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Venetian Nominees Pty Ltd V Weatherford Australia Pty Ltd [2021] WASC 137

SUPREME COURT OF WESTERN AUSTRALIA

IN CHAMBERS

 

Case Name: VENETIAN NOMINEES PTY LTD v WEATHERFORD AUSTRALIA PTY LTD [2021] WASC 137
Medium Neutral Citation: [2021] WASC 137
Hearing Date(s): 15 FEBRUARY 2021
Date of Orders: 5 MAY 2021
Decision Date: 5 MAY 2021
Before: 5 MAY 2021
Decision: Application dismissed
Catchwords: Arbitration – Private arbitration award made concerning disputed apportionment of outgoings under a lease – Interim award determination made pursuant to issues in Arbitration Agreement – Challenge to set aside award under s 34(2)(a)(ii) and (iv) of the Commercial Arbitration Act 2012 (WA) – Application to Supreme Court to set award aside on alleged basis of plaintiff being unable to present its case or on the basis of alleged unfairness grievances as to arbitral procedure – Contention as to an ‘unpleaded’ argument being accepted and relied on by arbitrator – Contention of a failure to ensure a fair hearing by providing insufficient opportunity to respond by evidence – Whether present application permissible or whether a de facto appeal ‘dressed up’ under the guise of fitting within s 34(2)(a) of the Commercial Arbitration Act
Legislation Cited: Commercial Arbitration Act 2012 (WA), s 34(2)(a)
Cases Cited: AKN v ALC [2015] SGCA 18
Amasya Enterprises Pty Ltd v Asta Developments (Aust) Pty Ltd [2016] VSC 326
Black Box Control Pty Ltd v Terravision Pty Ltd [2016] WASCA 219
Byrnes v Kendle [2011] HCA 26; (2011) 243 CLR 253
Ivankovic v West Australian Planning Commission [2020] WASC 40
Ray Mullins & Sons Pty Ltd v Skycorp Investments Pty Ltd [2011] WASCA 49
Spaseski v Mladenovski [2019] WASC 65
The State of Western Australia v Mineralogy Pty Ltd [2020] WASC 58
Texts Cited: NIL
Category: (In Chambers)
Parties:  

VENETIAN NOMINEES PTY LTD

Plaintiff

 

AND

 

WEATHERFORD AUSTRALIA PTY LTD

Defendant

Representation: Counsel:

 

Plaintiff : Mr M Hotchkin
Defendant : Mr M Howard SC & Ms S B Nadilo

 

Solicitors:

 

Plaintiff : Hotchkin Hanly
Defendant : Jackson McDonald

File Number(s): ARB 6 of 2020
Publication Restriction: NIL
Decision under appeal: NIL

 

JUDGMENT

KENNETH MARTIN J:

Linguistic camouflage aside, this is an attempted appeal by the plaintiff against a decision of an arbitrator delivered in a wholly private arbitration. There presents the problem. There is, by the clear words of the local arbitration statute, no appeal available against the adverse arbitral decision. No doubt by reason of that inconvenient obstacle, the present challenges directed against the arbitrator’s award decision have been grammatically cast as an alleged failure by the arbitrator to hear some of the plaintiff’s arguments and, alternatively the too frequently seen allegation of a denial of procedural fairness within the arbitration process. Curial challenges attempted against non-appealable award decisions continue to bedevil and undermine legislative policy endeavours to entrench arbitration as a quick, relatively inexpensive and final medium for private dispute resolutions. Unfortunately, too many unsuccessful arbitration participants still see it as worth their while to ‘roll the dice’ by manufacturing a pathway to a court, where strained procedural unfairness arguments rise to the fore as something of a last refuge of the desperate. Here, such challenges have been productive of delay to the successful party enjoying the fruits of the award and have necessitated an allocation of resources – equivalent to what would otherwise have been devoted to the hearing of a full blown appeal by way of a rehearing. This farcical position should no longer be entertained. Where the backdoor strategy is unsuccessfully deployed in future it should be met with a punitive costs sanction.

Background

The arbitration:

A wholly private arbitration was conducted in 2020 between the plaintiff, Venetian Nominees Pty Ltd (Venetian), and the defendant, Weatherford Australia Pty Ltd (Weatherford). The arbitration was conducted under the Commercial Arbitration Act 2012 (WA) (the CA Act) before Mr Marcus Solomon SC as the parties’ appointed arbitrator.
In the arbitration, Weatherford was the claimant. Venetian, a member of the Caratti Group of companies, was the respondent. The arbitration concerned a money dispute arising out of the parties’ written lease agreement of 13 November 2012 entered between Venetian as Lessor and Weatherford as Lessee (the Lease). The Lease is in evidence before the court on the current application, found attached to the affidavit of Michael Charles Hotchkin sworn 25 August 2020 at MCH1.
Procedural orders concerning a provision of pleadings and written submissions had issued in the arbitration prior the arbitral hearing across two days of March 2020.
Due to COVID-19 constraints which had prevailed at the time, the arbitral hearing was conducted remotely, utilising an audio-link between the arbitrator and the respective counsel for each of the parties.
At the heart of the arbitral dispute was a controversy over the true meaning of a phrase used within the text of cl 4.6 of the Lease.

Clause 4.6

The fiscal dispute between the lease parties ultimately concerned the correct level of the Lessor’s (ie, Venetian’s) apportionment of the outgoings for its land, known as lot 9009, and as were assessed and allocated by it to its Lessee.
The dispute had manifested under factual circumstances whereby the land area to be leased by Weatherford (known as the ‘Premises’) at the time the Lease was entered, was only a smallish component (roughly 11%) of the Lessor’s overall land at the relevant location. In that respect, cl 4.6 of the Lease read:

If any such Outgoings shall not be separately and wholly assessed or charged against the Premises then the Lessee shall pay to the Lessor within seven (7) days of written demand thereof that proportion thereof that the area of the Premises (as certified by the Lessor) bears to the total lettable area of the premises covered by the relevant assessment or charge (as certified by the Lessor). (emphasis in bold and noting the distinction between capital ‘P’ Premises (the leased area) and the lower case ‘premises’, in reference to the Lessor’s land).
The dispute arose because Weatherford, as Lessee, was complaining it had been overcharged by its landlord, Venetian, in respect of the proper proportion of outgoings payable by it to Venetian over time. Weatherford claimed that it had overpaid moneys by reason of Venetian’s erroneous prior apportionments of claimed outgoings. Weatherford contended Venetian had attributed too great a proportion of Venetian’s own outgoings to it (ie, to Weatherford) and Weatherford was claiming back its contended outgoings overpayments in the arbitration.
Venetian’s primary outgoings exposure arose because it, as a landowner, had received from various rating authorities such as the City of Swan, or the State entity responsible for issuing land tax, what were global rating or tax assessments issued levied by reference to the total area of Venetian’s landholding (lot 9009). As mentioned by cl 4.6 of the Lease, Weatherford, as Lessee, was only required to bear contractually to Venetian an appropriate proportion (by land area) of its Lessor’s outgoings. Ultimately, this contractual outgoings proportionate reimbursement liability to Venetian under the Lease distilled to a ratio calculation – over which the parties descended into disagreement. At the heart of the dispute was the true meaning of the phrase seen in cl 4.6 of the Lease, namely, ‘total lettable area of the premises covered’ vis-à-vis the outgoing assessment or charge to the Lessor.
As will be seen, the ratio or fractional calculation required by cl 4.6 can be mathematically described as: . The correctly ascertained fraction or ratio is then applied to Venetian’s total levied outgoings against its aggregate landholding area to derive the correct proportion of outgoings which may be properly levied under cl 4.6 to Weatherford under the Lease.
There had been no debate before the arbitrator, and there remained no debate before this court, that the numerator, or top line of the fraction reference to be used in the calculation (N), was the ‘area of the Premises’ of the Lessee (ie, the area of Weatherford’s leased land).
Next, the denominator (D) component is the ‘total lettable area of the premises covered by the relevant assessment or charge’ rendered to the Lessor (as in cl 4.6). It was the denominator input figure (D) which had generated the controversy in the arbitration.

