“Heads of Agreement” – binding contract or merely an agreement to agree?

A document expressed as “subject to contract” will in some circumstances be binding on parties.

The 1954 High Court decision of Masters v Cameron[1] continues to offer guidance when determining whether a document that is stated to be “subject to contract” is in itself a binding contract, or is merely an agreement to agree which is not binding on the parties. The judgment sets out three categories of cases:

  1. where the parties intend to be bound immediately but propose to restate their terms in a form which is more precise or full but is not different in effect;
  2. where the parties intend to be bound immediately but have made performance of one or more terms conditional upon the execution of a formal document; and
  3. where the parties do not intend to be bound unless and until they execute a formal contract.[2]

In Nergl Developments Pty Ltd v Vella [2021] NSWCA 131, the New South Wales Court of Appeal considered whether a heads of agreement concluded following mediation was binding on the parties.

Facts

Nergl Developments and Mrs Vella entered into two agreements to develop adjoining properties. Nergl Developments was to undertake the major parts of the works and lodged caveats over its lots to secure performance of its payment obligations under the agreements. In 2018, Mrs Vella commenced proceedings in the Supreme Court to have the caveats withdrawn.[3]

Following mediation, Mrs Vella and Nergl Developments concluded a heads of agreement which intended to settle all disputes arising from the agreements between the parties and to terminate those agreements. However, the parties did not agree on whether the heads of agreement:

  1. required immediate entry into a formal deed of settlement; or
  2. set out preconditions for subsequent steps to be taken by the parties, upon the successful completion of which they would enter into a formal deed of settlement.[4]

Both Mrs Vella and Nergl Developments sought specific performance of the heads of agreement by the execution of various documents; each could not agree on the particular steps required to give effect to the heads of agreement.

The trial judge adopted the second construction of the heads of agreement.[5] Nergl Developments appealed this outcome to the New South Wales Court of Appeal.

Decision

Basten JA (Meagher JA and Leeming JA agreeing) rejected the appeal and held that the document fell within the second category of cases set out in Masters v Cameron. This meant that Mrs Vella and Nergl Developments were bound by the heads of agreement even though it required them to take further steps.

In reaching this conclusion, his Honour warned against “treating such descriptive language in a judgment as if it were a provision of a statute”.[6] Instead, the appropriate approach is to consider evidence of the objective intention of the parties in the terms of the document itself, as well as their surrounding conduct.

The title “Heads of Agreement” did not, in itself, indicate that the document was merely an agreement to agree. Viewed in light of the document as a whole, it was clear that the parties had paid careful attention to the terms of the existing planning consent and had provided the steps required by to terminate the existing agreement.[7] For these reasons, Basten JA held that the heads of agreement was intended as binding.

Basten JA also discussed the second category of cases in Masters v Cameron. His Honour explained that cases falling within this category need not necessarily contemplate the preparation of one single subsequent document which further elaborated the terms of the heads of agreement. Instead, as was the case here, parties may stipulate a range of further obligations and steps to be taken.[8]

Take home tips

If you are preparing a document such as a settlement agreement, you should consider whether you intend for it to be immediately binding and enforceable. Whether yes or no, this intent should be clear in the language and terms of the document.

If you contemplate the future preparation of a more formal document, it is even more important that it is clear whether the initial document is binding in its present form.

We can assist with the preparation of settlement agreements and enquiries as to whether they will be enforceable.

[1] (1954) 91 CLR 353.

[2] At 360 (Dixon CJ, McTiernan & Kitto JJ).

[3] Nergl Developments Pty Ltd v Vella [2021] NSWCA 131, [2]–[9] (Basten JA).

[4] At [11].

[5] At [11]–[12].

[6] At [22].

[7] At [23]–[29].

[8] At [22], [25].

The Owners – Strata Plan No 85561 v Omaya Holdings Pty Ltd [2021] NSWSC 918

In a recent decision by the Supreme Court, The Owners – Strata Plan No 85561 v Omaya Holdings Pty Ltd [2021] NSWSC 918 (Omaya Holdings), the Court considered the effect of a settlement deed and a remedial contract agreed between parties to a Supreme Court defect claim.  The settlement deed required the Developer to provide a HBCF insurance policy and stated that if the rectification works were not complete by the due date or there was default under the settlement deed, the Owners Corporation was entitled to enter to judgment against the Builder and Developer.

Omaya Holdings shows the importance of drafting contracts, especially settlement deeds.  It is important for contracts to be clear as to exactly what is required, when it is required, and if there is to be any order of events.  Further, a contract should consider what happens if one of the events cannot be achieved.

The Owners Corporation refused to let the Developer carry out the rectification works until a HBCF Policy was in place.  As the Developer was unable to procure a HBCF policy, the time for carrying out the rectification works lapsed and the Developer was in default under the settlement deed.

