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Judgments - Chartbrook Limited (Respondents) v Persimmon Homes Limited and others (Appellants) and another (Respondent)


SESSION 2008-09

[2009] UKHL 38

on appeal from:[2008] EWCA Civ 183




Chartbrook Limited (Respondents) v Persimmon Homes Limited and others (Appellants) and another (Respondent)

Appellate Committee

Lord Hope of Craighead

Lord Hoffmann

Lord Rodger of Earlsferry

Lord Walker of Gestingthorpe

Baroness Hale of Richmond



Christopher Nugee QC

Julian Greenhill

(Instructed by Mayer Brown International)


Robert Miles QC

Timothy Morshead

(Instructed by Carter-Ruck )

Hearing dates:

31 MARCH, 1 and 2 APRIL 2009






Chartbrook Limited (Respondents) v Persimmon Homes Limited and others (Appellants) and another (Respondent)

[2009] UKHL 38


My Lords,

1.  I have had the privilege of reading in draft the opinion of my noble and learned friend, Lord Hoffmann. Like my noble and learned friend, Lord Walker of Gestingthorpe, whose opinion I have also had the privilege of reading, I agree with all his reasoning and I share Lord Walker’s admiration for the way it has been expressed. For the reasons they give I would allow the appeal.

2.  I agree that Persimmon’s argument that the House should take account of the pre-contractual negotiations raises an important issue. Every so often the rule that prior negotiations are inadmissible comes under scrutiny. That is as it should be. One of the strengths of the common law is that it can take a fresh look at itself so that it can keep pace with changing circumstances. But for the reasons that have been set out by Lord Hoffmann I think that the arguments for retaining the rule have lost none of their force since Prenn v Simmonds [1971] 1 WLR 1381 demonstrated, as Lord Wilberforce put it at p 1384, the disadvantages and danger of departing from established doctrine.

3.  In the Court of Appeal Lawrence Collins LJ said that the policy reasons for the rule have not been fully articulated: [2008] EWCA Civ 183, para 106. I am not sure, with respect, that everyone would agree with him. Lord Gifford did his best to explain what they are in his dissenting opinion in Inglis v Buttery (1877) 5 R 58, 69-70. When that case came before this House Lord Blackburn said that they set out exactly what he himself thought: (1878) 3 App Cas 552, 577. As Lord Gifford explained, the very purpose of a formal contract is to put an end to the disputes which would inevitably arise if the matter were left upon what the parties said or wrote to each other during the period of their negotiations. It is the formal contract that records their bargain, however different it may be from what they may have stipulated for previously

4.  Lord Blackburn clearly saw no conflict between the exclusionary rule and Lord Justice Clerk Moncreiff’s proposition that the Court was entitled to be put in the position that the parties stood before they signed: (1877) 5 R 58, 64. In River Wear Commissioners v Adamson (1877) 2 App Cas 743, 763 he had already acknowledged that the court should look beyond the language of the contract and see what the circumstances were with reference to which the words were used. As he put it, the meaning of words varies according to the circumstances with respect to which they are used. It was the reasons that Lord Gifford articulated in Inglis v Buttery (1877) 5 R 58, 69-70, that persuaded him that to admit evidence of prior negotiations would be a step too far. I think that what appealed to Lord Blackburn still holds true today. If more is needed, Lord Hoffmann’s analysis provides it. As he has indicated, it would only be if your Lordships were confident that the rule was impeding the proper development of the law or contrary to public policy that it would be right for it to be departed from. That this is so has not, as I see it, been demonstrated.


My Lords,

5.  On 16 October 2001 Chartbrook Ltd (“Chartbrook”) entered into an agreement with Persimmon Homes Ltd (“Persimmon”), a well-known house-builder, for the development of a site in Wandsworth which Chartbrook had recently acquired. The structure of the agreement was that Persimmon would obtain planning permission and then, pursuant to a licence from Chartbrook, enter into possession, construct a mixed residential and commercial development (commercial premises below, flats above, parking in the basement) and sell the properties on long leases. Chartbrook would grant the leases at the direction of Persimmon, which would receive the proceeds for its own account and pay Chartbrook an agreed price for the land. Planning permission was duly granted and the development was built, but there is a dispute over the price which became payable.

