IN THE SUPREME COURT OF HONG KONG
Coram :Godfrey, J.
Dates of judgment : 9 September and 15 October 1993
J U D G M E N T
1. This is a vendor and purchaser summons. The 1st defendant Light Ocean Investments Limited is the vendor under an agreement made on17th October 1992 under which it agreed to sell to the plaintiff Enway Development Ltd. (“the purchaser”) certain land at Yuen Long,New Territories. The 2nd defendant Silver Wall Investment Limited is the vendor under another agreement dated 17th October 1992 underwhich it agreed to sell to the purchaser certain other land at Yuen Long, New Territories. (I shall refer to both defendants as “thevendors”, and to the agreements of 17th October 1992 as “the principal agreements”.)
2. The transactions with which the principal agreements were concerned were substantial transactions. The total consideration for theproperty which the purchaser agreed to purchase amounted to $152,974,080. The purchaser paid deposits which totalled $38,243,520.The completion date was to be, at the latest, 29th March 1993. Time was in every respect to be of the essence.
3. But the purchaser was concerned also to acquire certain other land, in the evidence and in the argument before me conveniently describedas “the ancillary lots”. In that connection each of the principal agreements contained, as Clause 32, a clause in the following terms(so far as material) :-
4. This clause related to the ancillary lots. Of these, two of them were the property of a t’so; and that is what has given rise tothe present dispute.
5. In this connection, s.15 of the New Territories Ordinance, Cap.97, is material. Section 15 applies to the registration of the manager of a “t’ong” etc. It applies to a t’so as well as to a t’ong. It reads as follows :-
6. In the present case, the position, on 29th March 1993, was that the Land Officer had on 22nd March 1993 approved the appointmentof three persons as managers of the relevant t’so, and these three persons had on 28th March 1993 agreed to sell the relevant landto Important Plan Limited, which had itself agreed to sell it on to the 1st defendant. However, these three persons had not, as atthat date, been registered as managers of the t’so. After that date, on 1st April 1993, they were registered as managers. On thesame day, 1st April 1993, they applied for the Land Officer’s consent to sell. On 19th July 1993, they were granted such consent,valid for six months from that date.
7. The purchaser contends that, on 29th March 1993, the vendors were not “able to enter into a binding agreement for sale and purchasewith the purchaser for the sale of “the relevant land. (If this is right, of course it follows that the vendors would have been unableon that day to produce sufficient documentary evidence that they were in fact able to do so.)
8. Accordingly, says the purchaser, it was entitled to terminate the agreements, as in fact it did; and it is therefore, it says, nowentitled to the refund of all the deposits it has paid.
9. The question which I have, on these facts, to decide, is a question of construction. Whether, on 29th March 1993, the vendors were”able to enter into a binding agreement for sub-sale and purchase with the purchaser for the sale of ” the relevant land, dependson what those words mean.
10. The vendors rely on the two agreements made on 28th March 1993 as agreements which, if completed, would have carried to the vendorsthe title to the relevant land.
11. However, it remains the fact that, on 29th March 1993, the appointment of the named managers of the t’so, although approved, hadnot been registered; and that the consent of the Land Officer to the sale had not been obtained.
12. In my judgment on its true construction, clause 32 required the vendors to have been able to demonstrate to the purchaser by 29thMarch 1993 at the latest that the persons from whom they were themselves purchasing had at that date a good title to the relevantland. If the condition was not, on that date, satisfied, it would be too late for the vendors to show that they could have satisfiedthe condition immediately after that date : compare Aberfoyle Planations v. Cheng  AC 115.
13. The vendors contend that it was sufficient, for the purposes of clause 32, that they were able on 29th March 1993 to establish thatthey did have the benefit of a legally binding agreement with the vendors named in the agreements of 28th March 1993. The vendorswere prepared to accept that, on 29th March 1993, they could not have obtained a decree of specific performance of their contractsto buy the relevant land; but say correctly that they could have issued proceedings for that relief (compare Marks v. Lilley  1 WLR 749; Hasham v. Zenab  AC 316).
14. I reject the vendors’ contention. It is clear on the face of the agreements (and I am not prepared to look further than this) thatthe purchaser was seeking to assemble a site for development, including the ancillary lots; and was anxious to ensure that the positionwould crystallize no later than 29th March 1993. On that day, however, no one could have been certain whether or when the registrationof the managers of the t’so would be effected; and no one could be certain whether the Land Officer would, necessarily, consent tothe sale by the managers (when registered) of the relevant land.
15. In my judgment, clause 32 contemplated that the vendors were to be able to show, on 29th March 1993, that they had a legal or equitableright to a good title to the relevant land, and to compel a conveyance or assignment of such a title to the purchaser. But in factthe ability of the vendors to show such a title was dependent (1) on the registration of the three approved persons as managers;and (2) on their having obtained the consent of the Land Officer to the relevant sale. In these circumstances, the title shown on29th March 1993 was not on that date a good title, but one liable to be impeached if the registration or consent was not forthcoming.
16. It follows if that construction of clause 32 is correct that the purchaser was entitled to terminate the agreements, as it did; andis now entitled to the return of its deposits. I propose to make an appropriate declaration; and I propose to order that the costsof the purchaser of this application be taxed if agreed and paid by the vendors to the purchaser. If any difficulty arises as tothe form of the order, or as to the order for costs which I have proposed, the case will have to be restored to the list for furtherargument.
Mr Robert Tang, Q.C. & Miss Maria Yuen, instructed by M/s Carey & Lui, for Plaintiff.
Mr Ronny Wong, Q.C. & Mr Thomas Lai, instructed by M/s Leung Kin & Co., for 1st & 2nd Defendants.