Royal Bank of Scotland plc. v. William Derek Carlyle, 11 March 2015 – whether telephone call with bank created an obligation to provide funding for the development of land in addition to funding for its purchase constituted in written loan agreements

Supreme Court case concerning agreements between RBS and a property developer. In July 2007 the bank and the developer entered written agreements for loans of £845k and £560k in respect of the purchase of two plots of land at Gleneagles on which the developer was to build two houses.

The repayment date for the loans was in August 2008 and, when the developer failed to repay the loans at that date, the bank sued the developer for recovery of the funds. However, the developer counter claimed arguing that he had only entered into the loan agreements on the basis of assurances given by the Bank that it would make additional funding (of up to £700k) available to fund development on the plots and claimed damages in respect of the bank’s breach of those assurances. The assurances said to have been given by the bank included a telephone call prior to the signing of the agreements in which the developer was told that, in addition to the sums lent to buy the land, the bank would advance further funding for development of the land.

The central issue for the court was whether, on an objective assessment of the exchanges between the parties, the bank had entered into a legally binding agreement to lend Mr Carlyle the money for development of the plots in addition to money for their purchase.

Court of Session decisions
In the Outer House Lord Glennie found that bank had agreed a “collateral warranty” obliging them to lend for the development of the plots. However, the Inner House allowed an appeal finding that the telephone call only amounted to a statement of future intention and that legal obligations would only arise when the parties entered a written contract[1].

Supreme Court decision
The Supreme Court have allowed an appeal of the Inner House decision.

The court found that the Inner House had disagreed with Lord Glennie on questions of fact without having sufficient regard to the limited role an appeal court has in such questions. (Generally speaking, a court of appeal can only interfere with the decision of the judge at first instance on a question of fact where the decision of the judge cannot be reasonably be explained or justified on the evidence before him[2].)

In this case the court found that, although Lord Glennie could have interpreted the evidence differently and concluded that there was no obligation on the bank to lend the money for the development, he had a reasonable evidential basis for coming to the conclusion he had (i.e. that the bank had made a legally binding promise to provide the development funding).

The court also found that use of the term “collateral warranty” had been a distraction in this case and that the bank’s obligation could equally have been described as a “promise” or “unilateral undertaking”. In coming to its conclusion the court noted that, in Scots law, unlike the situation in England, a unilateral undertaking such as a promise can be binding without consideration from the recipient of the promise and that the undertaking or promise does not require to be collateral to another contract.

The full judgement is available from the Supreme Court here.

All of our property and conveyancing case summaries are contained in the LKS Property and Conveyancing Casebook here.


 [1] The court said “If the [developer] considered that the [written agreements] did not properly reflect what he understood was to be agreed, or had been agreed orally, then he ought not to have signed the agreements. At all events, whatever the [developer] thought was the position, the informed observer would understand the written agreements to cover all matters agreed to date. It may well be that, at that time, the [bank] fully intended to enter into a further bargain with the [developer] to advance additional funding for the building works. However, they had not done so and did not do so. That may have been contrary to the spirit of the negotiations prior to the signing of the written agreements, but that spirit, or its moral content, cannot be taken as creating a legally binding voluntary obligation.”

[2] Lord Hodge’s judgement refers to the reasons for the restriction on the role of the appeal court highlighting that it is the judge at first instance who hears the evidence and is best placed to assess the credibility of the witnesses and, having heard the evidence over an extended period, will have “greater familiarity with the evidence and a deeper insight in reaching conclusions of fact than an appeal court whose perception may be narrowed or even distorted by the focused challenge to particular parts of the evidence”. Lord Hodge also noted the increased cost which would be incurred if all questions of fact were open for redetermination on appeal.

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