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.

COVID Update – Environmental Planning and Assessment (COVID-19 Development – Construction Work Days) Order 2020

Yesterday (April 2,2020), the Environment Planning and Assessment (COVID-19 Development – Construction Work Days) Order 2020 came into effect. The Order allows for building work and demolition work to be carried out on Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays, provided that the development is approved through development consent and continues to comply with all other conditions of the development consent. Further any work that is performed on a Saturday, Sunday or public holiday must:

  1. comply with the conditions of consent that restrict hours of work on any other day as if the condition applied to work on a Saturday, Sunday or public holiday;

 

  1. not involve the carrying out of rock breaking, rock hammering, sheet piling or similar activities during the weekend and public holiday work hours; and

 

  1. all feasible and reasonable measures are taken to minimise noise.

 

So what does this mean for the construction industry? Where a project is subject to development consent conditions that restrict the days of working to Monday to Friday, the Order allows for the approved working hours in the development consent to apply to weekends and public holidays. The purpose of this Order is to allow for construction sites to implement social distancing measures which may require smaller workforces on site but prevent or minimise loss of productivity by allowing works to be carried out on more days.

As a result, construction programs may need to be reconfigured to balance the slower rate of progressing the works due to social distancing and/or team splitting, any EOTs claimed and the greater number of days that can be worked.

The Order may also result in contractors and subcontractors being able to make a claim in relation to a change in legislative requirements under their contracts. This may result in entitlements for time or cost relief arising from complying with the Order and other government orders made in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

If you need advice as to how this order affects your contractual obligations or are negotiating a contract, please contact us. We are committed to providing the highest quality of legal services at competitive prices to help you and your business get through these challenging times.

Coronavirus (COVID-19) and Construction Contracts: What are your options?

Coronavirus (COVID19) and the construction industry: What are your options?

We recently published an article about how construction contracts can incorporate concepts of force majeure events. A copy of our article can be found here.

As the disruptions of corona virus begin to become more extensive with government mandates coming into effect, we believe it’s important for those in the construction industry to have a quick reference guide as to their options or important things to think about.

 

Pre-contract: Tendering, negotiating and drafting of contract
Force Majeure clause ·         Manages the relationship between the parties where there has been an ‘Act of God’ or other similar severely disrupting event

·         Depends on the contractual definition of the term

·         Generally, suspends the obligations until the force majeure event has concludes

·         Important to consider when the parties’ obligations will resume – what will indicate the end of the force majeure event

Scope of Works and mitigation of supply chain risk ·         Where possible, alternative supply or materials should be specified in the scope of works with pre-agreed variation prices
Extensions of Time ·         Can include force majeure event as a qualifying cause of delay

·         What circumstances can the contractor or subcontractor seek an EOT?

·         Generally appropriate for an EOT to be granted where there is suspension of works, variation, act, omission or breach of the other party, force majeure events and/or industrial action occurring across the relevant state or territory

·         Are there any duties to mitigate the delay which are a precondition to receiving an EOT

Delay Costs and/or damages ·         Does the contract provide for any delay costs or damages?

·         What are the circumstances that the contractor or subcontractor is entitled to costs and are there any relevant caps?

Legislative Provisions ·         How are the change in legislative requirement provisions worded?

·         Consider the definition of legislative requirement (and/or equivalent and related definitions)

·         Consider whether legislative provisions should include a carve out for where there is a change in the legislative requirements in relation to COVID19. Given the uncertainty around how the government will proceed, it is difficult to predict how the legislative regimes or executive orders will change as the response to COVID changes and adapts

Labour and Key Personnel ·         Are there any key personnel of the contractor or the subcontractor that should be specifically identified?