As the settlement deed did not specify whether the HBCF policy was to be procured before the rectification works were completed, the Developer was in default of the settlement deed.  As a result, the Court found that judgment could be entered against the Developer for the agreed sum.

The Court considered whether the settlement deed or the remedial contract required the Developer to procure the HBCF policy before it commenced the rectification works.  The remedial contract included the Home Building Act 1999 (NSW) Checklist, which includes a check item requiring the contractor to provide a certificate of insurance before the commencement of works.  This was sufficient for the Court to find that the Developer was required to procure the HBCF policy before carrying out the works.

Somewhat in passing, Counsel for the Developer and the Builder submitted that the inability to obtain the HBCF policy made it impossible for the Developer to perform its obligations under the settlement agreement (otherwise known as frustrating the contract).  The Court considered that it was not the settlement deed, but the remedial contract, which was frustrated and unable to be performed by the Developer.  However, as there was an unqualified default under the settlement deed, the Owners Corporation was entitled to seek the remedy under that deed (being judgment entered against the Developer).

Omaya Holdings is a good example in how parties need to consider the drafting of the contracts they enter.  Contracts need to be clear as to the parties’ rights and obligations.  Thought should be given to what is needed to allow the parties to perform their obligations under the contract, what happens in the event of default, and what contractual mechanisms or provisions are available to the parties to resolve their dispute in a timely and cost-efficient manner. If you or anyone you know needs help with preparing or negotiating contracts, please contact Bradbury Legal.

Valmont Estopped In Its Tracks by Armani

The issue of estoppel in the context of a rejected variation claim was recently considered by the NSW Court of Appeal in Valmont Interiors Pty Ltd v Giorgio Armani Australia Pty Ltd (No 2) [2021] NSWCA 93.

In this case, Valmont Interiors Pty Ltd (Valmont) was led to assume that it would be paid for additional joinery works that were directed by Giorgio Armani Australia Pty Ltd (Armani) as a purported variation.  However, as the procedure for claiming and approving variations under the contract was not adhered to, Armani sought to rely on the time bar in the variation provision to reject the claim.

Facts

In early 2016, Valmont entered into a contract with Armani to provide fit-out works for the new Emporio Armani store at Sydney Airport. The scope of works originally excluded certain joinery items, which were to be sourced by Armani from a third party supplier. However, shortly after the works commenced, the third party supplier was not able to meet the tight schedule for delivery and Armani directed Valmont to supply the joinery items.

Valmont supplied the joinery items but Armani refused to pay for them on the basis that Valmont did not follow the procedure set out in clause 15 of the contract for claiming a variation and waived its claim.  Relevantly, this clause provided that if Valmont considered that a direction of Armani constituted a variation it was required to give notice of the purported variation with five business days.  This clause also provided that failure to provide notice within the specified time period resulted in Valmont releasing and waiving any entitlement to a claim.

Valmont’s position was that Armani should be estopped from relying on the time bar in clause 15 to reject the claim because Armani did also not follow the procedure in clause 15 for instructing the supply of the additional joinery items (as well as for previous other variations).  As a result of this, Valmont argued that Armani led it to assume that strict compliance with the procedure in clause 15 was not required in order to claim payment for the additional joinery work.

The First Decision

The primary judge held that, although Valmont did not strictly comply with the procedure set out in clause 15 of the contract for claiming a variation, Armani was estopped from relying on the time bar in that clause and that the costs of certain variation were recoverable by Valmont.

However, the primary judge also found that at a certain point in time (being 11 April 2016), email correspondence between the parties corrected Valmont’s assumption that it could claim payment for variations without complying with the procedure set out in clause 15 of the contract and that Armani would rely on strict compliance with that procedure for future variations.  Accordingly, it was held that the estoppel ceased on that date and the costs of purposed variations after that date (including the additional joinery works) were not recoverable.

The Appeal

On appeal the Court disagreed with the primary judge and found that the estoppel continued to operate after the 11 April 2016 email because:

  1. the email did not displace Valmont’s assumption that was induced by Armani that it would be paid for supplying the additional joinery works. This was partly because Armani’s email was not sufficiently clear to correct Valmont’s assumption (ie. that strict compliance with clause 15 of the contract was not required in order to be paid for additional joinery works);
  2. the email conveyed that the supply of the joinery was not a variation but additional works outside of the contract;
  3. Valmont was entitled to expect to be paid for the additional joinery works that were directed by Armani. The fact that it continued to incur liabilities after receiving the email from Armani demonstrated that the email did not correct Valmont’s understanding of the situation.  Further, Valmont relied on that understanding to its detriment, and as it was no longer possible for Valmont to comply with clause 15 of the contract it could not overcome the detriment already suffered; and
  4. in the circumstances, it was unconscionable for Armani to refuse to pay Valmont for the additional joinery works.

Take home tips

We understand that in administering contracts parties do not always strictly comply with the procedures and timing set out in the contract for claims, especially if the parties consider they have a good relationship or believe that strict compliance is too formal.  This case highlights the potential serious consequences of taking that approach.