It follows that even if I am wrong in my construction of clause 4.6 such that any common area over the larger lot is to be omitted from the calculation of the denominator, no such common areas were designated and certified in accordance with the requirements of the Lease.  (emphasis in bold)

The Premises, being the fractional input (N), is the square meterage of Weatherford’s tenancy area as identified in the Lease, namely some 31,600m2. That figure was wholly uncontroversial.
Item 1 in a Schedule to the Lease (see page 32 of the Lease) by reference to a term ‘Premises’ refers to ‘Corner Milly Court and Metal Circuit, Malaga, Western Australia having an area of approximately 31,600m2 as hachured on the plan attached hereto and erected on the Land together with the Lessor’s chattels[.]’
Item 2 of the same Schedule refers to ‘Land’. It refers to ‘Part Lot 9010 on Deposited Plan 66057 being Lot [blank] on Deposited Plan [blank] and being all of the land in Certificate of Title Volume [blank] Folio [blank][.]’
At this point it may be helpful for overall orientation purposes to pause to direct some attention to a useful diagram of Venetian’s land, and which shows Weatherford’s leased Premises. To that end, I refer to the affidavit of Mr Basil Georgiou sworn 19 October 2020, tendered on behalf of Weatherford. I refer in particular to attachment BG-27, page 405. I incorporate as Schedule 1 to these reasons a copy of the diagram as it is found at page 405 (the aerial plan).
As can be seen, the aerial plan identifies various features, including an overhead powerline pylon base, the leased area of Weatherford’s Premises, a hatched area in orange indicating so-called common areas (including a car park, access and driveway), a lot boundary line in green and a broken green horizontal line indicating what is a Western Power easement over Venetian’s land. To that end, see the key in the bottom left.
Weatherford’s Premises are found depicted at the bottom right‑hand corner of the aerial plan, marked as ‘Weatherford’.
The dispute

Because the parties could not resolve a dispute over the correct level of the proportion of outgoings payable by Weatherford to Venetian, they agreed to the appointment of a private arbitrator and hence, to Mr Solomon SC’s appointment in May 2019. That was effected by an arbitration agreement of 15 May 2019. By that agreement, the ‘dispute’ was defined in an attached document called ‘Agreed Issues for Determination’.
In simple terms, the ‘battle ground’ of the arbitral dispute, relevant to the present application, was over the correct total lettable area denominator input figure (D) to be used in the ratio exercise required to determine the correct apportionment of a component of the Lessor’s overall outgoings exposures, over to its Lessee.
Of course, as a matter of simple mathematics, given that the numerator area (N) input figure for the area of Weatherford’s Premises as Lessee is fixed (agreed at 31,600m2), then the higher the (area) figure used as the denominator input (D) in the fraction, then necessarily, the lower must be the ultimately calculated Lessee’s proportion of outgoings payable to its Lessor. The reverse also follows, so that the lower the number used as the denominator input (D), then the higher the end amount of outgoings payable by Weatherford to Venetian.
Hence, for a time and, indeed, right up until the start of the arbitral hearing before the learned arbitrator, it had been the contention of Weatherford as Lessee that the denominator input figure (D) – as a matter of the proper construction and interpretation of the phrase ‘total lettable area’ of the premises – was the entirety of the square meterage area of Venetian’s land.
Venetian had never apportioned outgoings to Weatherford on that basis in the past. Instead, Venetian had followed an outgoings apportionment methodology of reducing the area of the square meterage figure to be used in the denominator input figure (D) by deducting certain areas from out of its total land holding area. The Venetian deduction of areas approach achieved the end result of reducing the potential quantum level of the denominator figure (D) – and thereby increased mathematically the allocated proportion of outgoings ultimately claimed as payable by Weatherford to Venetian. But if the denominator figure (D) was to be numerically higher, then correspondingly, Weatherford’s as calculated outgoings exposure to Venetian would be lower.
In particular, two areas of Venetian’s land look to have been the subject of deduction against the aggregate cl 4.6 denominator input figure (D) calculated under the apportionment methodology of Venetian. First, in this category appears to be the area of land the subject of an easement over Venetian’s land held by Western Power – see the top right and across of the aerial plan (the easement area) scheduled to these reasons.
Under the parties’ starting pleadings at the arbitration, the argument to sustain a deduction of the Western Power easement area to reduce the level of (D) looks to have been advanced by Venetian – along the lines that an existence of such a registered easement area favouring Western Power had rendered that land area as being inappropriate or unsuitable for development by Venetian. It appears Venetian’s stance was that in consequence, all the easement area was not a ‘lettable area’, or even a potentially lettable area, within Venetian’s land for the purpose of cl 4.6. As a result, the easement area was not included in the denominator input figure (D) used to apportion the lease outgoings. As seen from the aerial plan in Schedule 1, the Western Power easement area within Venetian’s overall land holding (marked by broken green lines) is located some distance to the north and to the west of the Weatherford (leased) Premises.
A second broad area of land also deducted from out of the (D) figure by Venetian was attributable to the land areas as shown on the aerial plan as cross‑hatched in orange, referred to as the ‘common areas’. Some of the common areas are found some distance to the west of Weatherford’s Premises (save for an orange cross‑hatched area abutting and adjacent to the as identified Nick Scali (leased) premises, directly to the north of the Weatherford Premises).
Again the underlying issue was whether or not, by regard ultimately to the true meaning of the cl 4.6 phrase ‘total lettable area of the premises covered’, all these common areas of land within Venetian’s aggregate land could legitimately be deducted from the ultimately used denominator input figure (D). That, of course, would thereby contribute in the end to a higher eventual outgoings apportionment liability exposure for Weatherford than would otherwise be the case, had all those areas of land not been carved away from the level of the denominator input figure (D).
Ultimately, of course, the contention of Venetian as Lessor was and remained that such common areas over its land as were used for car parking, access and for driveways, were not, by reason of such common usage deployment, then to be assessed as a part of its lettable area, or as potentially lettable areas by Venetian.

Issues for determination

Before the arbitration hearing commenced, arguments between the parties over the correct apportionment of outgoings to Weatherford had essentially distilled to two major areas of conflict, as reflected in the parties’ Agreed Issues for Determination. The first battle ground to be resolved by the arbitrator was over the true meaning of the denominator phrase used within cl 4.6, namely, ‘the total lettable area of the premises’. Then, once a true meaning was ascertained, a second battle concerned the application of that true meaning to the underlying facts. A key question to be answered in this exercise was whether the areas of Venetian’s land as had been deducted away from the denominator input figure (D) used by Venetian, and so removing from (D) the Western Power easement area as well as the so-called common areas within Venetian’s land, were so legitimately deducted. Collectively, these two battles were known as ‘issue 1’ in both the arbitration and upon the present application.
As mentioned, Weatherford had first contended by its pleadings at the arbitration that the denominator input figure (D) should be the entirety of the square meterage of Venetian’s land – and for which a relevant outgoings assessment or charge had been levied against it by the relevant rating or taxation body. But a difficulty with that ambit submission, as the arbitrator eventually construed the phrase, was that if that had been the true meaning, then it was more likely that the chosen cl 4.6 terminology would have been more simple. Clause 4.6 could merely then have referred to the total area of the Lessor’s ‘land’. Instead, a distinct phrase and the word ‘premises’ in lower case was used. The as chosen words of cl 4.6, reasoned the arbitrator, suggested a somewhat different concept was (objectively) envisioned, and so not just the entirety of the area of the Lessor’s land (see Award pars 92 -93).
Conduct of the arbitration

