Litigation and Dispute Resolution

First home owners property changes 2017

29 June, 2017

What happens if the parties to a contract depart from its terms but then one of them turns around and insists on strict compliance with the contract?  Will the contract remain binding or will the parties be held to their new arrangement even if it does not constitute a binding contract?  The doctrine of common law estoppel holds the answer.

First things first – what is common law estoppel?

Common law estoppel is a legal doctrine that may come into play in circumstances where parties to an agreement have departed from the strict terms of that agreement but have not entered into a new contract to give effect to their new arrangement.  Essentially, common law estoppel prevents a party in this situation from enforcing its legal rights under the original agreement against the other party when it would be unjust to do so because it had induced the other party to assume that their underlying arrangement had changed.  Common law estoppel only applies to assumptions about existing states of affairs and not to representations as to what will happen in the future.

There are two varieties of common law estoppel – estoppel by representation and estoppel by convention.  While there is an emerging trend in Australia that these are simply two incidents of the one overarching doctrine, this view is far from settled and recent decisions continue to treat them as distinct.

Say what you mean and mean what you say – estoppel by representation

The most typical form of common law estoppel is known as estoppel by representation.  This arises when a party (representor) makes a representation of fact about an existing state of affairs to the other party (representee) and induces the representee to accept that state of affairs as true such that it relies on that representation to its detriment.  For example, if the representor tells the representee that it has signed a contract when in fact it has not and the representee proceeds to follow the terms of that contract, the representor may be bound by those same terms as if it had signed the contract.

A representee seeking to rely on estoppel by representation must prove that:

  1. The representor has made a representation.  For these purposes, the word “representation” is understood broadly – it can be an express statement or implied by spoken words, by written words, or by conduct.  However, the representation must be sufficiently clear and unambiguous.  Silence can even give rise to an estoppel by representation if the “representor” knows that the “representee” has adopted a false assumption and fails to correct the mistake in circumstances where it would be unconscionable not to do so.
  2. The representation related to an existing state of affairs.  Representations about future conduct will not suffice.  Generally, the representation must relate to a matter of fact or a matter of mixed fact and law.  If the representor makes a representation as to its legal opinion, this will only prevent the representor from denying that it held the opinion, and not from denying that the opinion is correct.
  3. The representee has acted in reliance on the representation.  In other words, the representation must have induced the representee to adopt a different course of action than it otherwise would have.
  4. The representee has suffered loss as a result of its reliance on the representation.  The loss does not need to be a monetary loss, but it must be a real loss.

Generally, the intention of the representor is irrelevant – estoppel by representation may be established regardless of whether the representor has acted innocently or fraudulently when making the representation.

Silent but deadly – estoppel by convention

An estoppel by convention arises when the parties have engaged in conduct based on a mutual assumption as to the terms of their legal relationship.  In this case, both parties will be prevented from denying that the assumption forms the basis of their relationship.  For example, if the parties to a contract interpret its words in a particular way and, to each other’s knowledge, conduct themselves in reliance on that interpretation, both parties may be bound to that interpretation regardless of whether it is correct.

The main distinguishing feature between estoppel by representation and estoppel by convention is that the former is founded on a unilateral inducement to adopt the relevant assumption, whereas the latter is founded on both parties’ mutual adoption of a conventional basis for their relationship.  Another difference between the two is that estoppel by convention can be founded on an assumption of law as well as one of fact.

A party seeking to rely on estoppel by convention must establish that:

  1. The parties have conducted themselves on the basis of an underlying assumption of fact, law, or both, that is sufficiently certain to be enforceable.
  2. The parties have accepted that the assumption is true for the purposes of their transactions. Their acceptance may be express or implied, but it must be to each other’s knowledge.
  3. The parties intended their acceptance to govern the legal position between them.
  4. The party seeking to rely on the estoppel has acted in reliance upon the assumption being true and binding and the other knew or intended that it would so rely.  Reliance in this context requires the former to establish that it would have acted differently in the absence of the assumption.  Accordingly, the parties’ conduct must be undeniably referrable to the assumption – conduct that is explicable by another equally plausible assumption will not be sufficient to establish an estoppel by convention.  However, the assumption need not be the sole inducing factor for the parties adopting the conduct in question.
  5. The party seeking to rely on the estoppel would suffer loss if the other party were allowed to depart from the assumption.
  6. In all the circumstances, it would be unconscionable to allow the other party to depart from the assumption.