Parties to a contract should be aware of the risks of acting inconsistently with their rights under the contract (ie. in Armani’s case, not requiring compliance with the terms of the contract for claiming variations and also not formally directing variations), as this could lead to those rights being lost and there not being a basis to reject claims.

If a principal or head contractor (or other party in a similar position) is concerned that a particular state of affairs exists between them and the downstream party that is inconsistent with the contract, it is crucial that the principal or head contractor:

  1. corrects that understanding by stating in clear and precise terms that the current understanding must be departed from and that strict compliance with the contract is required;
  2. provides sufficient notice of this so that the downstream party has time to comply with the procedure in the contract for claims and can attempt to overcome any detriment; and
  3. then strictly requires and enforces the procedure in the contract for claims so as to avoid any doubt that another state of affairs exists between the parties.

 

You win sum, you lose sum (but it’s still a sum)

Some construction contracts provide that expert determinations (or other alternative dispute processes) will be considered “final and binding” unless the claim or determination is excluded or carved-out.

In the matter of CPB Contractors Pty Ltd v Transport for NSW [2021] NSWSC 537, the New South Wales Supreme Court considered an expert determination clause which precluded litigation in respect of the determination, unless it:

  1. Did not involve a sum of money; or
  2. Required one party to pay the other an amount in excess of $500,000.[i]

The decision in this case was that one party was not entitled to any further payment for the Works.  Did the determination “involve” paying a sum of money?

Facts

Transport for NSW (“Transport”) engaged CPB Contractors (“CPB”) to carry out road widening works. Transport issued CPB instructions to remove excess spoil from one location to another (“Works”).

The determination concerned CPB’s entitlement to payment for the Works. Transport contended (and paid CPB) on a “Dayworks” basis which equated to $1.4 million. CPB contended that it was entitled to be paid for the Works in accordance with a schedule of rates (“Rates”) which equated to $11.4 million.

The Honourable Robert McDougall QC (“Expert”) determined that CPB was not entitled to any further payment for the Works (“Determination”).

CPB sought to litigate its claims, seeking payment in accordance with the Rates. Transport sought a stay. Transport pointed to clause 71 of the relevant GC21 Contract, arguing that the Determination was final and binding.

CPB contended that it was free to litigate the claims for the Works for two reasons.

The first was that the Expert made no determination for the purposes of the Contract.  CPB submitted there is a “deficiency or error” in the Determination, meaning it was not “a determination in accordance with the contract”.  These errors were said to include a “plainly incorrect” answer to a question referred to determination[ii], a failure to give reasons as required by the contract[iii] and a failure to answer a question at all[iv].  The first ground was specific to the facts of the case.

The second reason was that the Determination (to the extent it was a valid determination under the contract) did not “involve paying a sum of money”.

On this issue, CPB submitted that the question is what the Determination itself is and not the “matters for determination” involve.  It was argued that a determination that no money is payable is in effect a dismissal or rejection of that claim.  CPB submitted that such a decision does not and cannot involve “paying” a sum of money.

Decision

Transport’s application for a stay was granted.  CPB was precluded from litigating on the claims.

On the first ground, Stevenson J found that the Determination did not contain a deficiency or error.  The Expert’s Determination complied with the contractual requirements.

On the second ground, Stevenson J concluded that a determination dismissing a claim for money does “involve” “paying a sum of money” in the sense that it deals with the claim that, if successful, would have resulted in the paying of a sum of money; and rejects that claim.[v] The focus is not on the amount to be paid pursuant to the determination, but on the nature of the determination – i.e. whether it “involves”, in the sense of “concern” paying a sum of money.[vi] This is distinguished from a distinct category of determinations that are not in respect of money claims, such as a dispute about the construction of the contractual terms.[vii]

Therefore, in finding that the Determination did “involve the paying of sum of money”, the exception to the preclusion of litigation did not apply.

Take home tips

Dispute resolution clauses are often overlooked by parties in a contract negotiation. This case highlights that parties should carefully consider the types of disputes or claims that may be captured by a binding alternative dispute resolution process.  Parties should draft clear carve-outs from an otherwise final and binding dispute resolution clause if they wish to have recourse to the courts.

For carve-outs involving sums, consider whether the monetary thresholds are arbitrary or considered by reference to the whole of the contract sum.  Also consider whether it is the value of the claim that is of importance, or the value of the determination.

If parties wish to preserve the right to apply to the courts concerning the interpretation of a contractual term, for example, it would be prudent for the dispute resolution clause to reserve the right for an application for declaratory relief or contain a carve-out in relation to claims or disputes not involving or concerning payment of a sum.

[i] At [26] – [27].

[ii] At [47].

[iii] At [58].

[iv] At [66].

[v] At [91].

[vi] At [92].

[vii] At [94].