As mentioned, the arbitration hearing was conducted on 31 March and 1 April 2020. Prior to the hearing, various procedural orders had been issued by the arbitrator to facilitate the hearing – see the attachments to Mr Hotchkin’s affidavit and attachments to the affidavit of Michael Andrew Daniels sworn 19 October 2020.
Given a prevalent COVID-19 pandemic afflicting Western Australia at the time and restrictions upon gatherings as then imposed, the arbitration was conducted remotely by telephone links over two days of hearing. There does not appear to be any issue taken by Venetian over the fact of the hearing taking place by audio-link.
The parties did not ever arrange for a transcript of the two days of arbitral hearing to be produced. As such, there was and is no independent verbatim record of what transpired across the hearing days. This is not at all satisfactory or acceptable in this court. In the context of a presently attempted challenge put against the award based on alleged unfairness in the overall process, or a failure to afford procedural fairness to Venetian – an absence of a verbatim transcript is simply hopeless towards reliably evaluating, after an event, what happened at the hearing from an overall fairness perspective. Affidavits relied on in this current application each contain accounts and recollections of the hearing – see Mr Hotchkin’s affidavit at pars 7, 11 – 14, Mr Georgiou’s affidavit at pars 5, 46 – 52, 54 – 56, 58 – 59, 61 -65, 70 – 76, and Mr Daniels’ affidavit at pars 31 -36. Mr Daniels’ affidavit also attaches various handwritten notes he made during the course of the arbitration hearing (see MAD-10 to MAD-12). There was no cross-examination upon any of this material at the hearing in this court. But this is all still a second best approach which, albeit not objected to by the respondent, is unsatisfactory and should not be repeated save in the most exceptional of circumstances.
Nevertheless, it is notable that Mr Hotchkin (par 13), Mr Georgiou (par 64) and Mr Daniels (par 66), all identify that at the conclusion of oral submissions, Venetian filed a Summary of Respondent’s Oral Submissions of 3 April 2020 (see Mr Hotchkin’s affidavit at MCH14). Those written submissions (and Weatherford’s responsive written submissions of 6 April 2020), were referred to by the arbitrator in the Award (reasons) (pars 60 – 61).
Legal principles bearing upon the present application by Venetian

I pause at this point to re-emphasise that upon the present application I am not concerned over any question about whether or not the arbitrator was right or wrong on his ultimate contractual interpretation of cl 4.6 of the Lease. As I began, I repeat that the present application of Venetian cannot and will not be determined in the manner of any kind of appeal against the Award. It is nothing of the sort. Rather, all I am concerned with is, for the purposes of Venetian’s present invocation of s 34(2)(a)(ii) and (iv) of the CA Act, whether (and without a verbatim transcript) Venetian can make good a serious contention that in the two-day hearing before the learned arbitrator it was, overall, either ‘unable to present its case’, or that the Award of the arbitrator upon issue 1 was made ‘on the basis of an arbitral procedure not in accordance with the Arbitration Agreement’ (see Venetian’s originating summons filed 26 August 2020).
In the end, Venetian’s s 34(2)(a)(ii) and (iv) contentions commonly distil to a similar basket of assembled grievances as articulated in Venetian’s originating summons under the ensuing pars 1, 2 and 3(a) – (j).
Notwithstanding the textual magnitude of what is found there, the essential nature of the underlying grievance looks to be that the learned arbitrator denied Venetian a fair hearing or, in other words, that the arbitral hearing was procedurally unfair to Venetian in some allegedly significant respects.
In Spaseski v Mladenovski [2019] WASC 65 commencing at [49], I have earlier discussed arbitral challenges by reference to observations of Menon CJ in the Singapore Court of Appeal decision AKN v ALC [2015] SGCA 18. In particular, I drew attention there to his Honour’s identification of the central notion of party autonomy and to the consequences of the parties’ choices made towards choosing to proceed by an arbitration. His Honour had observed at [37]:

… The courts do not and must not interfere in the merits of an arbitral award and, in the process, bail out parties who have made choices that they might come to regret, or offer them a second chance to canvass the merits of their respective cases …
Menon CJ had referred to a policy of minimal curial intervention towards arbitral proceedings as being a mainstay of the Model Law – the adoption of which locally in this State is, of course, the basis for the significant structural changes that were made to West Australian law by the enactment of the CA Act in 2012, all of which I explained at some length in Spaseski at [49] and following.
In Spaseski at [56], I also cited Menon CJ’s observations concerning the ingenuity of lawyers towards circumventing the constraints against the challenging of an arbitrator’s award by appeal. Here, I need to repeat again from his Honour’s reasons in AKN v ALC at [38] this salient observation:

… That is not to say that the courts can never intervene. However, the grounds for curial intervention are narrowly circumscribed, and generally concern process failures that are unfair and prejudice the parties or instances where the arbitral tribunal has made a decision that is beyond the scope of the arbitration agreement. It follows that, from the court’s perspective, the parties to an arbitration do not have a right to a ‘correct’ decision from the arbitral tribunal that can be vindicated by the courts. Instead, they only have a right to a decision that is within the ambit of their consent to have their dispute arbitrated, and that is arrived at following a fair process.
At [57] in Spaseski, I also identified article 18 of the Model Law, stipulating a need for equal treatment of parties in arbitration proceedings, expressed in terms that:

The parties must be treated with equality and each party must be given a reasonable opportunity of presenting the party’s case.
At [58] in Spaseski, I emphasised the adjective ‘reasonable’ preceded the noun ‘opportunity’. See also my further observations in The State of Western Australia v Mineralogy Pty Ltd [2020] WASC 58 at [2] and [78] and then in Ivankovic v West Australian Planning Commission [2020] WASC 401 at [212] – [213], [220] and [222] concerning the limited scope for challenges against an arbitral award in the wake of the new regime of the CA Act in this State.
For present circumstances concerning Venetian’s expressed grievance to the effect that it was denied a reasonable opportunity to present its case concerning the true meaning of the critical phrase at issue between the parties within cl 4.6 of the Lease, I would reiterate the further observations of Menon CJ from AKN v ALC. They were made, of course, in relation to attempted appeals ‘dressed up’, essentially, to look like process grievances in order to circumvent a closed gate against appeals otherwise by the Model Law.
I re-emphasise the learned Chief Justice’s observations from [39] of AKN v ALC. His Honour had said:

In the light of their limited role in arbitral proceedings, courts must resist the temptation to engage with what is substantially an appeal on the legal merits of an arbitral award, but which, through the ingenuity of counsel, may be disguised and presented as a challenge to process failures during the arbitration. A prime example of this would be a challenge based on an alleged breach of natural justice. When examining such a challenge, it is important that the court assess the real nature of the complaint. Among the arguments commonly raised in support of breach of natural justice challenges are these:

(a) that the arbitral tribunal misunderstood the case presented and so did not apply its mind to the actual case of the aggrieved party;

(b) that the arbitral tribunal did not mention the arguments raised by the aggrieved party and so must have failed to consider the latter’s actual case; and

(c) that the arbitral tribunal must have overlooked a part of the aggrieved party’s case because it did not engage with the merits of that part of the latter’s case.

Although such arguments may be commonly raised, more often than not, they do not, in fact, amount to breaches of natural justice.
At [61] of Spaseski, by reference to s 34(2)(b)(ii) of the CA Act, I also cited Croft J’s observations in the Supreme Court of Victoria in Amasya Enterprises Pty Ltd v Asta Developments (Aust) Pty Ltd [2016] VSC 326. His Honour had said at [42] – [43]:

As is clear from this passage, Art 18 of the Model Law – and, by implication, s 18 of the Act – does not invoke the principles of natural justice or procedural fairness developed in, for example, administrative law, or other common law principles not developed in the context of the Model Law. Such common law principles undoubtedly flow from the same jurisprudential source as Art 18 of the Model Law in that they are, fundamentally, concerned with fairness, equality and due process. Indeed, there are many circumstances where these principles may overlap with the requirements of [Art 18] and may produce similar outcomes. However, ultimately, the requirement of fairness and equality of treatment of the parties in arbitration is distinct from, and often more straightforward in its application than the position developed by the common law in various contexts.

