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

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30.  To allow evidence of pre-contractual negotiations to be used in aid of construction would therefore require the House to depart from a long and consistent line of authority, the binding force of which has frequently been acknowledged: see Bank of Scotland v Dunedin Property Investment Co Ltd 1998 SC 657, 665 (“well-established and salutary", per Lord President Rodger; Alexiou v Campbell [2007] UKPC 11 (“vouched by…compelling authorities", per Lord Bingham of Cornhill.) The House is nevertheless invited to do so, on the ground that the rule is illogical and prevents a court from, as the Lord Justice Clerk in Inglis v John Buttery & Co (1878) 3 App Cas 552 said, putting itself in the position of the parties and ascertaining their true intent.

31.  In Prenn v Simmonds [1971] 1 WLR 1381, 1384 Lord Wilberforce said by way of justification of the rule:

“The reason for not admitting evidence of these exchanges is not a technical one or even mainly one of convenience, (though the attempt to admit it did greatly prolong the case and add to its expense). It is simply that such evidence is unhelpful. By the nature of things, where negotiations are difficult, the parties’ positions, with each passing letter, are changing and until the final agreement, though converging, still divergent. It is only the final document which records a consensus. If the previous documents use different expressions, how does construction of those expressions, itself a doubtful process, help on the construction of the contractual words? If the same expressions are used, nothing is gained by looking back: indeed, something may be lost since the relevant surrounding circumstances may be different. And at this stage there is no consensus of the parties to appeal to. It may be said that previous documents may be looked at to explain the aims of the parties. In a limited sense this is true: the commercial, or business object, of the transaction, objectively ascertained, may be a surrounding fact. Cardozo J. thought so in the Utica Bank case. And if it can be shown that one interpretation completely frustrates that object, to the extent of rendering the contract futile, that may be a strong argument for an alternative interpretation, if that can reasonably be found. But beyond that it may be difficult to go: it may be a matter of degree, or of judgment, how far one interpretation, or another, gives effect to a common intention: the parties, indeed, may be pursuing that intention with differing emphasis, and hoping to achieve it to an extent which may differ, and in different ways. The words used may, and often do, represent a formula which means different things to each side, yet may be accepted because that is the only way to get ‘agreement’ and in the hope that disputes will not arise. The only course then can be to try to ascertain the ‘natural’ meaning. Far more, and indeed totally, dangerous is it to admit evidence of one party’s objective - even if this is known to the other party. However strongly pursued this may be, the other party may only be willing to give it partial recognition, and in a world of give and take, men often have to be satisfied with less than they want. So, again, it would be a matter of speculation how far the common intention was that the particular objective should be realised.”

32.  Critics of the rule, such as Thomas J in New Zealand (Yoshimoto v Canterbury Golf International Ltd [2001] 1 NZLR 523, 538-549) Professor David McLauchlan (“Contract Interpretation: What is it About?” (2009) 31:5 Sydney Law Review 5-51) and Lord Nicholls of Birkenhead (“My Kingdom for a Horse: The Meaning of Words” (2005) 121 LQR 577-591) point out that although all this may usually be true, in some cases it will not. Among the dirt of aspirations, proposals and counter-proposals there may gleam the gold of a genuine consensus on some aspect of the transaction expressed in terms which would influence an objective observer in construing the language used by the parties in their final agreement. Why should court deny itself the assistance of this material in deciding what the parties must be taken to have meant? Mr Christopher Nugee QC, who appeared for Persimmon, went so far as to say that in saying that such evidence was unhelpful, Lord Wilberforce was not only providing a justification for the rule but delimiting its extent. It should apply only in cases in which the pre-contractual negotiations are actually irrelevant. If they do assist a court in deciding what an objective observer would have construed the contract to mean, they should be admitted. I cannot accept this submission. It is clear from what Lord Wilberforce said and the authorities upon which he relied that the exclusionary rule is not qualified in this way. There is no need for a special rule to exclude irrelevant evidence.