6.  Schedule 6 contained the relevant provisions. The price was defined as the aggregate of the Total Land Value and the Balancing Payment. The Total Land Value was made up of three parts: Total Residential Land Value, Total Commercial Land Value and Total Residential Cark Parking Land Value. Total Residential Land Value was to be £76.34 per square foot multiplied by the area for which planning permission for flats was granted. Total Commercial Land Value was £38.80 per square foot multiplied by the area for which planning permission for shops and other commercial uses was granted. And Total Residential Cark Parking Land Value was £3,024 multiplied by the number of spaces for which planning permission was granted. The Schedule set out the dates upon which the Total Land Value was to be paid. In principle, payment would fall due as each flat, shop or parking space was sold. But there was also a backstop provision for payment of specified percentages of the Total Land Value (so far as not already paid) by dates commencing about two and a half years after the grant of planning permission and ending about two years later, by which time the whole sum was due, whether the properties had been sold or not.

7.  The provisions about Total Land Value are all quite straightforward and only require the insertion of the appropriate figures from the planning permission (which are not in dispute) into the formulae provided. The other element in the price is the Balancing Payment. For reasons concerned with its drafting history which need not be explored, the Schedule defines the Balancing Payment as the Additional Residential Payment (“ARP”) and then goes on to define the latter expression. So when I refer to the ARP, that means the Balancing Payment.

8.  The definition of the ARP, over which the whole dispute turns, is outwardly uncomplicated:

“23.4% of the price achieved for each Residential Unit in excess of the Minimum Guaranteed Residential Unit Value less the Costs and Incentives.”

9.  This contains three more defined concepts. Residential Unit means a flat. The Minimum Guaranteed Residential Unit Value (“MGRUV”) means the Total Residential Land Value divided by the number of flats. And Costs and Incentives (“C & I”) mean the additional expense which Persimmon might have to incur to induce someone to buy a flat; for example, by providing fittings better than specification or paying legal expenses. Such payments are economically equivalent to a reduction in the price achieved.

10.  Chartbrook says that the meaning of the definition is perfectly simple. You take the price achieved, deduct the MGRUV and the C & I and calculate 23.4% of the result. That gives you a figure for an individual flat which, together the figures for similar calculations on all the other flats, makes up the ARP or Balancing Payment. That and the Total Land Value is the price. On the agreed figures, that produces a Total Land Value of £4,683,565 and an ARP of £4,484,862, making £9,168,427 in all. The judge (Briggs J) [2007] EWHC 409 (Ch) and a majority of the Court of Appeal (Tuckey and Rimer LJJ) [2008] EWCA Civ 183 agreed.

11.  This construction is certainly in accordance with conventional syntax, at any rate, up to the point at which one decides when C & I should be deducted. As Briggs J said (at para 53) —

“ARP means 23.4% of something. To the question ‘23.4% of what?’ the clear answer is the excess of the price achieved for each Residential Unit over the MGRUV, less the Costs and Incentives.”

12.  I do not think that the syntax helps one to decide whether C & I should be deducted before or after calculating the 23.4%, that is to say, whether there is a notional pause for breath after “MGRUV", represented in the passage I have quoted from the judgment by a comma which does not appear in the contract. That is a grammatical ambiguity which must be resolved by considering the business purpose of providing for a deduction of C & I. But the judge was clearly right about the effect of the syntax employed in the first part of the definition.

13.  Persimmon, on the other hand, says that the purpose of dividing the price into Total Land Value and ARP was to give Chartbrook a minimum price for its land, calculated on current market assumptions, and to allow for the possibility of an increase if the market rose and the flats sold for more than expected. It is agreed that, at the time of the agreement, the parties expected that a 700 square foot flat would sell for about £200,000 or so, maybe slightly more. The MGRUV at £76.34 a square foot for such a flat was £53,438 or 26.7% of a price of £200,000. If the realised price was £228,000, it would represent 23.4%. The purpose of the ARP was to provide that if the flats sold for more than £228,000, Chartbrook would be entitled to the amount by which 23.4% of the higher price exceeded the £53,438 MGRUV. What the definition therefore means is that you deduct C & I from the realised price to arrive at the net price received by Persimmon, then calculate 23.4% of that price, and the ARP is the excess of that figure over MGRUV. On this calculation, ARP is £897,051, compared with Chartbrook’s claim for £4,484,862. In the Court of Appeal Lawrence Collins LJ, dissenting, held that Persimmon’s construction was correct.