The relevant test is to be drawn from the words of s 18 of the Act itself and may be stated as follows: ‘Were the parties treated with equality and was each party given a reasonable opportunity of presenting the party’s case?’ As is apparent from the reasons that follow, a failure to recognise and apply this test may result in the adoption of an impermissible judicial approach to the question of whether an objecting party was denied procedural fairness or natural justice in breach of the Act. Like any other provision of the Act which mirrors the Model Law, s 18 must not be viewed ‘through the prism of principles and doctrines not found in the Model Law or the New York Convention, and which may be peculiar to a particular domestic jurisdiction’. The temptation to approach the application of the Act in this way – the temptation of ‘domesticity’ – the temptation of ‘domesticity’ must be resisted in order to promote uniformity between the application of the Act and the application of the Model Law as required by s 2A of the Act and as emphasised by the Court of Appeal in Subway Systems Australia Pty Ltd v Ireland. (footnotes omitted)
Bearing all these considerations in mind, the essential question here is whether Venetian, in a context of a two-day arbitral hearing in circumstances where the participating parties had been offered the opportunity by the learned arbitrator at the end of that hearing to file further written submissions and any extra materials – were treated with equality and whether Venetian overall was afforded a ‘reasonable opportunity’ to present its case. Contextually, it should be kept in mind as well that to the extent that Venetian acted in the past to reduce the square meterage of the input (D) to a level below the full area of its rated or taxed land, Venetian must be expected at the time of so acting to have held a basis for it excising those chosen areas from the denominator input figure (D) in producing its apportionment of outgoings to Weatherford. For Venetian to suggest unfair surprise in it being asked later to explain its land area excision rationale in conducting its derivation to arrive at the level of (D) that was used is, of itself, somewhat curious.
The ultimate issue of contractual interpretation concerning the phase ‘total lettable area’ used in the parties’ lease is a question of law (not fact) and about which there could be only one true meaning. Venetian faces a difficult hurdle in contending that a contended rival interpretation was not accepted by the arbitrator when it has no right to appeal against that determination.
Indeed, despite the many layers of lipstick, the essential nature of Venetian’s grievance is ultimately exposed to being that its advocated rival interpretation of the clause’s true meaning was rejected by the arbitrator. Such a grievance is not a true process grievance. It is a poorly disguised attempted appeal raised against a decision reached against it. Save to say, losing is not a violation of procedural fairness principles.
The arbitrator’s Award and determination

The arbitrator delivered reserved reasons for decision constituting his determination and forming a part of the Award, on 29 June 2020. By that determination over some 34 pages of reasons, the learned arbitrator comprehensively traversed the parties’ rival submissions and positions, over what ultimately was the parties’ basal dispute over the contested true meaning of the cl 4.6 phrase (being issue 1 for the arbitrator) at issue, namely ‘total lettable area’.

Meaning of ‘total lettable area’

The arbitrator’s consideration of this issue of law commences at par 67 of his reasons, referring to a leading local appellate authority discussing the orthodox principles of contractual interpretation, namely, Black Box Control Pty Ltd v Terravision Pty Ltd [2016] WASCA 219 at [42]. The parties were not in any level of dispute over these principles. Hence, that starting platform was perfectly orthodox and appropriate.
It is necessary then to look even more closely at the arbitrator’s reasons underlying his eventual issue 1 determination.
Having considered the parties’ rival positions, the learned arbitrator eventually decided for himself the true meaning of the clause at issue. That was his obligation – irrespective of the parties’ rival stances.
The true meaning question, of course, was not a determination of fact, it was a determination of law. Having cited Byrnes v Kendle [2011] HCA 26; (2011) 243 CLR 253 at [98] the learned arbitrator then proceeded to observe at Award pars 69 – 72:

… Thus, the meaning of clause 4.6 is to be determined by reference to what a reasonable business person would have understood by the phrase “total lettable area of the premises covered by the relevant assessment or charge”, having regard to the background knowledge of the surrounding circumstances….

It is necessary to begin with a consideration of the text of clause 4.6. As noted above, there is no dispute about what is meant by the area of the Premises or the area of the premises covered by the charge. The dispute centres on the meaning of the word lettable in the context of the clause.

In my respectful view, neither of the parties’ constructions sits entirely simply and easily with the word lettable.

The words plainly mean able to be let.
Referring to Weatherford’s submission as to the meaning of those words, the learned arbitrator then said at par 73:

As noted above, Weatherford’s construction requires the word lettable to include undeveloped land. In the usual context of commercial leasing it would be somewhat unusual to refer to undeveloped land as lettable, although it is not necessarily inapt to refer to cleared but undeveloped land as able to be let. In that regard, it may also be observed that the clause does not state immediately lettable or other words to that effect. The word lettable of itself, as a matter of plain language, is capable of encompassing land that is able to be let in due course even if it is not immediately available to be let.

Referring to Venetian’s rival proposal meaning of ‘lettable’, the learned arbitrator observed at par 74:

“… Venetian’s construction requires some embellishment of the text to clarify that it means land that is both developed and available for letting. I appreciate that Venetian contends that lettable of itself necessarily connotes land that is developed and is to be distinguished from ‘usable’, but as a matter of plain English there remains some strain in the proposition that developed land that a lessor resolved not to let (for example because it is to the lessor’s commercial advantage for some reason such as making it available as common area) is not area that is able to be let or capable being let. In addition, as I have observed, there is an element of immediacy in Venetian’s construction that is not mandated by the word lettable of itself. Venetian submitted that lettability is not a concept that speaks of ‘possibility’. But neither does it necessarily require immediacy or inevitability. As a matter of plain language, land may be able to be let even if it is not available to be let now, and even if it is ultimately never let.”

Next, commencing at par 75, the learned arbitrator observed that it was not possible simply from the bare text of cl 4.6 alone to determine its true meaning. In perfectly orthodox fashion, he determined it was necessary to look beyond the bare text to the surrounding circumstances and so to the background and genesis of the Lease, including to a progenitor Heads of Agreement of 10 January 2011 – identifying such matters under par 76(a) through (e) of his reasons.

Part of the facts as identified at the time of the parties’ earlier Heads of Agreement in reference then to Venetian’s lot 9009, were that the proposed leased premises to Weatherford had then constituted only approximately 11% of a much larger area of Venetian’s lot 9009.

On 29 August 2011, the parties entered their Agreement for Lease. The deed provided that Venetian would construct a facility and the parties would enter into a lease.

At par 80, the learned arbitrator identified some mutually known surrounding circumstances contextually prevailing at the time of the Agreement for Lease, noting the proposed leased premises were to be only a small part (approximately 10.3%) of the much larger lot in Venetian’s single ownership (lot 9009). At that time, the balance of lot 9009 had been cleared for potential development, but it ‘remained largely undeveloped’. An (objective) intention towards an eventual creation of an independent (ie, smaller) lot just for the premises leased to Weatherford out of a portion of lot 9009 was also identified (see par 80(f)).

With those surrounding facts then identified, the learned arbitrator returned to the differences as between the parties over their rival meanings as advocated for cl 4.6.
At this point, he observed upon, in effect, the pragmatics of their dispute in monetary terms over a correct apportionment of some of the Lessor’s outgoings exposure to its lessee, Weatherford. He duly observed at par 82:

“The real practical difference between the competing constructions relates to whether clause 4.6 requires Weatherford to contribute to the cost of outgoings for land that remained undeveloped or was common area – even if the common area was some distance from and did not provide any shared facility for the Premises. Having regard to the surrounding circumstances referred to at paragraph 80 above, in my view, it is most unlikely that a reasonable business person would have objectively understood clause 4.6 to require the lessee to bear a significant proportion of the cost of outgoings in respect of the very considerable areas of the lot 9009 that remained undeveloped or for common area that provided no utility to the Premises. This is especially so as the lessee would have no control, or even visibility, of the lot’s future development beyond a vague expectation that it was in the lessor’s interest to develop the balance of the lot in due course. (emphasis in bold)”

At par 83 of his reasons the learned arbitrator acknowledged Venetian’s submission concerning the true meaning of the phrase ‘lettable area’ and that its contention may not sit comfortably with including land that was cleared, but not yet developed. Nevertheless, in evaluating that submission, the learned arbitrator reasoned that Venetian’s preferred construction would expose it to other difficulties which, in the end, were more persuasive considerations (see pars 84 – 86, 89 – 90). The learned arbitrator now reasoned as follows:

[91] For those reasons, I do not accept that objectively construed, the Lease requires Weatherford to bear a proportion (in the circumstances that prevailed upon entry to the Lease, quite a significant proportion) of the outgoings that relate to the whole of the larger lot 9009 or 9010. I also consider that unwarranted ambiguities and potential difficulties arise with Venetian’s proposed construction of the clause.