33.  I do however accept that it would not be inconsistent with the English objective theory of contractual interpretation to admit evidence of previous communications between the parties as part of the background which may throw light upon what they meant by the language they used. The general rule, as I said in Bank of Credit and Commerce International SA v Ali [2002] 1 AC 251, 269, is that there are no conceptual limits to what can properly be regarded as background. Prima facie, therefore, the negotiations are potentially relevant background. They may be inadmissible simply because they are irrelevant to the question which the court has to decide, namely, what the parties would reasonably be taken to have meant by the language which they finally adopted to express their agreement. For the reasons given by Lord Wilberforce, that will usually be the case. But not always. In exceptional cases, as Lord Nicholls has forcibly argued, a rule that prior negotiations are always inadmissible will prevent the court from giving effect to what a reasonable man in the position of the parties would have taken them to have meant. Of course judges may disagree over whether in a particular case such evidence is helpful or not. In Yoshimoto v Canterbury Golf International Ltd [2001] 1 NZLR 523. Thomas J thought he had found gold in the negotiations but the Privy Council said it was only dirt. As I have said, there is nothing unusual or surprising about such differences of opinion. In principle, however, I would accept that previous negotiations may be relevant.

34.  It therefore follows that while it is true that, as Lord Wilberforce said, inadmissibility is normally based in irrelevance, there will be cases in which it can be justified only on pragmatic grounds. I must consider these grounds, which have been explored in detail in the literature and on the whole rejected by academic writers but supported by some practitioners.

35.  The first is that the admission of pre-contractual negotiations would create greater uncertainty of outcome in disputes over interpretation and add to the cost of advice, litigation or arbitration. Everyone engaged in the exercise would have to read the correspondence and statements would have to be taken from those who took part in oral negotiations. Not only would this be time-consuming and expensive but the scope for disagreement over whether the material affected the construction of the agreement (as in the Yoshimoto case) would be considerably increased. As against this, it is said that when a dispute over construction is litigated, evidence of the pre-contractual negotiations is almost invariably tendered in support of an alternative claim for rectification (as in Prenn v Simmonds and in this case) or an argument based on estoppel by convention or some alleged exception to the exclusionary rule. Even if such an alternative claim does not succeed, the judge will have read and possibly been influenced by the evidence. The rule therefore achieves little in saving costs and its abolition would restore some intellectual honesty to the judicial approach to interpretation.

36.  There is certainly a view in the profession that the less one has to resort to any form of background in aid of interpretation, the better. The document should so far as possible speak for itself. As Popham CJ said in the Countess of Rutland’s Case (1604) 5 Co Rep 25b, 26a:

“it would be inconvenient, that matters in writing made by advice and on consideration, and which finally import the certain truth of the agreement of the parties should be controlled by averment of the parties to be proved by the uncertain testimony of slippery memory.”

37.  I do not think that these opinions can be dismissed as merely based upon the fallacy that words have inherent or “available” meanings, rather than being used by people to express meanings, although some of the arguments advanced in support might suggest this. It reflects what may be a sound practical intuition that the law of contract is an institution designed to enforce promises with a high degree of predictability and that the more one allows conventional meanings or syntax to be displaced by inferences drawn from background, the less predictable the outcome is likely to be. In this respect, it is interesting to consider the reaction to the statement of principle in Investors Compensation Scheme Ltd v West Bromwich Building Society [1998] 1 WLR 896,912-913, which was viewed with alarm by some distinguished commercial lawyers as having greatly increased the quantity of background material which courts or arbitrators would be invited to consider: see Lord Bingham’s recent paper (“A New Thing Under the Sun: The Interpretation of Contract and the ICS Decision” (2008) 12 Edinburgh LR 374-390) and Spigelmann CJ, “From Text to Contract: Contemporary Contractual Interpretation” (2007) 81 ALJ 322. As Lord Bingham pointed out, there was little in that statement of principle which could not be found in earlier authorities. The only points it decided that might have been thought in the least controversial were, first, that it was not necessary to find an “ambiguity” before one could have any regard to background and, secondly, that the meaning which the parties would reasonably be taken to have intended could be given effect despite the fact that it was not, according to conventional usage, an “available” meaning of the words or syntax which they had actually used.