Long-Stop Action: Deadlines for Bringing Building Claims

The New South Wales Court of Appeal has recently given guidance to difficult questions about time limits for bringing claims for defective building work. It has confirmed the brutal reality that building claims must be brought within 10 years of completion of the work (and in most cases, much sooner).

The case centred around the all-important ‘long-stop’ limitation period for making building claims for defective works, which is 10 years from the date that the works were completed. It was a case of fine distinctions, and heavy on statutory interpretation.

The argument centred around Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979 (NSW) (Act).

No doubt the parties involved could never have imagined that so much ink would be spilled because of the simple fact that the development consent concerned was issued before 1998. The three-member Court split 2-1 on whether the current version of the long-stop limitation period applied to building work completed under development consents issued before 1998.

However as always, there are broader and more universal lessons that can be taken from the case.

In this article, we dive into the current section 6.20 of the Act (Current Long-Stop), and its similar predecessor, section 109ZK of the Act (Previous Long-Stop). We then consider the facts of the case, the points on which all judges agreed, and the majority decision where there was disagreement. We conclude with what we can take from this case going forward.

Long-Stop Limitation Period

All people involved in building need to be aware of limitation periods. These are time limits for bringing claims. If an otherwise meritorious claim is brought outside the limitation period, then a court will not consider it, no matter how well-supported it is or how “unjust” it may seem.

For this reason, anyone who believes that they have a claim, or will face a claim, needs to seek legal advice as soon as possible. This is especially true for building cases. Very often the clock will have started ticking as soon as the work was finished, regardless of when the problems first appeared. A few days can very well be the difference.

It is also important to bear in mind that multiple limitation periods may apply for a particular case. This article discusses the ‘long-stop’ limitation period, but there are other limitation periods that may take priority. For example, for residential building jobs, the Home Building Act has a very complicated regime for limitation periods, which range from two years to six years depending on the type of claim brought. These limitation periods apply notwithstanding anything in this article. Again, legal advice must be sought for the individual case.

The “long-stop limitation period” in broad terms is a 10-year limit from the date of completion of the work on when building claims can be brought to a Court. In most cases, this will be the date when the final occupation certificate was issued.

The Case

The case concerned works of a subcontractor for a main contractor completed in 1997 for a shopping centre and hotel on George Street, Sydney. The subcontractor had constructed an exhaust duct system that serviced the shops and restaurants in the shopping centre.

After the works were complete, Sydney Capitol Hotels Pty Ltd (Sydney Capitol) occupied the building. Meanwhile, Bandelle Pty Ltd (Bandelle) assumed the liabilities of the subcontractor under a scheme of arrangement sanctioned by the Federal Court of Australia in 2014.

In 2017, fire and smoke from kitchen exhaust at the bottom of a building spread to the hotel in the upper levels of the building. This caused the sprinkler system to activate. Sydney Capitol alleged that the subcontractor had breached its duty of care, as the shaft for the exhaust duct system was not constructed in accordance with the certified plans. The shaft did not extend beyond the roof sheeting, and so it was alleged that it was not properly fire-rated in accordance with the Building Code of Australia.

Bandelle denied that the subcontractor’s construction was defective. However, it also claimed that Sydney Capitol’s claim was a “civil action for loss and damage arising out of or in connection with defective building work within the meaning of s 6.20 of the Planning Act”, which was required to have been brought within 10 years of the completion of the building works.

If true, Sydney Capitol would be prevented from making the claim at all.

The Laws

The Current Long-Stop (s 6.20), commencing in 2018, provides:

“(1) A civil action for loss or damage arising out of or in connection with defective building work or defective subdivision work cannot be brought more than 10 years after the date of completion of the work.”

The Previous Long-Stop (s 109ZK of Part 4C) provided:

“(1) Despite any Act or law to the contrary, a building action may not be brought in relation to any building work:

(a) more than 10 years after the date on which the relevant final occupation certificate is issued, or …”

Clause 34 of the Environmental Planning and Assessment (Savings and Transitional) Regulation 1998 (NSW), applied to the Previous Long-Stop until 2012. Clause 34 provided:

“Part 4C of the amended EP&A Act 1979 does not apply to or in respect of any development carried out under the authority of:

(a) a development consent granted under the unamended EP&A Act 1979 …”

The upshot was that because of Clause 34, the limitation period in the Previous Long-Stop did not apply to a development carried out under the authority of a development consent that was issued before 1998.

The Issues

The big issue for the Court of Appeal was: whether the Current Long-Stop was affected by the Clause 34. The answer may have seemed like an obvious “no”, as Clause 34 had been repealed in 2012. However, Parliament had confusingly stated its intention that the Current Long-Stop was to carry on the effect of the Previous Long-Stop. The two laws had very similar drafting. Moreover, there was an argument that the rules of statutory interpretation required that the effect of Clause 34 continue after its repeal for some cases.

If the Current Long-Stop was affected by Clause 34, then there was a good chance that Sydney Capitol could bring its claim, unrestrained by the limitation period. However, if the Current Long-Stop was not affected, then Sydney Capitol’s claim could be dismissed.