[92] At the same time, I accept the submission of Venetian that:

(a) the clear choice in clause 4.6 of wording other than simply ‘Land’ as defined; and

(b) the references to ‘common area’ and (in my view, to a lesser extent) ‘complex’ in the Lease;

are strong indicators that clause 4.6 contemplates, as the denominator in the applicable ratio, an area different from, and less than, the ‘Land’.

I pause here to observe that notwithstanding Venetian’s multiple as expressed process grievances, in terms of an alleged unfair denial of a fair opportunity to present key arguments bearing upon its rival construction of cl 4.6, the learned arbitrator had in fact, accepted some important aspects of Venetian’s arguments as a matter of overall contractual construction (as now exposed under par 92). This was to reduce the scope and therefore the numerical area of the denominator input figure (D) to below the total square meterage area of Venetian’s land. This was against the starting rival contention of Weatherford.

That arbitrator’s constructional view as expressed at par 92 could, in the end, consequentially increase the ratio of outgoings to be apportioned to and payable by Weatherford. Success for Venetian in that degree can hardly be complained about.
But the learned arbitrator then proceeded to observe at par 94:

Weatherford responds to that challenge by accepting that the denominator can indeed be less than the Land where there is some regulatory impediment to the leasing of a portion of the larger lot. Venetian counters that no such prospect is evident in the Heads of Agreement, Agreement for Lease, or the Lease and nor was it ever in the contemplation of the parties. (emphasis in bold)

Reference to some ‘regulatory impediment’ so seen in par 94 grounds a key part of the unfair process grievances raised at this hearing by Venetian, in terms of a contended unfair inability to put arguments, or as a denial of fairness to it, by reason of the arbitral procedure followed. But having found that the denominator input figure (D) generated by the term ‘lettable area’ was not the whole area of the Lessor’s land, what the arbitrator was then doing at par 94, quite correctly on my view, was then seeking to identify any genres of areas of Venetian’s land which might be outside that meaning of ‘lettable area’. Any such excluded areas so found would only favour Venetian, not disadvantage it, in the apportionment of outgoings calculation to be conducted. That was not unfair to Venetian.

Areas to be excluded from ‘total lettable area’

Upon the rejection of the ambit denominator area meaning submission (‘lettable area’ being all of Venetian’s land), Weatherford also put a further and alternative submission to the arbitrator, concerning what could be (limited) excludable areas from the denominator input figure (D). Weatherford had, by senior counsel, postulated excising any area in the larger lot of Venetian that was shown to be constrained by some regulatory impediment against that area being lettable. This fall back alternative construction of Weatherford looks (without having a transcript) to have emerged, in effect, during oral arguments of counsel put during the arbitral hearing, as an aspect of the ultimate legal debates over the true meaning of the phrase ‘lettable area’ within cl 4.6.

Contrary again to the procedural unfairness submission of Venetian as was put to this court, I assess there to be nothing unfair or untoward to Venetian in the arbitration over a dispute over the true cl 4.6 interpretation of ‘lettable area’ in the arbitrator determining what areas of land fell within or outside of that criterion. The true meaning of ‘lettable area’ under cl 4.6 was at the very heart of the dispute between the parties.

Even if the submitted fall back construction of Weatherford only emerged during the arbitral hearing, the learned arbitrator at the end of a two day hearing had then afforded the parties an equal and very fair opportunity to make further submissions in writing and as well to tender any further materials that each side thought relevant. The opportunity afforded was generous and more than fair.

Nor on what I have before me (ie, with no transcript) can I ascertain that Venetian, through counsel, had ever sought to object at the hearing when Weatherford’s fall back interpretation had been raised by senior counsel to the arbitral exploration of this aspect of determining the true meaning of ‘lettable area’ within cl 4.6 of the Lease.
Venetian’s grievance as put to this court as to it being taken by surprise, or by not having an opportunity to tender evidence upon or over this aspect of the question of true meaning, is also misplaced. On my assessment, no factual evidence from Venetian could ostensibly bear upon the objective question of interpretation (law) concerning the true meaning of ‘lettable area’ within cl 4.6 of the Lease.

In any event, the learned arbitrator then continued at pars 95 – 96 of his reasons:

In addition, there is force in Venetian’s contention that in principle, if an area is indeed common area, then it is not lettable. Thus, as a matter of textual construction, the expression lettable area in the context of clause 4.6 needs to be understood in light of the fact that if an area is indeed ‘Common Area’ under the Lease, then it cannot be part of the lettable area.

In my view, the references to ‘common area’ and ‘complex’ are readily explicable in a manner that does not mandate the constructional conclusion urged by Venetian.
Evaluating the implications of finding many such common areas across the breadth of a large lot 9009, the learned arbitrator rendered this observation, at par 100:

In addition, the Lease does not refer to any common area that may exist in the whole of lot 9009 to serve any tenancy no matter how remote, or independent from the Premises, it might be. The references to common areas are largely qualified by reference to areas that serve the Premises or are used by the Lessee: clauses: 5.1.8, 5.5.1, 5.6.6. I agree with the submission made orally by counsel for Venetian that whether the common areas serve the Premises as a matter of fact, does not impact upon the proper construction of the Lease. Nevertheless, the references to ‘serve’ and ‘use’ in respect of common areas under the Lease are significant as a matter of proper construction, quite independently of the factual matters emphasised by Weatherford. (emphasis in bold)

[I note in passing that in the context of what is Venetian’s process grievance, as to the fairness of the arbitral hearing by way of an alleged unfair inability to engage with the arbitrator against the meaning ultimately arrived at by the learned arbitrator, that in fact, counsel for Venetian through his submission (as noted under par 100) had very directly engaged then with the arbitrator upon the concept of common areas served by the premises. The Venetian submission seen above in par 100 which was accepted by the learned arbitrator concerning the issue of construction of the Lease did just that].
The learned arbitrator then continued upon the topic of ‘common areas’ as a concept in terms of an area that may or may not present as appropriate to excise from the denominator by its meterage in the ‘Premises’ as ‘lettable’ or not:

[101] Clause 5.5.4 and clause 24 (definition of ‘Outgoings’) refer to common area without reference to service of the premises or use by the Lessee. However, both those clauses refer to the common areas of the complex ‘of which the Premises form part’. That serves to illustrate that a common area in the Lease contemplates a joint facility enjoyed within a ‘complex’ in common with other tenancies.

[102] Perhaps, most importantly, ‘Common Areas’ the subject of a substantive grant of tenure in clause 1, is a defined term in clause 24 set out at paragraph 27 above. The definition refers to areas intended by the lessor ‘to be for the use of lessees of the Land … and are so designated from time to time by the Lessor …’.

[103] In my view, it would be a curious construction of the words ‘for the use of lessees of the Land’ to include reference to a common area for the use of lessees on the lot that were some distance, and entirely separate, from and independent of the Premises and where that area was of no utility to the lessee the subject of the Lease.

[104] Further, a Common Area is an area which the lessor has ‘so designated’. The Shorter Oxford dictionary defines the word designate to mean point out or indicate. Pointing out and indicating, and thus designating, is not a unilateral act that can be done in the absence of some manifestation or communication to another. It is necessary to indicate or point out to someone else. In context, that designation in my view is required to be to the lessee. If Common Areas are the subject of the grant of tenure it seems to me most unlikely that on a proper construction, the lessor’s designation can be to some third party without notice to the lessee of the Lease.

[105] There was no evidence of a designation communicated to Weatherford of any common area that Venetian intended for Weatherford’s use in common with any other tenancy or that would serve the Premises. That is not surprising as lot 9009, at least in respect of a section leased to Weatherford, did not develop in a manner that lent itself to shared facilities, less still a ‘complex’.

