Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Oops! … I did it again**: amending existing agreements

An issue that often arises is the desire to amend an existing agreement, with effect from a particular date – regularly that date will be on and from the day the original agreement was entered into.

It is generally accepted that, as between the parties, an agreement can be effective and binding on whatever basis is desired. This does not mean however that an agreement can be changed such that it is binding retrospectively on third parties, such as revenue authorities.

Arguably the leading case in this area is Davis v Commissioner of Taxation; Sirise Pty Ltd v Commissioner of Taxation 2000 ATC 4201. As usual, if you would like a copy of the case please contact me.

In this case the parties purported to have an agreement entered into that caused adverse tax consequences amended some time later, with effect from the date of the original document.

In rejecting the effectiveness of the amended agreement in binding the Tax Office it was confirmed that a rectification by a court or by deed between the parties is the only approach that binds third parties. Such an approach however is only available where the parties are under a mutual mistake that the document they signed recorded the terms of their bargain, when in fact it did not.

Rectification does not operate to ‘alter the past’, rather it simply recognises what had in fact always been the case, namely that the true agreement between the parties was not correctly recorded in the document that was mistakenly signed.

Critically, rectification requires that there must have been a mutual mistake. In other words, ‘a common intention between the parties as to the effect that the instrument they signed would have had which was inconsistent with the effect which the instrument which they executed in fact had’.

A mistake or misunderstanding, for example, as to the revenue consequences of an agreement is not a mutual mistake allowing rectification.

** For the trainspotters, the title today is riffed from Britney Spears song of the same name from 2000 see hear (sic):