·         Are there specific measures the Principal/Contractor want to specifically implement? Examples may include split teams

Security ·         Consider what types of security will protect against insolvency risk of contractors or subcontractors – Parent guarantee, retention monies, material security and/or bank guarantees

·         Consider circumstances where there may be recourse to the security such as where a party becomes insolvent or there are defective works that require rectification

·         Consider Principal security for payment if there are any solvency concerns

Insurance ·         Principals should consider whether there are suitable insurance policies to protect from any delays to the works or any consequences that the delays may have at the end of the project

·         For example, Principals may wish to discuss delay in start-up insurance with their insurance broker

Warranty deeds and defects ·         Principals may wish to require warranty deeds from the subcontractors to insure against any insolvency risk from contractors and to allow for any defects to be rectified independent of the contractor
Financial capacity of the tenders ·         When assessing potential contractors, Principals should consider the financial capacity of contractors and whether there are any solvency concerns and if there are any parent companies that can provide guarantees
Project deadlines ·         What deadlines are imposed by related contracts such as sale of land for off the plan properties

·         How long are the deadlines and timeframes of the project? Can they be extended to account for coronavirus

Contract structures ·         Profit/cost-saving sharing models of contract or guaranteed maximum price may be considered by Principals to minimise cost exposure of contracts that may be affected by coronavirus (such as supply chain risk)
Contract administration
Extension of time ·         Principals and Superintendents generally have the power to issue an EOT even when a claim may not be made by the Contractor. While they are not obliged to use this power for the benefit of the contractor, there may be practical and goodwill benefits in using these powers

·         Contractors should seek legal advice in terms of the relevant EOT clause and whether they have a right to seek an EOT or what other options are available to them under the contract

Suspension ·         Suspension is generally a grounds for an EOT

·         Consider who bears the cost of suspension under the contract

·         Is there a right for the contractor to claim any suspension costs or costs associated

Change to legislative requirements ·         In the event of government mandated shutdown, there is likely going to be claims for legislative changes. These will largely depend on the wording of the clauses, who bears the risk on legislative changes and the form of the government shut down

·         Other considerations include whether construction work is considered an essential service and to what extent

Variations ·         Where there is a supply chain breakdown due to closed borders, there may be claims for variations being made by Principals or Contractors to allow the project to continue

·         Variations will be linked to the scope of work and whether there are alternatives that can be sourced

Payments ·         Principals may wish to change payment terms to accommodate contractors or subcontractors

·         As the effects of coronavirus move throughout the economy, there will undoubtedly be businesses that struggle and become insolvent. Where possible, Principals may want to consider changing milestone payments or frequency of payment claims to assist contractors’ cashflows

·         Any agreement between the Principal and relevant contractor should be evidenced in writing

Acceleration ·         If there is relatively small amount of work left, Principals may consider giving directions to accelerate

·         While this may increase the cost of the project, the Principal may be able to ensure the project is completed before shutdowns come into effect

Employment ·         Employment law advice should be sought about how to manage employee relationships while projects are on hold by reason of coronavirus
Teams and social distancing ·         Head contractors may wish to implement policies that flow down the contracting chain in relation to splitting teams and social distancing where possible
Other arrangements agreed between the parties ·         Sometimes the best changes are those made between the parties and not from the lawyers

·         However, even where this is the case, ensure that such agreements are evidenced in writing and you seek legal advice on the impacts of the agreement and whether there are any potential consequences that you may not have considered

Other issues
Financiers ·         In many developments, there may be a financier involved and different obligations that arise under these loans and security documents

·         Principals should consider their obligations to notify their financier(s) where appropriate

Other stakeholders ·         There may be a range of other stakeholders that may have an interest in the construction contracts

·         It is important to manage these aspects of the development to reduce or eliminate any potential problems later on

Dispute resolution
SOPA claims ·         At the time of writing, there have been no changes to the strict deadlines imposed on submitting and responding to payment claims under the NSW Security of Payment legislation

·         SOPA is a contractor friendly forum, allowing for money to flow down the contracting chain

·         SOPA claims can be challenged on jurisdictional grounds or can be settled at the end of the contract if there has been an overpayment

Alternative dispute resolutions ·         Many alternative dispute resolution professionals are not taking new appointments. This can create a delay in parties complying with the relevant dispute resolution clauses

·         Parties may consider teleconferences or videoconferences to resolve disputes, rather than physically meeting