The learned arbitrator continued as to a certification process for a common area at par 106:

Moreover, that outcome is reinforced by the terms of clause 4.6 itself which provides for a certification process in respect of both the area numerator and the denominator. It stands to reason that if the lessor has “designated” areas as common area for use by lessees, in order to provide a level of transparency and clarity, the lessor is required to ‘certify’ that area. There was no evidence of any relevant certification. Once again that is unsurprising in the circumstances.

At par 107 the learned arbitrator referred to the aerial plan (which was PL‑15 before him and which I have included as Schedule 1 to these reasons), showing various depicted areas on lot 9009 as common areas. The arbitrator said at par 107:

There was no evidence that Weatherford had been given notice or was even aware of those depictions. Perhaps more significantly, it became apparent that the depictions did not in any event reflect the manner in which the proportion under clause 4.6 had been calculated. Although this was in Weatherford’s favour, that is beside the point. The document rather reinforced the conclusion that there had been no ‘designation’ less still any certification, of common area under the Lease.

Another process grievance of Venetian is that it did not get the opportunity to engage by evidence. There is no substance in this grievance. What the learned arbitrator was doing was interpreting in surrounding context, the text of cl 4.6, which after the phrase ‘total lettable area of the premises’ had manifested the further words ‘as certified by the Lessor’.

It was entirely orthodox and proper for the learned arbitrator to identify and give some function to those surrounding words, in a context of Venetian’s challenged approach to the apportionment of outgoings to its Lessee.
As seen, Venetian’s cl 4.6 challenged approach had been to excise from the denominator figure (D) all areas that it unilaterally attributed as being common areas within its land and which were thereby, it considered, not lettable by it. Those area excisions from (D), mathematically, increased the proportion of Venetian’s outgoings that could be apportioned to and recovered from Weatherford.

At the arbitration hearing Venetian was always, in effect, defending the legitimacy of its outgoings apportionment approach taken by it as regards deducting all common areas from out of the lettable area figure in the ratio’s denominator. Venetian could hardly have been taken by surprise that in that overall context, the true meaning of the term ‘certification’ as it is used by cl 4.6 came under scrutiny as well within that overall context.

At par 108, the arbitrator recorded, dealt with and ultimately rejected a submission by Venetian (made orally by counsel) as to a notion of designation of common areas by reference to planning approval documents that duly identified car parks and public toilets. Likewise, a submission was put by Venetian to the effect that outgoings claim invoices as were issued to Weatherford by Venetian could in themselves constitute a sufficient lessor’s certification for the purposes of meeting cl 4.6. Such certification by invoice arguments were made, considered, but ultimately rejected by the learned arbitrator as matters of true construction of the term ‘certification’ in cl 4.6. There was a direct engagement upon this aspect of the dispute for Venetian through its counsel at the arbitral hearing at the time. There was no element of surprise or forensic prejudice. The issue was fought upon and lost fairly and squarely at the hearing.

Again, the question on the present application is not whether the learned arbitrator was right or wrong over that end determination. That issue is not up for any level of review in this court. There is no appeal.

The only issue is whether there was some ascertainable process deficiency by an absence of a fair hearing afforded to Venetian by it being denied a reasonable opportunity to engage with the overall process of interpretive evaluation concerning the true meaning of cl 4.6 of the Lease.

Clearly, as is recorded in par 108, Venetian did at the hearing actively engage with the ‘certification’ aspect of the controversy under cl 4.6 and the true meaning issues concerning the designation of common areas. Venetian, through counsel, made submissions to that end. Ultimately, some of Venetian’s submissions were not accepted. Losing does not equate to procedural unfairness.

Overall, I can discern (again with no transcript) no process or procedural failure adverse to Venetian. Venetian was not denied the reasonable opportunity to engage over these aspects of the controversy.
Paragraph 109 towards common areas under the learned arbitrator’s reasons displays that Venetian lost at two levels – as a matter of construction and then further, as a determination of fact. Paragraph 109 reads:

It follows that even if I am wrong in my construction of clause 4.6 such that any common area over the larger lot is to be omitted from the calculation of the denominator, no such common areas were designated and certified in accordance with the requirements of the Lease. (emphasis in bold)

At par 111 the learned arbitrator addressed a further submission by the parties, particularly Venetian, at the arbitration hearing concerning the force of a decision of the West Australian Court of Appeal. This was the decision in Ray Mullins & Sons Pty Ltd v Skycorp Investments Pty Ltd [2011] WASCA 49. That was an appeal concerning the determination of the proportion of outgoings payable by lessees rendered in the particular circumstances of a different lease with different textual provisions. The learned arbitrator plainly evaluated the implications of this case authority. There was no process deficiency or unfairness in that approach.

Conclusion on construction of cl 4.6

Commencing at par 112, the learned arbitrator expressed his final constructional conclusions by reference to what he gave then as a ‘simple example’.
At this point he explained, by reference to the parties’ rival contentions, how as a matter of the true meaning of cl 4.6, the applicable ratio for a proper determination of the payment of outgoings ( ) was to be arrived at: see pars 113 – 117. Having explained the example and the results that would arise under Venetian’s and Weatherford’s rival constructions, the learned arbitrator concluded at par 118:

Under Venetian’s construction, the lessee would be making a significant contribution to the undeveloped area and common area that service other tenancies but not its tenancy. Assuming, common terms in the other leases the balance would be paid by the other lessees and the lessor would pay nothing for the outgoings associated with the undeveloped and unleased land.

The learned arbitrator, in terms of the as required task towards construing a commercial lease instrument and affording it a commercially sensible interpretation, was perfectly entitled to render that observation. As I will explain, that observation and the process under which it was arrived at do not manifest any process deficiency or unfairness capable of being legitimately challenged under the CA Act in this court where, again, there is no appeal.

Arbitrator’s ultimate conclusion on issue 1

Ultimately, on issue one 1, the arbitrator found:

[119] By reason of the matters set out above, in my view, the proper apportionment of Outgoings for which Weatherford is liable is determined under clause 4.6 on the following basis:

(a) the numerator is 31,600;

(b) the denominator is the whole area of the larger lot (lot 9009, 9010 or 9011 as the case may be), less:

(i) any area in respect of which there is a regulatory prohibition preventing it from being lettable. There was not evidence of any such area, and so I determine that this is not relevant to the calculation;

(ii) any Common Area designated by Venetian by overt manifest conduct communication to Weatherford of an area that served or was for the use of the Premises, and certified by Venetian for the purposes of clause 4.6. There was no evidence of any such area, and so I determine this is not relevant to the calculation.

[120] It is common cause that Weatherford has paid the Outgoings on the basis of Venetian’s construction. It has therefore overpaid.

[121] I therefore determine in accordance with the Agreed Issues for Determination document, that to the extent of the overpayment, Weatherford is entitled to deduct that amount from future payment to be made by Weatherford to Venetian under the Lease.

That concluded the learned arbitrator’s reasoning upon issue 1.
Venetian’s specific grievance with the concept of ‘regulatory prohibition’

Venetian’s primary challenge, by which it alleges it was unfairly unable to present its arbitral case, is that the concept of a ‘regulatory prohibition’ (that phrase as seen used in Award par 119(b)(i)) only emerged, at earliest, at the arbitral hearing.
Given the arbitration hearing was not transcribed, Venetian accepts it cannot be known with certainty how the concept of a ‘regulatory prohibition’ was first raised. It is said that the concept was either first raised by senior counsel for Weatherford during the arbitral hearing, or alternatively appeared for the first time in the Award. The uncertainty over this is unsatisfactory in this court.

A significant emphasis was placed on the fact that none of the pleadings exchanged prior to the hearing contained reference to any such concept. Venetian says that Weatherford’s statement of claim in the arbitration does not mention a ‘regulatory prohibition’ in its pleaded construction of cl 4.6. Nor, it is put, is there any basis to give rise to such an idea from the pleaded construction. Venetian argues then that ‘pleadings … are critical for fairly governing the conduct of a matter’ (Venetian’s written submissions dated 30 November 2020, par 25). Venetian heavily emphasises a fundamental rule of pleadings that the party who pleads a proposition is the party that is required to make good that proposition to the legal burden, including carrying any evidential burden.