Common law estoppel is a means of tempering the unfair results that might eventuate if parties have departed from their actual legal rights and then one of them attempts to insist that those rights be strictly adhered to.  Rather than being a cause of action in and of itself, common law estoppel operates as a rule of evidence to prevent a party from denying that its legal relationship with another party had changed.  In this way, it allows the new arrangement between the parties to be enforced even though there is no binding contract to that effect.

Accordingly, it is important that parties are mindful that they may be held to account if they knowingly depart from the terms of their contract and then attempt to insist on their actual legal rights.

The Litigation and Dispute Resolution Team at McCabes is experienced at resolving contractual disputes, including cases in which a common law estoppel might arise.

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Canadian Court elevates thumbs-up emoji to signature status

In June 2023, a Canadian Court in South-West Terminal Ltd v Achter Land and Cattle Ltd, 2023 SKKB 116, held that the "thumbs-up" emoji carried enough weight to constitute acceptance of contractual terms, analogous to that of a "signature", to establish a legally binding contract.   Facts This case involved a contractual dispute between two parties namely South-West Terminal ("SWT"), a grain and crop inputs company; and Achter Land & Cattle Ltd ("ALC"), a farming corporation. SWT sought to purchase several tonnes of flax at a price of $17 per bushel, and in March 2021, Mr Mickleborough, SWT's Farm Marketing Representative, sent a "blast" text message to several sellers indicating this intention. Following this text message, Mr Mickleborough spoke with Mr Achter, owner of ALC, whereby both parties verbally agreed by phone that ALC would supply 86 metric tonnes of flax to SWT at a price of $17 per bushel, in November 2021. After the phone call, Mr Mickleborough applied his ink signature to the contract, took a photo of it on his mobile phone and texted it to Mr Archter with the text message, "please confirm flax contract". Mr Archter responded by texting back a "thumbs-up" emoji, but ultimately did not deliver the 87 metric tonnes of flax as agreed.   Issues The parties did not dispute the facts, but rather, "disagreed as to whether there was a formal meeting of the minds" and intention to enter into a legally binding agreement. The primary issue that the Court was tasked with deciding was whether Mr Achter's use of the thumbs-up emoji carried the same weight as a signature to signify acceptance of the terms of the alleged contract. Mr Mickleborough put forward the argument that the emoji sent by Mr Achter conveyed acceptance of the terms of the agreement, however Mr Achter disagreed arguing that his use of the emoji was his way of confirming receipt of the text message. By way of affidavit, Mr Achter stated "I deny that he accepted the thumbs-up emoji as a digital signature of the incomplete contract"; and "I did not have time to review the Flax agreement and merely wanted to indicate that I did receive his text message." Consensus Ad Idem In deciding this issue, the Court needed to determine whether there had been a "formal meeting of the minds". At paragraph [18], Justice Keene considered the reasonable bystander test: " The court is to look at “how each party’s conduct would appear to a reasonable person in the position of the other party” (Aga at para 35). The test for agreement to a contract for legal purposes is whether the parties have indicated to the outside world, in the form of the objective reasonable bystander, their intention to contract and the terms of such contract (Aga at para 36). The question is not what the parties subjectively had in mind, but rather whether their conduct was such that a reasonable person would conclude that they had intended to be bound (Aga at para 37)."   Justice Keene considered several factors including: The nature of the business relationship, notably that Mr Achter had a long-standing business relationship with SWT going back to at least 2015 when Mr Mickleborough started with SWT; and   The consistency in the manner by which the parties conducted their business by way of verbal conversation either in person or over the phone to come to an agreement on price and volume of grain, which would be followed by Mr Mickleborough drafting a contract and sending it to Mr Achter. Mr Mickleborough stated, "I have done approximately fifteen to twenty contracts with Achter"; and   The fact that the parties had both clearly understood responses by Mr Achter such as "looks good", "ok" or "yup" to mean confirmation of the contract and "not a mere acknowledgment of the receipt of the contract" by Mr Achter.   