Specific Performance of Development Agreement between Builder and Owner

Meaning of “development agreement”:

The expression “development agreement” has not been defined statutorily. In a sense, it is a catch-all nomenclature which is used to be describe a wide range of agreements which an owner of a property may enter into for development of immovable property. As real estate transactions have grown in complexity, the nature of these agreements has become increasingly intricate. Broadly speaking, (without intending to be exhaustive), development agreements may be of various kinds:

(i) An agreement may envisage that the owner of the immovable property engages someone to carry out the work of construction on the property for monetary consideration. This is a pure construction contract;

(ii) An agreement by which the owner or a person holding other rights in an immovable property grants rights to a third party to carry on development for a monetary consideration payable by the developer to the other. In such a situation, the owner or right holder may in effect create an interest in the property in favour of the developer for a monetary consideration;

(iii) An agreement where the owner or a person holding any other rights in an immovable property grants rights to another person to carry out development. In consideration, the developer has to hand over a part of the constructed area to the owner. The developer is entitled to deal with the balance of the constructed area. In some situations, a society or similar other association is formed and the land is conveyed or leased to the society or association;

(iv) A development agreement may be entered into in a situation where the immovable property is occupied by tenants or other right holders. In some cases, the property may be encroached upon. The developer may take on the entire responsibility to settle with the occupants and to thereafter carry out construction; and

(v) An owner may negotiate with a developer to develop a plot of land which is occupied by slum dwellers and which has been declared as a slum. Alternately, there may be old and dilapidated buildings which are occupied by a number of occupants or tenants. The developer may undertake to rehabilitate the occupants or, as the case may be, the slum dwellers and thereafter share the saleable constructed area with the owner.

When a pure construction contact is entered into, the contractor has no interest in either the land or the construction which is carried out. But in various other categories of development agreements, the developer may have acquired a valuable right either in the property or in the constructed area. The terms of the agreement are crucial in determining whether any interest has been created in the land or in respect of rights in the land in favour of the developer and if so, the nature and extent of the rights.

Right of development:

An essential incident of ownership of land is the right to exploit the development, potential to construct and to deal with the constructed area. In some situations, under a development agreement, an owner may part with such rights to a developer. This in is essence is a parting of some of the incidents of ownership of the immovable property. There could be situations where pursuant to the grant of such rights, the developer has incurred a substantial investment, altered the state of the property and even created third party rights in the property or the construction carried out to be carried out. There could be situations where it is the developer who by his efforts has rendered a property developable by taking steps in law. In development agreements of this nature, where an interest is created in the land or in the development in favour of the developer, it may be difficult to hold that the agreement is not capable of being specifically performed. For example, the developer may have evicted or settled with occupants, got land which was agricultural converted into non-agricultural use, carried out a partial development of the property and pursuant to the rights conferred under the agreement, created third party rights in favour of flat purchasers in the proposed building.

In such a situation, if for no fault of the developer, the owner seeks to resile from the agreement and terminates the development agreement, it may be difficult to hold that the developer is not entitled to enforce his rights. This of course is dependent on the terms of the agreement in each case. There cannot be a uniform formula for determining whether an agreement granting development rights can be specifically enforced and it would depend on the nature of the agreement in each case and the rights created under it.

Bar under section 14 of Specific Relief Act (as existed prior to Amendment of 2018):

Various High Courts have interpreted the requirements under Section 14(3)(c) of the Act and opined on the maintainability of a suit by the developer for specific performance against the owner of the property for a breach in the conditions of the development agreement. A common thread that runs through the analysis in decided cases is the following:

(i) The courts do not normally order specific performance of a contract to build or repair. But this rule is subject to important exceptions, and a decree for specific performance of a contract to build will be made only upon meeting the requirements under law;

(ii) The discretion to grant specific performance is not arbitrary or capricious but judicious; it is to be exercised on settled principles; the conduct of the plaintiff, such as delay, acquiescence, breach or some other circumstances outside the contract, may render it inequitable to enforce it;

(iii) In order to determine the exact nature of the agreement signed between the parties, the intent of the parties has to be construed by reading the agreement as a whole in order to determine whether it is an agreement simpliciter for construction or an agreement that also creates an interest for the builder in the property. Where under a development agreement, the developer has an interest in land, it would be difficult to hold that such an agreement is not capable of being specifically enforced; and

(iv) A decree for specific performance of a contract to build will be made if the following conditions are fulfilled:

a) the work of construction should be described in the contract in a sufficiently precise manner in order for the court to determine the exact nature of the building or work;

b) the plaintiff must have a substantial interest in the performance of the contract and the interest should be of such a nature that compensation in money for non-performance of the contract is not an adequate relief; and

c) the defendant should have, by virtue of the agreement, obtained possession of the whole or any part of the land on which the building is to be constructed or other work is to be executed.

Condition of obtaining possession:

If the rule of literal interpretation is adopted to interpret Section 14(3)(c)(iii), it would lead to a situation where a suit for specific performance can only be instituted at the behest of the owner against a developer, denying the benefit of the provision to the developer despite an interest in the property having been created. This anomaly is created by the use of the words “the defendant has, by virtue of the agreement, obtained possession of the whole or any part of the land” in Section 14(3)(c)(iii). Under a development agreement, an interest in the property may have been created in favour of the developer. If the developer is the plaintiff and the suit is against the owner, strictly applied, clause (iii) would require that the defendant should have obtained possession under the agreement. In such a case if the developer files a suit for specific performance against the owner, and the owner is in possession of the land by virtue of a lawful title, the defendant (i.e. the owner) cannot be said to have obtained possession of the land by way of the agreement. This would lead to an anomalous situation where the condition in Section 14(3)(c)(iii) would not be fulfilled in the case of a suit by a developer. Application of the literal rule of interpretation to Section 14(3)(c)(iii), would lead to an absurdity and would be inconsistent with the intent of the Act.

[Source: Sushil Kumar Agarwal vs Meenakshi Sadhu, decided by SC on 9 October, 2018]
Note: However on facts that the building or other work described in the contract was not sufficiently precise to enable the court to determine the exact nature of the building or work, specific performance of contract was refused.

 

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