An allied strand of Venetian’s expressed process grievance is that there was no basis for it to have anticipated from the text of the Lease (in cl 4.6 or otherwise) that a concept of ‘regulatory prohibition’ would arise, nor to consider and argue what it means. The implication of this was said by Venetian to have had the following impact (written submissions, par 26):

The significance of the belated idea of a ‘regulatory prohibition’ in the fair determination of the matter, when it was not a pleaded construction for clause 4.6 in the Defendant’s case, arises because there is no basis in the text of clause 4.6, or otherwise by reference to any other provisions in the Lease, that such a concept should properly have been anticipated by the Plaintiff, and if so, what it actually meant.

The significance of that concern is made evident by the Arbitrator’s finding that there was ‘no evidence’ of a regulatory prohibition, when:

(a) the only relevant evidence could have been of a ‘regulatory prohibition’ prior to the date of the Lease, and the Plaintiff’s point in an attempt to engage with the idea was that the absence of such evidence was a point in favour of the Plaintiff, not against it; and

(b) if the finding of there being ‘no evidence’ could only have been in respect of a ‘regulatory prohibition’ after the date of the Lease, then it is not capable in point of law of assisting in the proper construction of clause 4.6 of the Lease, and could not reasonably be anticipated as a possible finding by the Arbitrator.

Venetian says that if the arbitrator was impressed by the lack of evidence post-Lease execution, then that, and the fact that there was a lack of evidence would be used against it in a cl 4.6 construction, should have been put to Venetian.

Venetian argues that the onus that should have been on Weatherford to prove what the concept of a ‘regulatory prohibition’ meant, came to be shifted towards Venetian – in effect, to disprove the regulatory prohibition. Much is made of this, particularly from an evidentiary standpoint. Venetian says that as this point was not pleaded, it was not able to anticipate it would need to call evidence as to whether the phrase ‘regulatory prohibition’ was known at the time of the Lease, which would then go to the construction of cl 4.6.

Further, Venetian says that the reference to an ‘Easement’ in Weatherford’s arbitral pleading is relevant to the unfairness of the conduct of the arbitration, in that there was evidence of a ‘regulatory prohibition’ because of the terms of the Western Power easement, and the pleaded alternative of the easement was not engaged with by the arbitrator.

Venetian contends (written submissions, par 32):

The reason that the pleaded reference by the Defendant to the ‘Easement’ in paragraph 16 of the Defendant’s Statement of Claim is relevant to the unfairness of the conduct of the Arbitration is that, if the idea of a ‘regulatory prohibition’ relates to any form of prohibition asserted by any public authority (which is not addressed at all by the Arbitrator), then:

(a) there was evidence of such a ‘regulatory prohibition’ before the Arbitrator, because the terms of the Easement to Western Power pleaded at paragraph 16 of its Statement of Claim prohibited any development in the Easement area without its consent; and

(b) the existence of the Easement was the pleaded alternative to the Defendant’s case, yet the Arbitrator did not engage at all with that aspect of the Defendant’s alternative pleaded case, relying instead on an undeveloped idea which had not been pleaded or could otherwise have reasonably been anticipated in a way which differed from the express prohibition contained in the Western Power Easement Deed. (footnotes omitted)

Venetian says further that the shift of the legal and evidential burden to it, from Weatherford, particularly a departure from Weatherford’s pleading, constitutes failure to accord procedural fairness on the part of the arbitrator.
Weatherford by its submissions rejects all these contentions. It says, and emphasises, that at no point did Venetian ever object to the issue of regulatory prohibitions being raised – either the time the submission was made prior to, during or after the arbitration hearing.

Weatherford says that even if the arbitrator made findings of fact without probative evidence, which it denies, that would only trigger a review if such a finding results in real unfairness or practical injustice. Given Venetian did not raise issues as to evidentiary burden at the time of the arbitration hearing, nor in its subsequent written submissions, Weatherford says that no unfairness or injustice was suffered by Venetian.

As to the allegation that the burden of proof was shifted, Weatherford says that such an inquiry in truth, goes to challenge the merits of the arbitrator’s findings, and thus, in substance, is really an appeal against a finding of the award. It says Venetian’s ground is ‘dressed up’ as a breach of the arbitration procedure – an exercise the court must avoid engaging in (Weatherford’s written submissions dated 22 December 2020, par 52). Weatherford says that court should also avoid ‘bailing out’ Venetian for its strategic choice not to object to, nor to call evidence at the time the issue of a regulatory prohibition was raised. This, Weatherford says, was an intentional forensic decision by Venetian which it now obviously regrets, but that none of this is to the immediate point.

Finally, as to the argument that the Western Power easement constituted a ‘regulatory prohibition’ and was not a part of Weatherford’s alternate construction which it abandoned, Weatherford says the evidence shows that its alternate construction of cl 4.6 fell away, when Venetian amended its defence prior to the arbitration hearing. Again, this is said to be a strategic choice on the part of Venetian. Further, it is said that even if the arbitrator did not deal with or determine an alternate construction of Weatherford, it is difficult to see how that could lead to an unfairness suffered by Venetian (Weatherford’s written submissions dated 22 December 2020, par 57).
Venetian’s grievance with the concept of common areas

Whilst there is overlap between Venetian’s complaints about ‘regulatory prohibition’ and what it says regarding common areas, the ‘common areas’ issue was always squarely in play at the time of the arbitration hearing.

Venetian says that it presented and fought a case by reference to the terms of the Lease, and the context in which ‘common areas’ might arise from other terms of the Lease. However, it complains the arbitrator dealt with a point of the application of cl 4.6, rather than engaging in this construction of the clause. The application of cl 4.6 is said to not arise in any of the pleadings or submissions.

A particular grievance emphasis by Venetian is against the arbitrator making findings of fact as to the ‘certification’ or designation of common areas, or the factual lack thereof. Venetian says that the arbitrator conflated the task of construing cl 4.6 with a factual undertaking, as to whether the common areas had been designated or certified. If Venetian was to have been treated fairly and have reasonably anticipated that finding, it is said that Weatherford should have pleaded this in its arbitral reply pleading. This, according to Venetian, was not done. According to Venetian, the primary grievance over this not occurring is that the arbitrator should have told it (Venetian) that he would, as Venetian submits, depart from orthodox principles of construction by referring to evidence or apply the construction of ‘common areas’ as a figure to be excluded from the ‘lettable area’ calculation.

Venetian says that it suffered unfairness in presenting its case by the arbitrator departing from the pleaded case of the parties. This, according to Venetian, was because the arbitrator’s finding that Venetian, as Lessor, was ‘required’ to certify the common areas (Award par 106) had not arisen or emerged from the pleadings or oral submissions, and was inconsistent with the text of the Lease which only ’empowers’ Venetian, rather than ‘compels’ it.

A final point Venetian makes as to the alleged unfairness it suffered in process was that without warning from the arbitrator, it was unable to put in evidence about how ‘common areas’ are created within the property industry. I return to this argument later.

Weatherford, in reply submits that Venetian has misapprehended what was ‘in the ring’ before the arbitrator, whether by the pleadings, or otherwise. By this, Weatherford is saying that the issue of common areas was in play before the arbitration hearing – in particular, in Venetian’s opening submissions. Weatherford also says that over the time before the hearing the issue of common areas was a relevant issue. Not only that, but Weatherford says that from the Award it is clear that common areas were, in fact, in the arbitral arena (identifying Award pars 62 and 108).

Weatherford submits that arguments of unfairness in process as to the issue of common areas are without merit. First, it says that the submission that Venetian should have been put on notice about the application of common areas as a disputed issue, is wrong. Weatherford says that the requirement for the designation of common areas in the text of the Lease itself (cl 24) was central to Venetian’s case and was addressed by Venetian at the hearing – both orally and in writing.

Second, Weatherford says that Venetian had an opportunity to present evidence as to how the common areas are or were designated to tenants under any Lease in the relevant lot 9009, however, it made an election to not adduce any such evidence.