Judgment At paragraph [36], Keene J said: "I am satisfied on the balance of probabilities that Chris okayed or approved the contract just like he had done before except this time he used a thumbs-up emoji. In my opinion, when considering all of the circumstances that meant approval of the flax contract and not simply that he had received the contract and was going to think about it. In my view a reasonable bystander knowing all of the background would come to the objective understanding that the parties had reached consensus ad item – a meeting of the minds – just like they had done on numerous other occasions." The court satisfied that the use of the thumbs-up emoji paralleled the prior abbreviated texts that the parties had used to confirm agreement ("looks good", "yup" and "ok"). This approach had become the established way the parties conducted their business relationship.   Significance of the Thumbs-Up Emoji Justice Keene acknowledged the significance of a thumbs-up emoji as something analogous to a signature at paragraph [63]: "This court readily acknowledges that a thumbs-up emoji is a non-traditional means to "sign" a document but nevertheless under these circumstances this was a valid way to convey the two purposes of a "signature" – to identify the signator… and… to convey Achter's acceptance of the flax contract." In support of this, Justice Keene cited the definition of the thumbs-up emoji: "used to express assent, approval or encouragement in digital communications, especially in western cultures", confirming that the thumbs-up emoji is an "action in an electronic form" that can be used to allow express acceptance as contemplated under the Canadian Electronic Information and Documents Act 2000. Justice Keene dismissed the concerns raised by the defence that accepting the thumbs up emoji as a sign of agreement would "open the flood gates" to new interpretations of other emojis, such as the 'fist bump' and 'handshake'. Significantly, the Court held, "I agree this case is novel (at least in Skatchewan), but nevertheless this Court cannot (nor should it) attempt to stem the tide of technology and common usage." Ultimately the Court found in favour of SWT, holding that there was a valid contract between the parties and that the defendant breached by failing to deliver the flax. Keene J made a judgment against ALC for damages in the amount of $82,200.21 payable to SWT plus interest.   What does this mean for Australia? This is a Canadian decision meaning that it is not precedent in Australia. However, an Australian court is well within its rights to consider this judgment when dealing with matters that come before it with similar circumstances. This judgment is a reminder that the common law of contract has and will continue to evolve to meet the everchanging realities and challenges of our day-to-day lives. As time has progressed, we have seen the courts transition from sole acceptance of the traditional "wet ink" signature, to electronic signatures. Electronic signatures are legally recognised in Australia and are provided for by the Electronic Transactions Act 1999 and the Electronic Transactions Regulations 2020. Companies are also now able to execute certain documents via electronic means under s 127 of the Corporations Act. We have also seen the rise of electronic platforms such as "DocuSign" used in commercial relationships to facilitate the efficient signing of contracts. Furthermore, this case highlights how courts will interpret the element of "intention" when determining whether a valid contract has been formed, confirming the long-standing principle that it is to be assessed objectively from the perspective of a reasonable and objective bystander who is aware of all the relevant facts. Overall, this is an interesting development for parties engaging in commerce via electronic means and an important reminder to all to be conscious of the fact that contracts have the potential to be agreed to by use of an emoji in today's digital age.

