” (cf Eng Mee Yong v Letchumanan), or “a patently feeble legal argument or an assertion of facts unsupported by evidence”: cf South Australia v Wall.’

But if it does mean that, except in such an extreme case, a court required to determine whether there is a genuine dispute should not embark upon an inquiry as to the credit of a witness or a deponent whose evidence is relied on as giving rise to the dispute. There is a clear difference between, on the one hand, determining whether there is a genuine dispute and, on the other hand, determining the merits of, or resolving, such a dispute. In Mibor Investments Hayne J said, after referring to the state of the law prior to the enactment of Div 3 of Pt 5.4 of the Corporations Law, and to the terms of Div 3:

‘These matters, taken in combination, suggest that at least in most cases, it is not expected that the court will embark upon any extended inquiry in order to determine whether there is a genuine dispute between the parties and certainly will not attempt to weight the merits of that dispute. All that the legislation requires is that the court conclude that there is a dispute and that it is a genuine dispute.’

In Re Morris Catering (Aust) Pty Ltd Thomas J said:

‘There is little doubt that Div 3 … prescribes a formula that requires the court to assess the position between the parties, and preserve demands where it can be seen that there is no genuine dispute and no sufficient genuine offsetting claim. That is not to say that the court will examine the merits or settle the dispute. The specified limits of the court’s examination are the ascertainment of whether there is a “genuine dispute” and whether there is a “genuine claim”.

It is often possible to discern the spurious, and to identify mere bluster or assertion. But beyond a perception of genuineness (or the lack of it), the court has no function. It is not helpful to perceive that one party is more likely than the other to succeed, or that the eventual state of the account between the parties is more likely to be one result than another.

The essential task is relatively simple — to identify the genuine level of a claim (not the likely result of it) and to identify the genuine level of an offsetting claim (not the likely result of it).’

I respectfully agree with those statements.

[94] In TR Administration, Dodds-Streeton JA (with whom Neave and Kellam JJA concurred) cited this passage with apparent approval and noted it was also cited by the Full Federal Court in Spencer Constructions Pty Ltd v GAM Aldridge Pty Ltd.

Regards

Mark

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