There was a second issue: essentially, if it applied to a case, how wide should the Current Long-Stop be interpreted? Should it prevent all types of claims that result from building work, even if the building work was not completed by the other party, as was the case here?

Does the Current Long-Stop Apply to pre-1998 Developments?

The casenote for this issue appears simple, but in the words of White JA: “Even the experienced lawyers engaged in the litigation did not come to grips with the intricacies of the legislation and regulations at the hearing before the primary judge, and in some respects, not even on appeal.” Showing that laws are complex even for the best legal minds in NSW, the Court of Appeal was required to undertake a lengthy process of statutory interpretation, and it arrived at a 2-1 split on the main issues of the case. At the end of His Honour’s judgment, White JA called for Parliament to make the intention of the Acts and their amending Acts clear for those who are not minded to read the judgment.

The 2-1 majority found that the Current Long-Stop applied to the construction completed under a development consent issued before 1998.

The majority also found that the Current Long-Stop was not affected by Clause 34. Building carried out pursuant to development consents issued before 1998 (or any time) were covered by the Current Long-Stop.

Unfortunately for Sydney Capitol, this meant that the very wide phrasing of the Current Long-Stop applied to its own case. A different majority found that had the Previous Long-Stop still applied today, Sydney Capitol could have brought its claim.

The Operation of the Current Long-Stop

Accepting that the Current Long-Stop applied, what was the effect of this?

Essentially, claims for economic loss from defective building work must be brought at a maximum within 10 years of the completion of the work, irrespective of when the defects become manifest.

As the judges observed, the Current Long-Stop is designed to create some certainty for parties in the case of latent defects, which may only become known after some time and in piecemeal way. Other limitation periods (contract law or negligence) that also apply will often kick in only when damage becomes manifest.

In contrast, the long-stop limitation period applies notwithstanding any timing of defects becoming visible. The only relevant date is when the building work is completed, which is usually defined to be when the final occupation certificate is issued. From this time, there is a 10-year period during which a claim for economic loss must be brought. This provides builders with some degree of protection.

The Current Long-Stop has very wide phrasing. It applies to all who seek to bring claims for property or economic loss that arise from defective building work, including for negligent design and certification. The only apparent exceptions are for claims brought for death or personal injury.

Unfortunately for Sydney Capitol, the majority found that the damage that it suffered arose out of or was in connection with defective building work. The smoke damage from the fire was caused by the allegedly defective building work (or so the claim ran). Even though the building work failed to prevent the damage, rather than causing it directly, it was still caught by the Current Long-Stop.

More brutal for Sydney Capitol was that the company was not even the original owner of the property or the successor in title. Further, its opponent Bandelle had not completed the work but (in effect) guaranteed the work. Essentially, both parties had taken over the pre-existing rights and obligations of the owner and the builder. Yet the Court was unanimous in finding that these facts did not matter. All that mattered was that the claim concerned defective building work.

Consequently, even though the damage only became apparent to it in 2017, almost twenty years later, Sydney Capitol was barred from bringing a claim.

One final note, once again: very often, claims must be brought even sooner than 10 years. Depending on the type of building and the type of claim brought, another limitation period may make this period even shorter.

The Implications

Much will be written about this case, and a lot of it will be relevant to lawyers rather than builders.

Nevertheless, the case demonstrates the brutal reality of limitation periods. Sydney Capitol was not even a successor in title, and it occupied a commercial premises in 1998. It only became aware of a defect in 2017. Nevertheless, it was prevented from claiming damages against anyone involved in the defect.

The case also shows the need for rigorous inspections prior to occupying or owning an older property. Sometimes, the only protection that incoming purchasers will have is prevention rather than the cure, if problems take years to become obvious.

However, the Current Long-Stop gives little comfort for those whose property suffers from latent defects, that only make themselves known long after building work is completed. Parliament has decided that after 10 years of completing a job, builders can live with relative certainty that they can be free of claims.

The case does not settle the question of whether parties can contract out of the long-stop limitation period, or similarly enter into a deed to that effect. The courts in NSW have not yet been required to resolve this question definitively.

Near enough is not good enough in contract drafting

We have been recently acting for a subcontractor negotiating departures to a design and construct for a high-rise office tower in the Sydney CBD.  Grappling with a confusing, inconsistent and untidy subcontract, one of our recommendations was that the contract defined terms should be updated to:

  • remove defined terms that were not used in the operative clauses;
  • define capitalised terms used in the subcontract, but for which no definition was provided;
  • make the defined terms consistent (sometimes two distinct defined terms were used but were intended to have the same meaning); and
  • check and update the contract definitions for changes in law.

The upstream contractor party’s counsel suggested that this work was unnecessary and would make no difference.  We strongly disagreed.

Why did these drafting issues matter?