38.  Like Lord Bingham, I rather doubt whether the ICS case produced a dramatic increase in the amount of material produced by way of background for the purposes of contractual interpretation. But pre-contractual negotiations seem to me capable of raising practical questions different from those created by other forms of background. Whereas the surrounding circumstances are, by definition, objective facts, which will usually be uncontroversial, statements in the course of pre-contractual negotiations will be drenched in subjectivity and may, if oral, be very much in dispute. It is often not easy to distinguish between those statements which (if they were made at all) merely reflect the aspirations of one or other of the parties and those which embody at least a provisional consensus which may throw light on the meaning of the contract which was eventually concluded. But the imprecision of the line between negotiation and provisional agreement is the very reason why in every case of dispute over interpretation, one or other of the parties is likely to require a court or arbitrator to take the course of negotiations into account. Your Lordships’ experience in the analogous case of resort to statements in Hansard under the rule in Pepper v Hart [1993] AC 593 suggests that such evidence will be produced in any case in which there is the remotest chance that it may be accepted and that even these cases will be only the tip of a mountain of discarded but expensive investigation. Pepper v Hart has also encouraged ministers and others to make statements in the hope of influencing the construction which the courts will give to a statute and it is possible that negotiating parties will be encouraged to improve the bundle of correspondence with similar statements.

39.  Supporters of the admissibility of pre-contractual negotiations draw attention to the fact that Continental legal systems seem to have little difficulty in taking them into account. Both the Unidroit Principles of International Commercial Contracts (1994 and 2004 revision) and the Principles of European Contract Law (1999) provide that in ascertaining the “common intention of the parties", regard shall be had to prior negotiations: articles 4.3 and 5.102 respectively. The same is true of the United Nations Convention on Contracts for the International Sale of Goods (1980). But these instruments reflect the French philosophy of contractual interpretation, which is altogether different from that of English law. As Professor Catherine Valcke explains in an illuminating article (“On Comparing French and English Contract Law: Insights from Social Contract Theory”) (16 January 2009), French law regards the intentions of the parties as a pure question of subjective fact, their volonté psychologique, uninfluenced by any rules of law. It follows that any evidence of what they said or did, whether to each other or to third parties, may be relevant to establishing what their intentions actually were. There is in French law a sharp distinction between the ascertainment of their intentions and the application of legal rules which may, in the interests of fairness to other parties or otherwise, limit the extent to which those intentions are given effect. English law, on the other hand, mixes up the ascertainment of intention with the rules of law by depersonalising the contracting parties and asking, not what their intentions actually were, but what a reasonable outside observer would have taken them to be. One cannot in my opinion simply transpose rules based on one philosophy of contractual interpretation to another, or assume that the practical effect of admitting such evidence under the English system of civil procedure will be the same as that under a Continental system.

40.  In his judgment in the present case, Briggs J thought that the most powerful argument against admitting evidence of pre-contractual negotiations was that it would be unfair to a third party who took an assignment of the contract or advanced money on its security. Such a person would not have been privy to the negotiations and may have taken the terms of the contract at face value. There is clearly strength in this argument, but it is fair to say that the same point can be made (and has been made, notably by Saville LJ in National Bank of Sharjah v Dellborg [1997] EWCA Civ 2070, which is unreported, but the relevant passage is cited in Lord Bingham’s paper in the Edinburgh Law Review) in respect of the admissibility of any form of background. The law sometimes deals with the problem by restricting the admissible background to that which would be available not merely to the contracting parties but also to others to whom the document is treated as having been addressed. Thus in Bratton Seymour Service Co Ltd v Oxborough [1992] BCLC 693 the Court of Appeal decided that in construing the articles of association of the management company of a building divided into flats, background facts which would have been known to all the signatories were inadmissible because the articles should be regarded as addressed to anyone who read the register of companies, including persons who would have known nothing of the facts in question. In The Starsin (Homburg Houtimport BV v Agrosin Private Ltd [2004] 1 AC 715) the House of Lords construed words which identified the carrier on the front of a bill of lading without reference to what it said on the back, on the ground that the bankers to whom the bill would be tendered could not be expected to read the small print. Ordinarily, however, a contract is treated as addressed to the parties alone and an assignee must either inquire as to any relevant background or take his chance on how that might affect the meaning a court will give to the document. The law has sometimes to compromise between protecting the interests of the contracting parties and those of third parties. But an extension of the admissible background will, at any rate in theory, increase the risk that a third party will find that the contract does not mean what he thought. How often this is likely to be a practical problem is hard to say. In the present case, the construction of the agreement does not involve reliance upon any background which would not have been equally available to any prospective assignee or lender.