Courts ·         Many courts are operating via videoconferencing, with physical appearances limited

·         The court process may have more delays than usual as judges and parties adjust to the temporary measures of case management

·         Where a party is seeking urgent injunctive or other relief, it is important to seek legal advice as soon as possible to ensure that an application can be made efficiently and protect your interests

Contract termination ·         If you are seeking to terminate the contract it is important to terminate in accordance with the contractual provisions and to consider any common law rights or duties in relation to termination

·         Those seeking to terminate where the counterparty has become insolvent will also need to be aware of the recent insolvency changes and the restrictions on terminating pursuant to insolvency

 

 

Corona virus and force majeure in construction contracts: Has your contract been immunised

While many were recovering from New Years’ celebrations, corona virus was starting to make its way into the headlines. For the last 2 months, corona virus has dominated the news with many people and businesses starting to feel its impact as borders are shut down and quarantines are imposed. At the time of writing, the World Health Organisation has reported that corona virus has spread to many parts of the world including Australia, North America and parts of Europe. With much of the corona outbreak concentrated to China, several businesses are starting to feel the economic impact. As the manufacturing hub of the world, China is responsible for much of the world’s imports. Further, as the corona virus spreads and causes further border shutdowns, it becomes harder for businesses to have certainty in knowing when they will be able to import or export their goods. With businesses having to meet their contractual deadlines, the uncertainty can create a real issue for some. Consequently, many businesses may be put into a position where they are unable perform their contractual obligations. This article focuses on the different ways a construction contract may deal with situations such as corona virus.

The clause typically suited to situations or events like the outbreak of corona virus is a force majeure clause. Force majeure means ‘superior force’ and commonly covers natural events such as earthquakes or unforeseeable and disruptive manmade events such as war and industrial strikes. In the Australian context, force majeure clauses are creatures of the contract. This means that they only exist by virtue of a contractual provision which allocates the risk between the parties. Further, Australian courts will interpret these clauses strictly, giving the clauses the minimum application available within the ordinary meaning of the provision. In the construction contract context, it is unusual to see a specific force majeure clause. By way of illustration, the Australian Standard contracts do not contain a standard force majeure clause. Therefore, it is up to the parties to amend and insert a specific force majeure provision into the contract if they wish to have a specific mechanism dealing with the risk arising from these types of events.

As many readers may be aware, at the core of construction contracts is the allocation of risk through program. Therefore, construction contracts may, by their very essence, be differentiated from non—construction contracts. For example, extension of time (EOT), delay costs and liquidated damages clauses assign time related risks between the parties. The definitions of qualifying causes of delay and compensable causes in the Australian Standard provide a mechanism to pass time and cost related risks from contractors or subcontractors to the developer or head contractor. Amending the definition of qualifying causes of delay to extend to force majeure events is one way a construction contract can account for circumstances such as the corona virus. The key difference between allowing relief through a force majeure clause and allowing an EOT for force majeure events is that an EOT provides a contractor or subcontractor protection against liquidated damages. This is differentiated from a force majeure clause which may generally limit a party’s liability under the contract.

Irrespective of the way force majeure events are incorporated into construction contracts, care must be taken in drafting these clauses. When getting into the force majeure territory, contractors and subcontractors need to make sure that the definition of ‘force majeure’ or ‘force majeure event’ is drafted clearly, but not too broadly. For example, stating that a subcontractor is entitled to an EOT for anything outside of their control may be clear, but too broad to specifically cover corona virus. However, stating that the subcontractor is entitled to an EOT for delays related to the corona virus may be clearly drafted, but it does not provide much further scope. The clause would not protect from outbreaks or re-emergence of SARS or other endemics, epidemics or pandemics. A balance must be reached between these two extremes and will depend on the specific project.