Finally, as to the argument that Venetian was denied an opportunity to dissuade the arbitrator of a view he ultimately reached, Weatherford says this is not to the point. Relying on Amasya at [55], it is said that the fact that the arbitrator might have arrived a different conclusion if the arbitration played out differently, is an irrelevant consideration.

Process unfairness: common areas

I turn to the aspect of the procedural grievance contention by Venetian that it was denied an opportunity by the arbitrator to lead evidence in support of its rival construction of the clause.

Venetian contends that it could have led expert evidence if it had been given proper notice of the ultimate construction conclusion reached by the learned arbitrator about how common areas in a lease are designated. To that end, an affidavit of Paul Edward Testar sworn 25 August 2020 was sought to be relied upon by Venetian at the present application. Mr Testar says in his affidavit that he is employed as the commercial property manager of the Caratti Group of companies (of which Venetian is a member) and has 30 years’ experience in the development, sale, leasing and management of commercial real estate.

Mr Testar commenced working for the Caratti Group in September 2013. His work involves management of its property portfolio, including about 50 real property assets across Western Australia at various metropolitan and country locations.
The expert evidence that Venetian complains it was denied the opportunity to lead, looks to be found as expressed under pars 11 through 16 of Mr Testar’s affidavit. This evidence is directed towards common areas – the concept that Mr Testar at par 10 says that he is very familiar with in the context of his commercial leasing experience.

At par 11 Mr Testar explains what he believes the notion of common areas normally include. He relates that they are typically shared by tenants in a complex and their customers, visitors and service contractors. But none of that looks to be particularly controversial or helpful. In my assessment, this evidence does not in any sense carry a potential impact concerning the present controversy over a process grievance.

At par 12, Mr Testar seeks to contend that in his experience that ‘Common area is rarely identified on a plan in a lease …’. However, I do not accept that Mr Testar is qualified to express such sweeping views about the contents of written leases generally, or their plans generally. This is obviously a diverse subject matter which must be almost infinite in its potential dimensions.

Likewise Mr Testar’s further observations under par 13 as to the size or measurement of common areas in a complex as being set out in a lease document. This proposed evidence from Mr Testar about what ‘lease documents’ generally provide towards common areas and their designations is equally, in my view, too broad. It is sweeping, generalised, unhelpful, of no weight and ultimately inadmissible.

Even more sweeping generalised observations by Mr Testar at his par 14 concerning tenancy complexes being subject to ‘ongoing development’ are so trite in terms of such complexes changing from time to time, as to be facile. They are unhelpful.

At par 15, Mr Testar purports to speak of a so-called practice of all landlords as being not to designate common areas ‘by specifically notifying each and every tenant during the term of each and every lease of any change to a common area’. Again in my view, such generalised attempted evidence was never admissible. And even if it were admitted, it could not possibly relevantly bear towards the key issue of construction confronting the learned arbitrator during the present hearing.
Likewise unhelpful is par 16, by Mr Testar’s reference to a designation of common areas by painted lines depicting car parking bays and the demarcation directing traffic in common driveways, etc. That purported expression of an expert opinion is again, simply too broad and ultimately, yet again, is wholly irrelevant to the construction exercise required to be undertaken by the learned arbitrator in reference to the phrase ‘lettable area’, used within cl 4.6 of the Lease.

Determination on present application under s 34(2) of the CA Act

The present application, as expressed, seeks to set aside the arbitral determination by a resort to s 34(2)(a)(ii) and (iv) of the CA Act, on a basis that Venetian was not able to ‘present its case’ to the arbitrator, or that the arbitral procedure was somehow unfair, by denying Venetian a reasonable opportunity to present its case. In the end, the contentions are untenable.

Venetian received an entirely fair two-day arbitral hearing. The process followed by the learned arbitrator, on my assessment, was perfectly fair. I repeat that an opportunity for the arbitrating parties to file even further materials given at the conclusion of two days of arbitral hearing, was afforded. The indulgence provided a more than fair opportunity to address any issues as regards further legal submissions or extra documentary expert evidence that Venetian may have wished to have further submitted, arising in the wake of the two days of hearing. But no extra evidence was sought to be added to Venetian’s case. Yet there is a process grievance raised to this court. That is truly breathtaking in its audacity.
Nor did Venetian ever complain to the arbitrator about being denied a fair or reasonable opportunity to present any part of its case at the hearing or afterwards.

An impression I hold, reading only the limited materials put before me (there being no transcript of the two days of arbitral hearing) is that the true underlying grievance Venetian complains over does not really concern the end meaning conclusion reached by the learned arbitrator. Rather, Venetian’s gripe is more against the arbitrator’s conclusion as to ‘regulatory prohibition’ – namely that ‘there was not evidence of any such area, and so I determine this is not relevant to the calculation’ (Award par 119(b)(i) and (ii)).

The construction conclusion of the learned arbitrator allowing Venetian the theoretical scope to reduce the denominator’s fractional number down to below the actual whole area of the larger lot of land owned by Venetian was actually a constructional conclusion reached in Venetian’s favour. A consequence would thereby, as a matter of mathematics theoretically, ultimately increase the proportion of the outgoings to be payable by Weatherford to its Lessor.

Within this overall framework it looks that the numerical areas of its land that Venetian in fact decided to excise against the denominator input figure (D) had included the subject Western Power easement area. The problem for Venetian at the hearing was that merely proving a bare existence of that easement alone was not enough for it to prove that this same easement area was thereby ‘not lettable’ by Venetian. That was a forensic failure on its part – no-one else’s.

Depending on how Venetian had run its arbitral case, it may have been open then for it to have led evidence upon that pragmatic factual utilisation question – in terms of the uses of the Western Power easement area of its land as not being lettable and so, for that area to be excisable from the denominator input figure (D) used in the fraction. But that was a question of fact over which the parties might then have been at odds at the hearing.

Venetian did not run a non-utilisation of the easement area case before the arbitrator at the hearing that way, as best I can ascertain from what is before me. It only tendered the easement document, thinking (presumably) that was enough. It was not.

At the time Venetian’s contention looked to be that a mere existence of a registered easement favouring Western Power had thereby prevented this part of its land from being developed and so, therefore, that the easement area affected was not lettable and so, further, that its area was excisable from the D figure.

That argument was ultimately not accepted at the hearing. But that is not a process grievance. That is just a badly run case.
Nor do I assess in the submissions of Venetian upon the present application complaining of a process failure any suggestion that Venetian might have tendered some tangible negative evidence – in terms of a (non) use and negative letting potential of the area of the Western Power registered easement.

Indeed, the terms of the easement itself, found within Mr Hotchkin’s affidavit at MCH13, explicitly envisage the easement area as retaining some utility for farming purposes (see page 256).

The point is that the true construction of cl 4.6 of the Lease was not really the problem for Venetian with the easement area. The true forensic problem was a lack of any evidence led by Venetian to engage with the interpretation as was reached by the learned arbitrator – which, as seen, actually favoured Venetian had it led the required factual evidence to a non‑utilisation end (if such evidence was ever available, of course).

Likewise, in respect of the arbitrator’s common areas conclusion and observation at par 119(b)(ii) to the effect that there was no evidence of a common area communicated to Weatherford ‘of an area that served or was for the use of the Premises … ‘. There was again a more than sufficient opportunity to engage over that issue at the hearing afforded to Venetian had it chosen to take it up. It did not.

Conclusion

In the end, on what is put before this court, it simply cannot be reliably shown that Venetian suffered a disadvantage by reason of being denied a reasonable opportunity to present its case, or that the arbitral hearing process overall was unfair to it. Venetian must accept that there is no appeal against the arbitrator’s Award and come to terms with that adverse result.
Consequently, the application advanced under Venetian’s originating summons of 26 August 2020 fails to demonstrate any basis for the court to intervene against the Award by under s 34(2)(a)(ii) or (iv) of the CA Act and is dismissed upon publication of these reasons.

I reserve other questions, including as to costs orders.

I will hear the parties as to the precise terms of an appropriate costs order in due course, if that is required.