41.  The conclusion I would reach is that there is no clearly established case for departing from the exclusionary rule. The rule may well mean, as Lord Nicholls has argued, that parties are sometimes held bound by a contract in terms which, upon a full investigation of the course of negotiations, a reasonable observer would not have taken them to have intended. But a system which sometimes allows this to happen may be justified in the more general interest of economy and predictability in obtaining advice and adjudicating disputes. It is, after all, usually possible to avoid surprises by carefully reading the documents before signing them and there are the safety nets of rectification and estoppel by convention. Your Lordships do not have the material on which to form a view. It is possible that empirical study (for example, by the Law Commission) may show that the alleged disadvantages of admissibility are not in practice very significant or that they are outweighed by the advantages of doing more precise justice in exceptional cases or falling into line with international conventions. But the determination of where the balance of advantage lies is not in my opinion suitable for judicial decision. Your Lordships are being asked to depart from a rule which has been in existence for many years and several times affirmed by the House. There is power to do so under the Practice Statement (Judicial Precedent) [1966] 1 WLR 1234. But that power was intended, as Lord Reid said in R v National Insurance Comrs, Ex p Hudson [1972] AC 944, 966, to be applied only in a small number of cases in which previous decisions of the House were “thought to be impeding the proper development of the law or to have led to results which were unjust or contrary to public policy". I do not think that anyone can be confident that this is true of the exclusionary rule.

42.  The rule excludes evidence of what was said or done during the course of negotiating the agreement for the purpose of drawing inferences about what the contract meant. It does not exclude the use of such evidence for other purposes: for example, to establish that a fact which may be relevant as background was known to the parties, or to support a claim for rectification or estoppel. These are not exceptions to the rule. They operate outside it.

43.  There is however a group of cases in which judges have found an exception to the exclusionary rule and your Lordships will have to decide whether such an exception can be justified. The leading case is the decision of Kerr J the Karen Oltmann (Partenreederei MS Karen Oltmann v Scarsdale Shipping Co Ltd [1976] 2 Lloyd’s Rep 708. This concerned a time charter for 2 years (14 days more or less in charterers’option) which contained a break clause:

“Charterers to have the option to redeliver the vessel after 12 months’ trading subject to giving three months’ notice".

44.  The issue was whether “after 12 months’ trading” meant that the break clause could be operated only at the end of the first year or at any time during the second year. The judge said that he was entitled to look at telexes by which the fixture was negotiated in which the parties discussed various lengths of break clauses and were clearly using the word “after” to mean “on the expiry of” rather than “at any time after the expiry of". He justified the admissibility of this evidence on the following principle (p 712):

“If a contract contains words which, in their context, are fairly capable of bearing more than one meaning, and if it is alleged that the parties have in effect negotiated on an agreed basis that the words bore only one of the two possible meanings, then it is permissible for the court to examine the extrinsic evidence relied upon to see whether the parties have in fact used the words in question in one sense only, so that they have in effect given their own dictionary meaning to the words as the result of their common intention. Such cases would not support a claim for rectification of the contract, because the choice of words in the contract did not result from any mistake. The words used in the contract would ex hypothesi reflect the meaning which both parties intended.”