14.  There is no dispute that the principles on which a contract (or any other instrument or utterance) should be interpreted are those summarised by the House of Lords in Investors Compensation Scheme Ltd v West Bromwich Building Society [1998] 1 WLR 896, 912-913. They are well known and need not be repeated. It is agreed that the question is what a reasonable person having all the background knowledge which would have been available to the parties would have understood them to be using the language in the contract to mean. The House emphasised that “we do not easily accept that people have made linguistic mistakes, particularly in formal documents” (similar statements will be found in Bank of Credit and Commerce International SA v Ali [2002] 1 AC 251, 269, Kirin-Amgen Inc v Hoechst Marion Roussel Ltd [2005] RPC 169, 186 and Jumbo King Ltd v Faithful Properties Ltd (1999) 2 HKCFAR 279, 296) but said that in some cases the context and background drove a court to the conclusion that “something must have gone wrong with the language". In such a case, the law did not require a court to attribute to the parties an intention which a reasonable person would not have understood them to have had.

15.  It clearly requires a strong case to persuade the court that something must have gone wrong with the language and the judge and the majority of the Court of Appeal did not think that such a case had been made out. On the other hand, Lawrence Collins LJ thought it had. It is, I am afraid, not unusual that an interpretation which does not strike one person as sufficiently irrational to justify a conclusion that there has been a linguistic mistake will seem commercially absurd to another: compare the Kirin-Amgen case [2005] RPC 169 at pp. 189-190. Such a division of opinion occurred in the Investors Compensation Scheme case itself. The subtleties of language are such that no judicial guidelines or statements of principle can prevent it from sometimes happening. It is fortunately rare because most draftsmen of formal documents think about what they are saying and use language with care. But this appears to be an exceptional case in which the drafting was careless and no one noticed.

16.  I agree with the dissenting opinion of Lawrence Collins LJ because I think that to interpret the definition of ARP in accordance with ordinary rules of syntax makes no commercial sense. The term “Minimum Guaranteed Residential Unit Value", defined by reference to Total Residential Land Value, strongly suggests that this was to be a guaranteed minimum payment for the land value in respect of an individual flat. A guaranteed minimum payment connotes the possibility of a larger payment which, depending upon some contingency, may or may not fall due. Hence the term “Additional Residential Payment". The element of contingency is reinforced by paragraph 3.3 of the Sixth Schedule, which speaks of the “date of payment if any of the Balancing Payment.” (My emphasis).

17.  The judge declined to regard the terms Total Land Value and Minimum Guaranteed Residential Unit Value as indicative of an intention that MGRUV was to be the minimum Chartbrook would receive as the land value of a flat because both terms were defined expressions. They might just as well have been algebraic symbols. Indeed they might, and I strongly suspect that if they had been, they would have made it clear that the parties were intending to give effect to Persimmon’s construction. But the contract does not use algebraic symbols. It uses labels. The words used as labels are seldom arbitrary. They are usually chosen as a distillation of the meaning or purpose of a concept intended to be more precisely stated in the definition. In such cases the language of the defined expression may help to elucidate ambiguities in the definition or other parts of the agreement: compare Birmingham City Council v Walker [2007] 2 AC 262, 268. I therefore consider that Lawrence Collins LJ was right to take into account the connotations of contingency to be derived from the defined terms.

18.  On Chartbrook’s construction, there is virtually no element of contingency at all. ARP is payable in every case in which the flat sells for more than £53,438. Chartbrook submits that is still a contingency. Who could tell whether or not the market for flats in Wandsworth might not collapse? In the Court of Appeal, Rimer LJ accepted that submission. He said that the “relevant language", i.e. the language of contingency, was “strictly consistent also with Chartbrook’s construction.”

