The West Gate Tunnel leads to arbitration

The D&C JV contractors on the West Gate Tunnel (Project), CPB Contractors and John Holland (Subcontractors), have won the first round in their dispute against Transurban (Project Co) over the presence of contaminated “PFAS” soil in the tunnel area and subsequent purported termination of their contract due to force majeure.

In Transurban WGT Co v CPB Contractors Pty Ltd [2020] VSC 476, Victorian Supreme Court (VSC) refused applications designed to prevent the disputes from proceeding through arbitration.

Facts

The Subcontractors purported to terminate their contract with Project Co on 28 January 2020 due to the discovery and persistence of “PFAS” contamination, which it claimed was a “Force Majeure Termination Event” under the contract.[1] Since this time, the Subcontractors and Project Co have been engaged in disputes on the validity of the termination and various related matters.

By notice dated 2 March 2020, the Subcontractors sought to initiate a “downstream” arbitration with Project Co in relation to various claims.[2] Some 3 months later, Project Co initiated its own “upstream” arbitration in relation to various claims which it had passed upstream via its head contract with the State of Victoria.[3]

Project Co claimed the disputes were “Linked Disputes” under the contract with the Subcontractors. Project Co argued that clause 44A.3(a)(ii) operated to suspend the downstream arbitration while the upstream arbitration progressed (suspension clause).[4]

The Subcontractors sought to refer their various disputes with Project Co to arbitration. Project Co made an application for:

  1. a declaration that the suspension clause was enforceable; and

 

  1. an interlocutory injunction to restrain the Subcontractors from taking steps to progress the downstream arbitration until such time as the upstream arbitration was determined.[5]

The Subcontractor argued that the arbitral tribunal should decide whether to grant such relief to Project Co, not the court. The Subcontractor pointed to ss 5, 8, 9 and 17J of the CAAs which provide only limited powers for court intervention.[6]

The Subcontractor made a referral application to the VSC relying on s 5 and / or 8 of the Commercial Arbitration Act 2011 (Vic) (CAA), requesting the court refer Project Co’s query in relation to the operation of the suspension clause to the arbitral tribunal.[7]

Decision

Lyons J:

  1. found that the court had no power to make a declaration of the kind sought by Project Co;

 

  1. refused Project Co’s application for interlocutory injunctions; and

 

  1. granted the Subcontractor’s application to refer to the arbitral tribunal the question of whether the suspension clause was inoperative.[8]

Lyons J considered in detail the relevant law on the nature of arbitration and the limited ambit given to the court under the CAA. Some of His Honour’s key conclusions included that:

  1. the question whether the suspension clause is valid and enforceable was a matter ‘arising in connection with’ the contract between the parties and, therefore, it was a type of dispute the parties had agreed under their contract would be arbitrable;[9]

 

  1. the arbitral tribunal had the power to make orders relating to the validity, enforceability and/or applicability of the suspension clause of the kind sought by Project Co in court;[10]

 

  1. under the CAA the court’s power to grant interlocutory relief to matters which the CAAs apply derives from s 17J[11]. Accordingly, the court’s power to intervene is limited; and

 

  1. Project Co had failed to establish that the circumstances of the case were exceptional or objectively urgent such that court intervention was required.[12]

As a result, the Subcontractor’s claims in relation to the contract will be heard and determined by an arbitrator. The arbitrator will need to determine whether the suspension clause is enforceable and, if so, operates in the circumstances to pause the downstream arbitration.

Take Home Tip

Parties who agree to arbitration as their preferred dispute resolution forum should note that the courts are increasingly minded to allow arbitral tribunals to rule on their own jurisdiction or “competence” under the CAA. A party should closely consider whether their set of circumstances are truly urgent or exceptional to warrant intervention by the court. If not, it would be better to apply its resources in ventilating preliminary issues in the arbitration first, then challenging the arbitrator’s determination on those issues if necessary and as permitted by the CAA.

Importantly, Lyons J considered that he was bound by Hancock v Rhodes[13], being ‘a decision of an intermediate appellate court in circumstances applying sections of a uniform commercial arbitration act in force in each state in Australia.[14] This reinforces the relevance of the current decision of the VSC to parties in all States and Territories in Australia.

[1] At [10(1)].

[2] At [12].

[3] At [12].

[4] At [14].

[5] At [23].

[6] At [115] and [128].

[7] At [20].

[8] At [208].

[9] At [170].

[10] At [174].

[11] At [147] and [191].

