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Queensland – COVID-19 – Retail Shop Leases and Other Commercial Leases Regulation

Written by Ben Malone on June 2, 2020

The Retail Shop Leases and Other Commercial Leases (COVID-19 Emergency Response) Regulation 2020 (QLD) (QLD Regulations) came into effect on 28 May 2020.

The QLD Regulations largely mirror similar laws introduced by other States and Territories to implement the National Cabinet’s Code of Conduct for commercial tenancies, however there are a number of important differences that QLD landlords and tenants will need to be aware of.

Who is an affected lessee?

The QLD Regulations apply to “affected lessees”, being a tenant under a commercial or retail lease where the tenant has a turnover of less than $50M and is eligible for JobKeeper.  For the purposes of the turnover test, if the tenant is an entity connected with (or an affiliate of) another entity it will be the aggregate annual turnover of those entities.

If an affected lessee breaches the lease by ceasing trade or not paying rent/outgoings (wholly or partly) during the period 29 March 2020 to 30 September 2020, a landlord is prevented from (amongst other things) doing or continuing the following actions:

  • evicting / re-entering / terminating
  • seeking damages
  • charging interest
  • drawing on lease security
  • enforcing a personal guarantee or indemnity in a lease

unless the landlord has made a genuine attempt to negotiate and the tenant has substantially failed to comply with the negotiation process.  Rent also cannot be increased during this period (except turnover rent).

Negotiation process

The QLD Regulations impose obligations on landlords and tenants to cooperate and act in good faith in all discussions and actions associated with mitigating the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on each other.

Either party can trigger the renegotiation process and, once triggered, the parties must both give each other information relating to the request that is true, accurate and sufficient to enable the parties to negotiate in a fair and transparent way.

The QLD Regulations helpfully give examples of the information required, namely turnover information, evidence of JobKeeper eligibility and details of steps the tenant has taken to mitigate the effects of the pandemic.  A tenant may also apply for further rent reduction if circumstances materially worsen after an initial agreement is reached – but notably, they do not deal with the alternate scenario of circumstances improving for the particular tenant.  Landlords should consider this issue in reaching and documenting any agreement with tenants.

Differences in the QLD Regulations

One of the most critical changes the QLD Regulations impose is that landlords must offer tenants an extension to the term of the lease on the same conditions as those contained in the lease equivalent to the period for which rent is waived or deferred.  The only exception to this absolute obligation is where the landlord would be in breach of another legal obligation in doing so, or if the landlord demonstrates that the lease cannot be extended because it intends to use the premises for a ‘commercial purpose of the landlord’.

Some other interesting differences about the QLD Regulations when compared to other jurisdictions:

  • they expressly apply to agreements for lease where the lease has not yet commenced or come into effect
  • whilst the other jurisdictions have regard to the turnover of a franchise operation at the franchisee level, for the purposes of determining whether turnover is under $50M, the QLD Regulation go further and state that if premises are leased to a franchisor and then subleased to a franchisee who is an affected lessee, the franchisor is also treated as being an ‘affected lessee’
  • deferrals must be offered over a minimum period of 2 years (but no more than 3 years)
  • the landlord’s rights in respect of a security deposit are preserved until such time as the deferred rent has been repaid – albeit the position is silent on bank guarantees which may have expiry dates
  • there is a strict 30 day timeframe for the landlord to formally offer the tenant a reduction once the negotiation process has been triggered and a party has provided “sufficient information” about the rent relief request
  • there is a much more prescriptive mediation and dispute resolution process for any disputes

Insights

Changes to the Corporations Act 2001 (Cth) in response to COVID-19: section 127 execution

The Federal Government has introduced welcome changes to the Corporations Act 2001 (Cth) by way of the Corporations (Coronavirus Economic Response) Determination (No. 1) 2020 to amongst other things permit companies to execute documents pursuant to section 127 electronically (for example, by Docusign).

At this stage, the changes apply from 6 May 2020 and will be in force for 6 months.

Companies will still need to ensure the electronic execution method complies with the Determination and the relevant electronic transaction legislation in each State (for example, using an appropriate electronic execution method and obtaining consent from parties to the transaction).  We suggest it may be appropriate to include additional drafting in contracts to ensure the electronic execution arrangements are compliant.