19.  My Lords, I cannot believe that any rational parties who wished to make provision for such a catastrophic fall in the housing market (itself an unlikely assumption) would have adopted so precise a sum to represent their estimate of what might happen. Why £53,438? That was the agreed minimum figure for that part of the value of a flat attributable to the land which Chartbrook was selling. It was clearly based upon a careful and precise estimate of current market prices and building costs. But how could this figure have been appropriate as a minimum expected sale price of the entire flat at some future date? If the parties were wanting to guess at some extraordinary fall in the market against which Chartbrook was to be protected, why £53,438? Why not £50,000 or £60,000, or £100,000? A figure chosen to represent someone’s fears about a possible collapse in the market could only have been based upon wild speculation, not the kind of calculation which produces a figure like £53,438. That figure cannot have been meant to play the part in the calculation which Chartbrook’s construction assigns to it. It must have been intended to function as a minimum land value, not a minimum sale price. To compare it with the realised sale price would not be comparing like with like.

20.  It is of course true that the fact that a contract may appear to be unduly favourable to one of the parties is not a sufficient reason for supposing that it does not mean what it says. The reasonable addressee of the instrument has not been privy to the negotiations and cannot tell whether a provision favourable to one side was not in exchange for some concession elsewhere or simply a bad bargain. But the striking feature of this case is not merely that the provisions as interpreted by the judge and the Court of Appeal are favourable to Chartbrook. It is that they make the structure and language of the various provisions of Schedule 6 appear arbitrary and irrational, when it is possible for the concepts employed by the parties (MGRUV, C & I etc) to be combined in a rational way.

21.  I therefore think that Lawrence Collins LJ was right in saying that ARP must mean the amount by which 23.4% of the achieved price exceeds the MGRUV. I do not think that it is necessary to undertake the exercise of comparing this language with that of the definition in order to see how much use of red ink is involved. When the language used in an instrument gives rise to difficulties of construction, the process of interpretation does not require one to formulate some alternative form of words which approximates as closely as possible to that of the parties. It is to decide what a reasonable person would have understood the parties to have meant by using the language which they did. The fact that the court might have to express that meaning in language quite different from that used by the parties (“12th January” instead of “13th January” in Mannai Investment Co Ltd v Eagle Star Life Assurance Co Ltd [1997] AC 749; “any claim sounding in rescission (whether for undue influence or otherwise)” instead of “any claim (whether sounding in rescission for undue influence or otherwise)” in Investors Compensation Scheme Ltd v West Bromwich Building Society [1998] 1 WLR 896) is no reason for not giving effect to what they appear to have meant.

22.  In East v Pantiles (Plant Hire) Ltd (1981) 263 EG 61 Brightman J stated the conditions for what he called “correction of mistakes by construction":

“Two conditions must be satisfied: first, there must be a clear mistake on the face of the instrument; secondly, it must be clear what correction ought to be made in order to cure the mistake. If those conditions are satisfied, then the correction is made as a matter of construction.”

23.  Subject to two qualifications, both of which are explained by Carnwath LJ in his admirable judgment in KPMG LLP v Network Rail Infrastructure Ltd [2007] Bus LR 1336, I would accept this statement, which is in my opinion no more than an expression of the common sense view that we do not readily accept that people have made mistakes in formal documents. The first qualification is that “correction of mistakes by construction” is not a separate branch of the law, a summary version of an action for rectification. As Carnwath LJ said (at p. 1351, para 50):

“Both in the judgment, and in the arguments before us, there was a tendency to deal separately with correction of mistakes and construing the paragraph ‘as it stands’, as though they were distinct exercises. In my view, they are simply aspects of the single task of interpreting the agreement in its context, in order to get as close as possible to the meaning which the parties intended.”

24.  The second qualification concerns the words “on the face of the instrument". I agree with Carnwath LJ (at pp 1350-1351) that in deciding whether there is a clear mistake, the court is not confined to reading the document without regard to its background or context. As the exercise is part of the single task of interpretation, the background and context must always be taken into consideration.