[12] At [192] to [203].

[13] Hancock Prospecting Pty Ltd v DFD Rhodes Pty Ltd [2020] WASCA 77.

[14] At [147].

What is the amount of damages available to an owner for late completion of work on a residence that the owner does not intend to live in or rent?

In Leeda Projects Pty Ltd v Yun Zeng [2020] VSCA 192, the Victorian Court of Appeal (VSCA) was required to answer this question.

The case demonstrates that the court will look at the intention of the owner in ascribing a value, if any, to the use of the residence which was unable to be enjoyed as a result of a builder’s breach by late delivery of works.

Facts

In March 2011, Mrs Zeng and her husband purchased the penthouse of the Eureka Tower in Melbourne. On 24 September 2013, Mrs Zeng and Leeda Projects Pty Ltd (the builder) entered into a contract for fit out of the property as a private art gallery with a residential component consisting of two bedrooms with ensuites, a lounge, kitchen and laundry.

Mrs Zeng and her husband intended to use the property as a non-profit private art gallery and potentially spend some time residing in the property. They had access to several other Victorian premises to live in (when they were not travelling internationally), and their primary residence was in Shanghai. There was no intention to rent out the property.[1]

A dispute arose between the builder and Mrs Zeng. The builder made a claim to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) for progress payments and release of retention. Mrs Zeng counter-claimed for substantial damages on account of the delay in completing the works.

By the time the matter had reached the VSCA, it was not controversial that the builder had breached the contract as there was a delay period of 130 weeks between the date when the works should have been completed and the date when practical completion was achieved. Accordingly, Mrs Zeng was unable to occupy the apartment for those 130 weeks.

However, Mrs Zeng was not required to rent an alternative residence because she continued to live in Shanghai and had other Victorian residences available to her. Mrs Zeng did not lose:

  1. the opportunity to rent the property, as it was never intended to be a rental investment property; or
  2. takings from the art gallery, as it was intended to be a non-profit gallery.

Decision

The VCAT’s award of $100 nominal damages was not the correct measure, nor was the award of $357,500 plus interest by the trial judge for lost rental income at the rate of $2,750 per week.[2]

The VSCA[3] held that case authorities recognised the possibility of the loss of use of a property as being an available compensatory claim.[4] In ordinary cases, this might result in a financial loss to the owner of rent for an alternative residence.[5]

However, in this case, the proper award of damages to Mrs Zeng was $283,802.17 which Mrs Zeng spent on owners corporation charges, council rates and utilities during the 130 weeks.[6] These amounts were spent without benefit to her, but in respect of the property which the builder retained for its own use, being the completion of its works and were a reasonably foreseeable consequence of the breach of contract.[7]

Take Home Tip

If parties want to ensure certainty in the measure of damages payable by the builder in the event of delay, a mechanism for payment of a rate of liquidated damages for such a breach should be included in the contract. However, in doing so, parties must be mindful that a clause for liquidated damages may be challenged where the pre-estimated loss is found to be a penalty clause because it was not based on a genuine estimation of the loss that would result from the builder’s breach.[8]

In the absence of a liquidated damages clause, a builder faced with a claim should check whether the amount claimed is truly compensatory – i.e. does it put the owner in the position in which it would have been if the builder had not breached the obligation to complete on time?

[1] See [86] and [143].

[2] Per McLeish JA at [184].

[3] Comprised of Tate, Kaye and McLeish JJA. We note that McLeish JA gave the lead judgment on the ground dealt with in this case note, with Tate JA agreeing. Kaye JA agreed with the orders proposed by McLeish JA, yet His Honour gave a separate analysis of the authorities.

[4] Per McLeish JA at [174] and [175].

[5] Per McLeish JA at [179].

[6] Per Kaye J at [58] and McLeigh JA at [187].

[7] Per Kaye J at [57] and McLeish JA at [191].

[8] See Paciocco v Australia and New Zealand Banking Group Limited [2014] FCA 35.

Construction Industry Lockdown: Stage 4 Restrictions for Metro Melbourne

The second wave of COVID-19 has continued to spiral in Melbourne in recent weeks, causing the implementation of Stage 4 Restrictions in Metropolitan Melbourne. The Stage 4 Restrictions will be in force from 6:00PM on Sunday, 2 August 2020 for a period of 6 weeks until Sunday 13 September 2020.

Described by Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews as the ‘lifeblood’ of the Victorian economy, the building and construction industry has largely avoided previous restrictions. However, the Stage 4 Restrictions sees authorities issuing a specific directive to the industry to significantly reduce their operations.