A significant case for insurers and COVID-19 impacted businesses decided by the NSW Court of Appeal in October 2020 provides an example of how failures to update contracts for law and precisely draft terms (including updating definitions) can lead to real headaches down the line.  The decision has been widely reported in major media outlets due to the multi-billion dollar payouts that may result due to what appears to be a drafting oversight.

In HDI Global Specialty SE v Wonkana No. 3 Pty Ltd [2020] NSWCA 296 (Wonkana), a key test case funded by insurers, the NSWCA was required to decide whether a coverage exclusion applied to claims made by business owners under their insurance policies for interruption to their businesses due to COVID-19.

The exclusion was framed as follows:

‘The cover … does not apply to any circumstances involving ‘Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza in Humans’ or other diseases declared to be quarantinable diseases under the Australian Quarantine Act 1908 and subsequent amendments.’

The problem for the insurers was that the Quarantine Act 1908 (Cth) (repealed Act) was repealed and replaced prior to COVID-19 by the Biosecurity Act 2015 (Cth) (current Act).  While COVID-19 had been determined a “listed human disease” under the current Act, it had not (and could not) been listed as a “quarantinable disease” under the repealed Act.  It appears that at the time of contract neither party knew about the change in law.

The insurer’s primary argument was that the exclusion clause should be construed as referring to ‘diseases determined to be listed human diseases under the Biosecurity Act 2015 (Cth)’ because:

  1. the current Act constituted a “subsequent amendment” (Subsequent Amendment Argument); or
  2. the references to the repealed Act were obvious mistakes which should be construed as if they were or included references to the current Act (Obvious Mistake Argument).

In summary, the NSWCA held that the exclusion clause could not be construed as referring to the current Act.  This meant that the insured businesses were prima facie entitled to a claim under their policies.

On the Subsequent Amendment Argument, the Court held that the words “and subsequent amendments”, given their natural and ordinary meaning, do not extend to an entirely new enactment[1].  The repealed Act was not a “subsequent amendment” of the current Act.

Looking at the matter objectively (as required by proper principles of contractual interpretation), if the parties intended that the clause capture an alteration to, or replacement of, the repealed Act, drafting to capture this intent would have been used[2].

On the Obvious Mistake Argument, the Court held that it was critical to apply the ordinary principles of construction to the drafting (and natural and ordinary meaning of words) to ascertain the parties’ objective intention[3].

There was no mistake by the parties in drafting which was objectively identifiable to be “corrected” or rectified.  It was not possible to correct the contract merely because the parties incorrectly assumed that the repealed Act was still in force[4].

Key Takeaways

Contracting parties sometimes rely on the words “and subsequent amendments” as an excuse not to update their contracts to deal with changes to law.  This is dangerous because if a law has been repealed and replaced prior to (or during the course of) the contract, there is clearly no guarantee that the replacement statute will apply.  These words are not a “get out of jail free card” to deal with legislative changes.

We caution against the assumption that in the event there is a later argument on interpretation, the departures table, correspondence or other extrinsic evidence will be relied upon to answer the question.  Firstly, this assumes that reliable records of the negotiation will be kept.  Disputes often arise years after the contract is executed and we all know of the knowledge and records vacuum when key personnel move on from a project or employer.  Secondly, the court will only consider extrinsic evidence if the drafting is ambiguous.  On pure questions of contractual interpretation, the court is not concerned with the subjective intentions of the contracting parties, but what the words say to the objective reader.

We strongly recommend:

  • regularly reviewing and updating your contracts for changes in law; and
  • ensuring that simple issues such as errors and inconsistencies in defined terms are taken seriously and corrected prior to execution.

[1] Per Meagher JA and Ball J at [44].

[2] Per Meagher JA and Ball J at [42].

[3] Per Meagher JA and Ball J at [64].

[4] Per Meagher JA and Ball J at [65].

$1 per day LD’s in residential building contracts no longer rules out claims by owners for general damages for delay

Facts

In Cappello v Hammond & Simonds NSW Pty Ltd [2020] NSWSC 1021, Hammond & Simonds NSW Pty Ltd (Builder) entered into a standard form Housing Industry Association NSW Residential Building Contract for Works on a Cost Plus Basis (Contract) with Mr and Mrs Cappello (Owners) to renovate the ground floor of their house in Haberfield.

The LD’s for late completion was $1 per working day which was consistent with the default position under the Contract.

The works under the Contract were completed approximately 7 months late and the Builder made no requests for any extensions of time.  The Owners made various claims against the Builder, among them, was a claim for general damages for delay in the sum of $30,000.

Builder’s case

The Builder claimed that the Owners were only entitled to recover $1 per working day for delay in accordance with the LD clause in the Contract and that by making provision for LD’s in the Contract, the parties were taken to have intended to exclude a right for the Owners to also claim general damages for delay against the Builder.

