It is a well-known principle that an agent must account to his principal, and that an agent who holds or receives money on behalf of his prinicipal is bound to pay over or account for that money. If a third party then sues the agent for that money, the agent has the right to bring in the principal (“interplead”).
It is also a general principle that an agent owes a fiduciary duty to his principal because he is someone who has undertaken to act for or on behalf of the principal in circumstances that give rise to a relationship of trust and confidence; and as a result the agent must not make a profit out of his trust; and an agent who acts for two principals with potentially conflicting interests without the informed consent of both is in breach of his obligation.
This summer the Supreme Court examined the application of that principal when moneys have been received by an agent as a bribe or a secret profit.
In the case of FHR v Cedars an agent negotiated the purchase of share capital on behalf of its principal ( the buyer). Unbeknownst to the principal the agent had made a deal with the seller that they would receive a commission of 10 million euros following the successful sale and purchase. The buyer, when it became aware of the deal, sued its agent for the 10 million euros.
The Supreme Court held that a bribe or secret commission accepted by an agent is held on trust for his principal; not only did the principal have a right to sue for the sum equal to the benefit the agent had received, but that the principal has a proprietory interest in that benefit.
“where an agent acquires a benefit which came to his notice as a result of his fiduciary position, or pursuant to an opportunity which results from his fiduciary position, the general equitable rule ( “the Rule” ) is that he is to be treated as having acquired the benefit on behalf of his principal, so it is beneficially owned by the principal……a bribe or secret commission accepted by an agent is held on trust for his principal”.
In the sphere of lettings, if a landlord’s agent makes a secret profit, that profit is considered to be the property of the Landlord. Clearly an agent holding or receiving rent must hand it over to the landlord: it is the landlord’s money. An agent holding overpaid rent should also hand it over to the landlord, and let the tenant pursue the landlord for the refund (although that principal is under challenge from consumer protection regulations and codes of conduct). But what would constitute a bribe or secret profit, the benefit of which would belong to the landlord?
Consider the following examples.
- An agent arranges for a contractor it has on its books to do work for its managed properties. The contractor, in exchange for the work, agrees to pay the agent 10% of its profits from the work done. If the agent does not disclose the arrangement and get the agreement of both parties, the agent will be in breach of his duty and that profit will belong to the landlord. Where it is set out in the agent’s terms of business with the landlord that he takes a cut from the contractor, the agent can rely on that clause to show he is not in breach and that the landlord was fully aware and could give informed consent. Again the ability to accept such payments is under challenge from consumer protection regulations.
- An agent facilitates an early surrender of a tenancy. The Landlord agrees unconditionally. The agent asks for and takes a lump sum payment from the tenant as consideration for the early surrender but does not tell the landlord of the deal, nor does he pass the money on. That payment belongs to the Landlord. If you are seeking a payment from the Landlords tenant, even if to cover your administration charges, this should be disclosed to the Landlord and agreed by them.
- The terms of business between agent and landlord provide that the cost of an inventory clerk will be £200.00 plus £50.00 admin fee for arranging the same. The inventory clerk gives a discount of £50.00 and charges only £150.00. The agent does not tell the landlord and charges the landlord £250.00. £50.00 of that money belongs to and must be handed over to the landlord.
Where agents are acting as estate agents any breach of such fiduciary duty could lead them to be struck off. Lettings agents are now at risk of being ejected from the compulsory redress schemes and unable to practice, as well as of being sued for negligence etc. However agents can protect themselves by agreeing fees with their clients at the outset, and declaring and passing over any monies that come to them during their instruction. Transparency as to all arrangements for receiving payments from any third party connected with the tenancy is key.