25.  What is clear from these cases is that there is not, so to speak, a limit to the amount of red ink or verbal rearrangement or correction which the court is allowed. All that is required is that it should be clear that something has gone wrong with the language and that it should be clear what a reasonable person would have understood the parties to have meant. In my opinion, both of these requirements are satisfied.

26.  That leaves the question of the deduction of C & I, which the judge and the majority of the Court of Appeal regarded as an insuperable obstacle to Persimmon’s construction. I cannot see why this should be so. Everyone agrees that the only sum from which C & I can rationally be deducted is the headline price achieved on the sale, so as to arrive at the net amount received by Persimmon. That is accordingly what the parties must have meant. You deduct the C & I from the nominal price achieved and the ARP is the excess, if any, of 23.4% of that net sum over the MGRUV. Giving this meaning to the provision about C & I does not in any way weaken or affect the argument for interpreting the rest of the definition in a way which gives ARP a rational meaning. To say, as Rimer LJ said, that it requires “rewriting", or that it “distorts the meaning and arithmetic of the definition” is only to say that it requires one to conclude that something has gone wrong with the language - not, in this case, with the meanings of words, but with the syntactical arrangement of those words. If however the context drives one to the conclusion that this must have happened, it is no answer that the interpretation does not reflect what the words would conventionally have been understood to mean.

27.  If your Lordships agree with this conclusion about the construction of the contract, the appeal must be allowed. There is no need to say anything more. But Persimmon advanced two alternative arguments of very considerable general importance and I think it is appropriate that your Lordships should deal with them. The first was that (contrary to the unanimous opinion of the judge and the Court of Appeal) the House should take into account the pre-contractual negotiations, which in the opinion of Lawrence Collins LJ (at paragraph 132), were determinative confirmation of Persimmon’s argument on construction. The second was that the judge and the Court of Appeal had misunderstood the principles upon which rectification may be decreed and that if Persimmon had failed on construction, the agreement should have been rectified.

28.  The rule that pre-contractual negotiations are inadmissible was clearly reaffirmed by this House in Prenn v Simmonds [1971] 1 WLR 1381, where Lord Wilberforce said (at p. 1384) that earlier authorities “contain little to encourage, and much to discourage, evidence of negotiation or of the parties’ subjective intentions.” It is clear that the rule of inadmissibility has been established for a very long time. In Inglis v John Buttery & Co (1878) 3 App Cas 552, 577 Lord Blackburn said that Lord Justice Clerk Moncreiff (at (1877) 4 R 58, 64) had laid down a principle which was nearly accurate but not quite when he said that in all mercantile contracts “whether they be clear and distinct or the reverse, the Court is entitled to be placed in the position in which the parties stood before they signed". The only qualification Lord Blackburn made was to reject Lord Moncreiff’s view that the Court was entitled to look at the pre-contractual negotiations because unless one did so, one could not be fully in the position in which the parties had been.

29.  Instead, Lord Blackburn preferred (at p. 577) the opinion of Lord Gifford ((1877) 4 R 58, 69-70):

“Now, I think it is quite fixed - and no more wholesome or salutary rule relative to written contracts can be devised - that where parties agree to embody, and do actually embody, their contract in a formal written deed, then in determining what the contract really was and really meant, a Court must look to the formal deed and to that deed alone. This is only carrying out the will of the parties. The only meaning of adjusting a formal contract is, that the formal contract shall supersede all loose and preliminary negotiations - that there shall be no room for misunderstandings which may often arise, and which do constantly arise, in the course of long, and it may be desultory conversations, or in the course of correspondence or negotiations during which the parties are often widely at issue as to what they will insist on and what they will concede. The very purpose of a formal contract is to put an end to the disputes which would inevitably arise if the matter were left upon verbal negotiations or upon mixed communings partly consisting of letters and partly of conversations. The written contract is that which is to be appealed to by both parties, however different it may be from their previous demands or stipulations, whether contained in letters or in verbal conversation. There can be no doubt that this is the general rule, and I think the general rule, strictly and with peculiar appropriateness applies to the present case.”