Owners’ case

The Owners’ claimed that the LD clause did not provide the only remedy for the Builder’s delay because if it did, it would be void due to section 18G of the Home Building Act 1989 (NSW) (HBA) as it would have the effect of restricting the Owners’ rights in relation to the benefit of the warranty under section 18B(1)(d) of the HBA (that the work will be done with due diligence and within the time stipulated in the Contract).

What did the Supreme Court decide?

The Court found that:

  • the LD clause should not be interpreted as providing the only remedy for delay. Rather, by specifying the amount of LD’s so low at $1 per working day, instead the parties intended for the Owners to also have a right to claim general damages for delay (although in this case general damages were ultimately not awarded as the Owners did not meet the test for general damages that applies to breach of contract);
  • that an LD clause which limits a party to claiming nominal damages for a breach of a warranty restricts the rights of that person in respect of the warranty and is therefore void under section 18G of the HBA (which says that any agreement that restricts or removes the right of a person in respect of any of the statutory warranties is void); and
  • the outcome may have been different if the LD clause provided for the payment of a substantial amount in LD’s.

What does this mean for residential builders?

  • builders will be exposed in relation to existing contracts that stipulate $1 per working day (or a nominal amount for LD’s) as owners would be entitled to LD’s of $1 per working day plus general damages for delay by the builder;
  • any attempt to limit the builder’s liability for delay (including inserting a nominal amount for LD’s) will be void under section 18G of the HBA;
  • if builders wish to exclude general damages for delay in new contracts, they should insert a rate for LD’s that offers the owner a “substantial right” to compensation not just a nominal amount for breach of the statutory warranty (that the work will be done with due diligence and within the time stipulated in the contract); and
  • in order to limit the builder’s exposure for not only LD’s but also general damages for delay, builders should ensure that they claim all available EOT’s in relation to extending the contract period

Nominal liquidated damages may not keep general damages away

A Building Contract usually contains a provision for a cap on liquidated damages. In some contracts, particularly Master Builders and HIA contracts, the amount for liquidated damages is usually a default position (unless otherwise stated) at $1 a day for each day of delay from the date the builder was meant to reach completion under the Building Contract until the builder actually completes the works.

The amount set for liquidated damages is meant to represent a genuine pre-estimate of loss that would be suffered by the principal should the works be delayed. If the amount of liquidated damages is excessive, it may be argued that such a clause is a penalty and thus be held to be void.

In the recent case of Cappello v Hammond & Simonds NSW Pty Ltd [2020] NSWSC 1021, the Supreme Court of NSW considered whether a Building Contract which contained a provision for a nominal amount of liquidated damages in the amount of $1 per day excluded the homeowner from also claiming general damages for delay.

The contract was a HIA Costs Plus contract for works related to renovations to a dwelling. The homeowner alleged that the builder was approximately seven months late in completing the works. The Homeowner claimed that it was entitled to general damages, in addition to the claim for the amount of liquidated damages.

The general principle in law is that where parties agree on a rate for liquidated damages, it is taken to exclude claims for general damages.

Justice Ball stated [at paragraph 27]:

“Accepting that principle, the question remains whether by inserting a nominal amount as the amount payable by way of liquidated damages the parties intended, in effect, to exclude the operation of the liquidated damages clause or whether they intended to exclude a right to claim damages for delay altogether. The answer to that question does not depend on the application of any general principle but on the proper construction of the contract in question.” (Emphasis added)

It was also noted that Section 18B(1)(d) of the Home Building Act 1989 (NSW) implies into a residential Building Contract a warranty that the builder will complete the works within the time stipulated in the Building Contract. If the Building Contract seeks to limit a party from claiming damages in the form of nominal liquidated damages it has the effect of restricting that party’s rights in respect of the warranty and would be held to be void under Section 18G of the Home Building Act 1989 (NSW).

Justice Ball held that he preferred the interpretation that if only a nominal amount of liquidated damages is provided for under a Building Contract, it should not be interpreted as preventing a claim for general damages. Accordingly, the parties intend that general damages can be claimed rather than limiting it to the amount of the nominal amount of liquidated damages.

However, Justice Ball ultimately upheld in this case that the Home Owner was only entitled to nominal damages as the majority of the delays were due to the Homeowner’s requested variations to the works and did not appear to have suffered any additional loss.

In light of the above, it is important for liquidated damages to represent a genuine pre-estimate of loss, otherwise:

  1. it will either be held to be a penalty if it is too high and thus void; or
  2. if the amount of liquidated damages is only nominal, then it can be also be held to be either void or may not exclude general damages.

If you or someone you may know is in need of assistance or clarification regarding the above, please email us at info@bradburylegal.com.au or call (02) 9248 3450.

Contractors – don’t use Dropbox if you want to get paid!

In Wärtsilä Australia Pty Ltd (ACN 003 736 892) v Primero Group Ltd (ACN 139 964 045) & Ors [2020] SASC 162, a contractor has failed to recoup $15M because it tried to submit completion reports via Dropbox link.  This is adds to the line of authorities which caution reliance on cloud-based technologies for issuing documents, whether under contract or statute.