We have compiled some relevant information detailing how the restrictions apply to the building and construction industry below.

Who is caught by the Stage 4 Restrictions?

The Stage 4 restrictions will apply to building and construction industry participants operating on construction projects located within the 31 local government areas that make up Metropolitan Melbourne.

For all businesses operating in these areas, the standard order is that any employee who can work from home is required to do so. This would likely apply to any employee who is providing an administrative or supportive function that can be performed remotely.

Building and construction industry workplaces, whilst permitted to continue operations, are deemed high risk, and are required to design and implement COVID-19 Safety Plans to ensure the prevention and management of COVID-19 transmission.

The level of restrictions that apply to a business will depend on the size of the project it is working on. Projects have been classified as either Small Scale, Large Scale or State and State Civil as follows:

  • Large Scale Construction: defined as any building or construction project of more than 3 storeys (excluding a basement level) and would typically include projects such as high rise apartment buildings or factories;
  • Small Scale Construction: defined as any building or construction project of 3 storeys or less (excluding basement level) and would typically include residential or domestic home building projects; and
  • State and State Civil Construction: defined as any large infrastructure project funded by the state, typically including projects such as trainlines, roads, schools and hospitals.

What are the Restrictions

Large Scale Projects

Businesses who are working on a large scale project are required to limit their operations on the project site to a maximum of 25% of the employees that would normally be on site, and to implement a High Risk COVID-Safe Plan.

Small Scale

Businesses operating on a small scale project are to limit the number of employees on site at any one time, inclusive of supervisors. Small scale projects also require employers to implement a COVID-Safe Plan.

State and State Civil

Whilst businesses who are currently working on state and state civil projects are exempt from the strict limitations above, they are required to implement a High-Risk COVID Safe Plan on their sites.

Employers who are operating on either large or small scale projects are required to be able to demonstrate that they are complying with the above limits, without blending shifts.

In addition, workers who would typically work across multiple worksites are permitted to work at just one worksite during the Stage 4 Restriction period.

Who is enforcing the lockdown and how?

Ultimately, the onus of ensuring compliance with the new restrictions, as well as the implementation of an appropriate COVID-Safe Plan will fall on the employer.

The Victorian Department of Health and Human Services has advised that it will work together with industry bodies, WorkSafe and Victoria Police to undertake the necessary enforcement and compliance activities.

The Department of Health and Human Services will also work together with WorkSafe to co-ordinate intelligence on potentially non-compliant businesses.

Businesses found to be non-compliant with their obligations under the Stage 4 Restrictions can be issued on the spot fines of up to $9,913, for:

  • refusing or failing to comply with the emergency directions;
  • refusing or failing to comply with a public health risk power direction; and
  • refusing or failing to comply with the Public Health Directions to provide information.

It is also possible for a business to be fined up to $100,000 through the courts for non-compliance.

Is there any assistance if my business is suffering?

The Victorian Government has announced an extension of its Business Support Fund scheme, offering grants to eligible businesses. Eligible businesses may be able to apply for a one-off grant of:

  • $10,000 if in Metro Melbourne and Mitchell Shire; or
  • $5,000 if in regional Victoria except Mitchell Shire.

Conclusion

The unprecedented stage 4 restrictions, whilst only applying to Metropolitan Melbourne, will likely see a significant slowdown of the building and construction industry in Victoria. Flow on effects are likely to be felt by suppliers, sub-contractors and services to the building and construction industry.

We previously published a short list of issuesshort list off issues to be mindful of when drafting and administering contracts during COVID-19. It is crucial for Victorian building industry participants to review their relief entitlements.

This article is based on current government recommendations and advice current as at the date of writing. It is intended to provide information and assistance to members of the building and construction industry who are affected by the Stage 4 Restrictions in Melbourne only. The above discussion is not intended to be legal advice, and readers should bear in mind that every case is different.

If you or someone you know wants more information or needs help or advice, please contact us on 02 9248 3450 or email info@bradburylegal.com.au.

Is the arbitration agreement “not applicable”?

In Gemcan Constructions Pty Ltd v Westbourne Grammar School [2020] VSC 429, Lyons J of the Victorian Supreme Court (VSC) was required to consider whether the terms of the contract contained a valid arbitration agreement within the meaning of s 7 of the Commercial Arbitration Act 2011 (Vic) (CAA). His Honour found that inserting the words “Not Applicable” or “N/A” into corresponding items of Annexure Part A in an otherwise unamended Australian Standard (AS) contract may not evince the necessary intention that relevant clauses do not otherwise apply.