May 6, 2020

ACCC Interim authorisation for collective negotiations by retail tenants

On 22 April 2020, the ACCC granted interim authorisation for tenants who are members of the Australian Retailers Association to collectively negotiate with landlords regarding the support to be provided to retail tenants who are adversely impacted by COVID-19 – including information sharing for the purposes of those negotiations.

This interim authorisation protects retail tenants from legal action for certain conduct which might otherwise breach the Competition and Consumer Act 2010 (Cth) and remains in place until it is revoked or the date that the ACCC has made its final determination.  The public consultation process is currently open and the final determination is anticipated in September 2020.

This interim authorisation will be especially helpful for tenants in retail shopping centres and will impact how retail landlords approach rent relief negotiations with their tenants.

April 24, 2020

New South Wales - COVID-19 New regulation - Witnessing documents via audio visual link

New regulation introduced in NSW (applicable to documents governed by state laws) allows for documents to be witnessed by audio visual link for an anticipated period of 6 months commencing from 22 April 2020. Find full copy of regulation here:

Electronic Transactions Amendment (COVID-19 Witnessing of Documents) Regulation 2020

April 24, 2020

Victoria - COVID-19 Omnibus legislation - What it means for commercial/retail tenancies now

The COVID-19 Omnibus (Emergency Measures) Bill 2020 was passed by the Victorian Government yesterday and came into effect today. The Act gives the Governor powers to enact Regulations to prohibit termination rights and limit/modify rights under an ‘eligible lease’.

What we do know now

  • The Regulations (which we have not yet seen) may be retrospective, but they wont apply before 29 March 2020 (so consider whether any April arrangement should remain subject to future rights that you may have under the regulations).
  • For now, the Regulations will only have effect for a maximum 6 months (ie. until 24 October 2020).
  • The Victorian Small Business Commission can make recommendations on the Regulations (so keep an eye out on the VSBC website).
  • The criteria for the Regulations to apply to your lease (ie to be an ‘eligible lease’) includes:
    • the tenant must have less than $50 million annual turnover (current or previous year)
    • the tenant must qualify for and participate in the JobKeeper scheme (eg. at least 30% fall in turnover)
    • the lease must be in effect on the date the first regulation operates (ie. a future date – so consider the impact on leases being/about to be entered into now)

What we don’t know yet

  • We still have to wait for Regulations from the Governor to know the details on how this may impact your rights under a lease.
  • No update on Victoria’s version of the commercial/retail tenancy rent relief framework (the Commonwealth’s Mandatory Code of Conduct is still not law yet in Victoria…).
  • The Regulations may apply to other occupancy arrangements like licences, but we won’t know exactly what that will mean in practice until we see the Regulations.

April 24, 2020

Western Australia - COVID-19 Legislation - Commercial tenancies

Covid-19 legislation for commercial tenancies appears one step closer in WA, with proposed legislation successfully passing both houses of Parliament this week.  Enactment of legislation should be imminent. Interesting to see that WA has also taken the further step of introducing proposed additional legislation (which hasn’t passed Parliament yet) giving certain tenants in ‘severe financial distress’ a regime for early termination of their lease.  This is in contrast to some other States’ views against providing tenants with early termination measures.  Stay tuned for further updates.

Eviction moratorium and code of conduct to protect WA businesses

April 23, 2020

NSW - Strata management during COVID-19 crisis

Many strata schemes in NSW are presently stuck between a rock (face to face meeting obligations) and a hard place (Covid-19 meeting restrictions). NSW Fair Trading acknowledges that whilst meetings for smaller schemes may be able to comply with social distancing orders, meeting requirements are likely to be problematic for larger schemes and so it is “reviewing the situation”. There has been some talk of relying on the “no quorum” default provisions in the legislation to push through approval for alternative/electronic meeting arrangements at a 2-person meeting. Whilst this might seem a little cheeky, query whether this might just meet the dual objectives of staying safe whilst complying with face to face meeting requirements. Guidance notes from NSW Fair Trading Trading can be found here:

Fair Trading – Guidance notes

April 17, 2020

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