45.  In his judgment in this case, Lawrence Collins LJ said of this principle (in paragraph 121) that he doubted whether it differed in any material respect from admitting evidence of prior negotiations in construing a contract. Indeed, the case is frequently cited as an example of an exception which undermines the rule: see for example Professor McLauchlan, “Contract Interpretation: What is It About?” (2009) 31:5 Sydney Law Review 5-51. It is true that evidence may always be adduced that the parties habitually used words in an unconventional sense in order to support an argument that words in a contract should bear a similar unconventional meaning. This is the “private dictionary” principle, which is akin to the principle by which a linguistic usage in a trade or among a religious sect may be proved: compare Shore v Wilson (1842) 9 Cl & F 355. For this purpose it does not matter whether the evidence of usage by the parties was in the course of negotiations or on any other occasion. It is simply evidence of the linguistic usage which they had in common. But the telexes in the Karen Oltmann did not evidence any unconventional usage. There was no private dictionary. The case involved a choice between two perfectly conventional meanings of the word “after” in a particular context. In my opinion Lawrence Collins LJ was right in saying that the admission of the evidence infringed the exclusionary rule. It is perhaps significant that the evidence merely confirmed the meaning which Kerr J, as an experienced commercial judge, would in any case have given to the clause.

46.  What would have been the position if Kerr J had thought that, without the evidence of the telexes, he would have construed the clause in the opposite sense? He said that rectification would not be available because “The words used in the contract would ex hypothesi reflect the meaning which both parties intended.” I do not understand this, because, on this hypothesis, the telexes would show that the words (as construed by the judge) did not reflect the meaning which both parties intended. And it is generally accepted that Brightman J was right in Re Butlin’s Settlement Trusts [1976] Ch 251 in holding that rectification is available not only when the parties intended to use different words but also when they mistakenly thought their words bore a different meaning.

47.  On its facts, the Karen Oltmann was in my opinion an illegitimate extension of the “private dictionary” principle which, taken to its logical conclusion, would destroy the exclusionary rule and any practical advantages which it may have. There are two legitimate safety devices which will in most cases prevent the exclusionary rule from causing injustice. But they have to be specifically pleaded and clearly established. One is rectification. The other is estoppel by convention, which has been developed since the decision in the Karen Oltmann: see Amalgamated Investment & Property Co. Ltd. v. Texas Commerce International Bank Ltd. [1982] QB 84. If the parties have negotiated an agreement upon some common assumption, which may include an assumption that certain words will bear a certain meaning, they may be estopped from contending that the words should be given a different meaning. Both of these remedies lie outside the exclusionary rule, since they start from the premise that, as a matter of construction, the agreement does not have the meaning for which the party seeking rectification or raising an estoppel contends.

48.  The last point is whether, if Chartbrook’s interpretation of the agreement had been correct, it should have been rectified to accord with Persimmon’s interpretation. The requirements for rectification were succinctly summarized by Peter Gibson LJ in Swainland Builders Ltd v Freehold Properties Ltd [2002] 2 EGLR 71, 74, para 33:

“The party seeking rectification must show that:

(1)  the parties had a common continuing intention, whether or not amounting to an agreement, in respect of a particular matter in the instrument to be rectified;

(2)  there was an outward expression of accord;

(3)  the intention continued at the time of the execution of the instrument sought to be rectified;

(4)  by mistake, the instrument did not reflect that common intention.”

49.  To explain how the claim for rectification arose, I must summarise the relevant pre-contractual exchanges between the parties. They began by discussing a proposal for an outright sale of the land by Chartbrook to Persimmon at a price calculated by reference to such planning permission as Chartbrook might obtain. In early 2001 this structure was abandoned and Persimmon in a letter dated 1 February 2001 proposed the building licence arrangement eventually agreed. The letter included the following passages:

“we would be prepared to pay you 29.8% of the net sales proceeds generated from the private sale residential element of the scheme and a further 45% of the net sales revenue generated from the disposal of the commercial element of the site. We would pay you this proportion of the income regardless of the development costs incurred by my Company and the quantum of accommodation that we ultimately obtain planning permission for…By tying your land value to a percentage of the income, you will also automatically share in any sales uplift that we experience.”

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