Published by Foez Dewan
29 August, 2023

Venues NSW ats Kerri Kane: Venues NSW successful in overturning a District Court decision

The McCabes Government team are pleased to have assisted Venues NSW in successfully overturning a District Court decision holding it liable in negligence for injuries sustained by a patron who slipped and fell down a set of steps at a sports stadium; Venues NSW v Kane [2023] NSWCA 192 Principles The NSW Court of Appeal has reaffirmed the principles regarding the interpretation of the matters to be considered under sections5B of the Civil Liability Act 2002 (NSW). There is no obligation in negligence for an occupier to ensure that handrails are applied to all sets of steps in its premises. An occupier will not automatically be liable in negligence if its premises are not compliant with the Building Code of Australia (BCA). Background The plaintiff commenced proceedings in the District Court of NSW against Venues NSW (VNSW) alleging she suffered injuries when she fell down a set of steps at McDonald Jones Stadium in Newcastle on 6 July 2019. The plaintiff attended the Stadium with her husband and friend to watch an NRL rugby league match. It was raining heavily on the day. The plaintiff alleged she slipped and fell while descending a stepped aisle which comprised of concrete steps between rows of seating. The plaintiff sued VNSW in negligence alleging the stepped aisle constituted a "stairwell" under the BCA and therefore ought to have had a handrail. The plaintiff also alleged that the chamfered edge of the steps exceeded the allowed tolerance of 5mm. The Decision at Trial In finding in favour of the plaintiff, Norton DCJ found that: the steps constituted a "stairwell" and therefore were in breach of the BCA due to the absence of a handrail and the presence of a chamfered edge exceeding 5mm in length. even if handrails were not required, the use of them would have been good and reasonable practice given the stadium was open during periods of darkness, inclement weather, and used by a persons of varying levels of physical agility. VNSW ought to have arranged a risk assessment of the entire stadium, particularly the areas which provided access along stepped surfaces. installation of a handrail (or building stairs with the required chamfered edge) would not impose a serious burden on VNSW, even if required on other similar steps. Issues on Appeal VNSW appealed the decision of Norton DCJ. The primary challenge was to the trial judge's finding that VNSW was in breach of its duty of care in failing to install a handrail. In addition, VNSW challenged the findings that the steps met the definition of a 'stairwell' under the BCA as well as the trial judge's assessment of damages. Decision on Appeal The Court of Appeal found that primary judge's finding of breach of duty on the part of VNSW could not stand for multiple reasons, including that it proceeded on an erroneous construction of s5B of the Civil Liability Act 2002 and the obvious nature of the danger presented by the steps. As to the determination of breach of duty, the Court stressed that the trial judge was wrong to proceed on the basis that the Court simply has regard to each of the seven matters raised in ss 5B and 5C of the CLA and then express a conclusion as to breach. Instead, the Court emphasised that s 5B(1)(c) is a gateway, such that a plaintiff who fails to satisfy that provision cannot succeed, with the matters raised in s 5B(2) being mandatory considerations to be borne in mind when determining s 5B(1)(c). Ultimately, regarding the primary question of breach of duty, the Court found that: The stadium contained hazards which were utterly familiar and obvious to any spectator, namely, steps which needed to be navigated to get to and to leave from the tiered seating. While the trial judge considered the mandatory requirements required by s5B(2) of the CLA, those matters are not exhaustive and the trial judge failed to pay proper to attention to the fact that: the stadium had been certified as BCA compliant eight years before the incident; there was no evidence of previous falls resulting in injury despite the stairs being used by millions of spectators over the previous eight years; and the horizontal surfaces of the steps were highly slip resistant when wet. In light of the above, the Court of Appeal did not accept a reasonable person in the position of VNSW would not have installed a handrail along the stepped aisle. The burden of taking the complained of precautions includes to address similar risks of harm throughout the stadium, i.e. installing handrails on the other stepped aisles. This was a mandatory consideration under s5C(a) which was not properly taken into account. As to the question of BCA compliance, the Court of Appeal did not consider it necessary to make a firm conclusion of this issue given it did not find a breach of duty.  The Court did however indicated it did not consider the stepped aisle would constitute a "stairway" under the BCA. The Court of Appeal also found that there was nothing in the trial judge's reasons explicitly connecting the risk assessment she considered VNSW ought to have carried out, with the installation of handrails on any of the aisles in the stadium and therefore could not lead to any findings regarding breach or causation. As to quantum, the Court of Appeal accepted that the trial judge erred in awarding the plaintiff a "buffer" of $10,000 for past economic loss in circumstances where there was no evidence of any loss of income. The Court of Appeal set aside the orders of the District Court and entered judgment for VNSW with costs. Why this case is important? The case confirms there is no obligation in negligence for owners and operators of public or private venues in NSW to have a handrail on every set of steps. It is also a welcome affirmation of the principles surrounding the assessment of breach of duty under s 5B and s 5C of the CLA, particularly in assessing whether precautions are required to be taken in response to hazards which are familiar and obvious to a reasonable person.

Published by Leighton Hawkes
18 August, 2023
Litigation and Dispute Resolution

Expert evidence – The letter of instruction and involvement of lawyers

The recent decision in New Aim Pty Ltd v Leung [2023] FCAFC 67 (New Aim) has provided some useful guidance in relation to briefing experts in litigation.

Published by Justin Pennay
10 August, 2023