The case not only provides insight into when the court will find that a binding arbitration agreement exists, but also suggests that caution is required at the time of drafting an AS contract.

The case is relevant Australia-wide concerning the application of the CAA because uniform legislation has been enacted in all Australian states and territories.

Facts

On or about 25 July 2016, Gemcan Constructions Pty Ltd (Gemcan) entered into a contract for works to take place at Westbourne Grammar School’s (WGS) Williamstown Campus in Victoria. The contract was a standard form AS 4000-1997 which included the usual:

  • AS 4000 -1997 General Conditions of Contract;
  • particulars at Annexure Part A; and
  • deletions, amendments and additions at Annexure Part B.

A dispute arose between the parties via the exchange of a payment claim and payment certificate issued under their contract. The value of the dispute was circa $1.4 million and included contract works claims, variations, other heads of additional cost, extensions of time, liquidated damages, interest and retention.

Clause 42 of the contract was the dispute resolution clause. Clause 42.2 provided that (inter alia):

If the dispute has not been resolved within 28 days of service of the notice of dispute, that dispute shall be and is hereby referred to arbitration.

Clause 42.3 then went on to provide:

If within a further 14 days the parties have not agreed upon an arbitrator, the arbitrator shall be nominated by the person in Item 32(a). The arbitration shall be conducted in accordance with the rules in Item 32(b).

However, Items 32(a) and 32(b) respectively in Annexure Part A were completed with the words “Not Applicable”.

As the dispute had not been resolved in the time specified in clause 42.2, Gemcan sought to refer the dispute to arbitration and put WGS on notice of its preferred arbitrator.

WGS responded disputing that there was an arbitration agreement in existence because by the parties completing Annexure Part A items with “Not Applicable”, the parties had evinced an intention that its disputes would not be referred to arbitration. If there was no valid arbitration agreement within the meaning of the CAAs, the CAA would not apply and WGS could not be forced to arbitrate.

WGS also disputed Gemcan’s choice of arbitrator, chiefly because he was around twice as expensive as WGS’s selection – a more junior barrister. Gemcan’s view was that its arbitrator was much more experienced in arbitrations generally and had greater legal expertise, as he was senior counsel.

Decision

Lyons J determined:

  • clause 42.2 of the contract constituted a valid agreement to refer the dispute to arbitration, so that the CAA applied; and
  • Gemcan’s arbitrator should be appointed pursuant to s 11 of the CAA.

Whether or not there has been a valid arbitration agreement is a precondition to the application of the CAA. Section 7 of the CAA provides the requirements for a valid arbitration agreement.

Lyons J held that an agreement to arbitrate was evident on the terms of the contract because:

  1. clause 42.2 is ‘clear and unambiguous in its terms’.[1] The last sentence of the standard-form clause evince a clear and objective intention that disputes arising under the clause are to be referred to arbitration if they are not resolved within 28 days of the notice of dispute issuing;
  2. the use of the words “Not Applicable” in Items 32(a) and (b) of Annexure Part A do not evince an intention to negate the referral to arbitration because they only refer back to clause 42.3, not clause 42.2. Clause 42.3 only provides for the procedural aspects of the arbitration, not the agreement to arbitrate itself. In the absence of an agreement regarding procedural aspects (including the arbitrator to be appointed and applicable rules, ss 11(3) and 19(2) of the CAA steps in to provide a mechanism for decisions to be made on those issues). Those procedural mechanisms ‘are not essential characteristics of an enforceable arbitration agreement[2];
  3. the parties could have used Annexure B to make necessary amendments to delete the offending words from clause 42.2, but they did not do so.

Further, Lyons J accepted Gemcan’s proposed arbitrator on the basis that the arbitration was:

  1. likely to be both factually and legally complex;
  2. significant in quantum (and thus the importance to the parties);
  3. likely to require clear and precise written reasons.

The arbitrator proposed by Gemcan was more expensive, however he had more experience in contested and complex arbitration decisions such that the choice was ‘likely to result in the arbitration being conducted in the most efficient way’.[3]

Take Home Tip

If you do not want your standard-form contract to refer you to arbitration, you must do more than insert “Not Applicable” into relevant Items in Annexure Part A. You must ensure that the General Conditions of Contract are correctly amended so that you are not forced into arbitration.