Facts

Primero Group Ltd (Primero) contracted with Wärtsilä Australia Pty Ltd (Wärtsilä) to perform civil, mechanical and electrical works and supply tanks for the construction of the Barker Inlet power station on Torrens Island in South Australia.

The contract provided the following requirements for ‘SW Completion’:

(2) the tests, inspections and communications required by this subcontract (including Schedule 3) to have been carried out before SW Completion have been carried out, passed and the results of the tests, inspections and commissioning provided to [Wärtsilä]

(8) the completed quality assurance documentation … is available for inspection by [Wärtsilä] at the Facility Land’ (emphasis added)

Primero emailed Wärtsilä on 28 February 2020 a Dropbox link to the documents.  Yet Wärtsilä was unable to access the documents via the link until 2 March 2020.

On 2 March 2020, Primero served a payment claim under s 13 of the Building and Construction Industry Security of Payment Act 2009 (SA) in the amount of $85,751,118 (excluding GST).  On 10 March 2020, Wärtsilä responded with a payment schedule which scheduled “nil” but also stated that the payment claim was invalid as it was not supported by a reference date.

Primero proceeded to adjudication and the adjudicator determined Primero’s payment claim was valid, awarding $15,269,674.30 (excluding GST).  Key to the adjudicator’s determination was that the payment claim was supported by a reference date of 28 February 2020.  Wärtsilä made an application to the Supreme Court for an order quashing the adjudication determination.

The parties agreed that if SW Completion under the contract had not occurred on 28 February 2020 the adjudicator’s determination was invalid.[1]

Primero argued that it had provided the documents and made them available for inspection by sending the email.

Primero also contended that the Electronic Communications Act 2000 (SA) (ECA) permitted the contractual obligation for the provision of the documents to be satisfied by electronic communication.  Under s 8 of the ECA, the time of receipt of an electronic communication was when it is ‘capable of being retrieved by the addressee’.

Decision

Sending a Dropbox link to the documents was not sufficient for SW Completion.  On 28 February 2020, Primero had emailed the link to Wärtsilä, but Wärtsilä was unable to completely download the documents.[2]

Accordingly, the adjudication determination was quashed because it was not made with reference to a valid payment claim.[3]  The $15M award to Primero was nullified.

Stanley J held[4]:

  1. in relation to SW Completion item (2), ‘the provision of the hyperlink merely provided a means by which Wärtsilä was permitted to download the documents stored in the cloud. Until it did so, those documents had not been provided.

 

  1. in relation to SW Completion item (8), ‘the hyperlink did not amount to making the documents available for inspection… because until all the documents were downloaded, they were not capable of being inspected at the facility land.’

His Honour stated:

a common sense and businesslike construction of the contractual requirements that the documents be provided and are available for inspection necessarily requires that the documents were capable of being downloaded on 28 February 2020. I find they were not.[5]

Stanley J applied a Queensland case Conveyor & General Engineering v Basetec Services & Anor [2015] 1 Qd R 265 (Conveyor) and a Federal Court case Clarke v Australian Computer Society Inc [2019] FCA 2175 (Clarke), which went to the point that a document could not itself be considered to be “left at” or “sent” to an intended recipient if an email containing a link to the document was sent to that recipient.[6]  To summarise, it is only the email itself which is sent or transmitted, not the document housed on the cloud server.

The ECA did not apply to the communication to solve the problem for Primero because[7]:

Both s 8 and s 10 prescribe circumstances that condition the operation of those provisions. Those circumstances include: first, that at the time the information is given by means of electronic communication, it was reasonable to expect that the information would be readily accessible so as to be useable for subsequent reference; and second, that the person to whom the information is required to be given consents to the information being given by means of an electronic communication.

His Honour held that Conveyor and Clarke stood as authority for the proposition that the provision of the documents by hyperlink did not constitute an “electronic communication” for the purposes for the ECA.

This point is highly relevant to because the relevant legislation governing electronic transmissions and communications are modelled off uniform Commonwealth legislation (Electronic Transactions Act 1999 (Cth)) and have largely consistent provisions.

Take Home Tips

It is important to consider closely whether the terms of your contract allow you to submit completion documents (or other documents) via a Dropbox link.  If the contract uses words like “provide”, “send”, “make available”, etc, it is unlikely that merely providing a link to those documents will satisfy the obligation unless and until the documents are actually downloaded or accessed in full by the intended recipient.  This can be difficult to prove.

It is unlikely that you will be able to fall back on the relevant electronic communications or transactions legislation in your jurisdiction because the provision of the link will not be considered an “electronic communication” of the document itself.  Strict compliance with the contract and statute (particularly in the realm of security of payment) is always required.

[1] At [12].

[2] At [93].

[3] At [128].

[4] At [94].

[5] At [105].

[6] At [98] to [101].

[7] At [117].

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.