When drafting a force majeure clause, it is important to consider some broad points. Firstly, force majeure clauses are usually exhaustive in nature, meaning that only what is in the contract is covered. Secondly, the party affected by the force majeure event must not have caused or contributed to the event and will required to take all steps to overcome or mitigate its effects. There also needs to be a connection between the force majeure event and the performance of the contractual obligations. For instance, the mere occurrence of the corona virus is not sufficient to justify an EOT in all cases. It will only entitle relief from liquidated damages when the event has caused a delay. By including these conditions, a force majeure clause (whether in EOT form or specific clause form) will generally entitle a party to relief or suspension of their obligations under the contract.

A significant problem with force majeure events is that it can be difficult for parties to establish that they should be entitled to relief under the clause. For example, in relation to the mitigation element discussed above, a party is often required to show that it cannot fulfil its supply obligations. While a party may have its preferred third party supplier, the mere fact that supply is not available from this supplier will not justify force majeure relief. The parties are bound by their contractual deal and this remains the case even if the obligations become significantly more onerous or expensive to complete. However, if all of the supply of product X is unavailable, then a party should be entitled to relief under the relevant clause until the supply becomes available again.

If you or someone you may know is in need of advice on existing contracts or advice regarding the force majeure clause, please contact our office by phoning (02) 9248 3450 or by email at info@bradburylegal.com.au.

Contractual interpretation: What did we even agree upon?

It is the question as old as human trade and commerce: when we made that agreement, what did we mean?

This is a deceptively simple question. It may appear to parties with amicable relations that the meaning of a document is clear, but when a dispute opens up, what tends to happen is that each party will stretch every definition to suit its purposes.
As will become clear, courts are still grappling with difficult questions about how an agreement should be interpreted, and what evidence put forward by the parties can be considered to discern its meaning.
We consider some basic principles to do with contractual interpretation, and look at a recent example of the circumstances in which courts will look at negotiations between the parties and the effect this has on the meaning of the agreement.

Basic principles

Where there is a written contract between two parties that are legally represented and commercially experienced, the law will likely consider this contract to be the complete statement of their legal rights and obligations. In some cases, a contract may be both oral and in writing, but proving this is onerous.
As a result, where there is a dispute, the contract is the first thing that the lawyers and judges will consider. The contract is considered to reflect how the parties intended to allocate risk.
When looking at a contract, the court will assess and interpret the contract to give effect to what is called the objective intention of the parties. This is not what was actually in the minds of the parties. Rather, it is what a reasonable person, a third-party bystander, would understand the words or actions of the parties to show about the parties’ intention.
In the commercial context, this means the court will look at the words used in drafting the contract and determine what they mean to a reasonable businessperson informed about the circumstances of the case.

But wait there’s more

What is said above does not mean that the actions of the parties are irrelevant. Far from it.
In fact, it is sometimes necessary for courts to consider the surrounding circumstances of an agreement, so that they can determine what the intentions of the parties are with respect to what exactly constitutes the agreement and what its terms mean.
This might seem contrary to the court’s tradition of only looking at the contract. However, it will generally only be done when there is ambiguity in the words of the contract.
For example, in Toll (FGCT) Pty Ltd v Alphapharm Pty Ltd (2004) 219 CLR 165, the High Court stated that it is not what the parties think about their rights and obligations that govern contractual relations. Rather, it is the words and conduct of each party that would lead a reasonable person in the position of the other party to believe.
Ten years later, the High Court again commented on the use of evidence outside the contract in Electricity Generation Corporation v Woodside Energy Ltd (2014) 251 CLR 640. In this case, the High Court said that evidence of the parties’ actual (subjective) intentions is not relevant to construction. What is relevant is the evidence of surrounding circumstances known the parties.
External circumstances can be considered by the courts when interpreting contracts between disputing parties.

So how does this all work?

If courts are supposed to consider the contract as the full statement of the parties’ rights and obligations, but they are able to look at circumstances beyond the contract, how does a judge determine what is the agreement?
Firstly, the contract is still the primary document that is interpreted. The evidence considered by a court of what has been said or what has happened outside of the contract cannot be used to give the contract a meaning that is contrary to what the contract clearly states.
Put another way, evidence outside of the contract cannot be used to add to, vary or contradict the language of the written contract. This is the case no matter how unjust or inconvenient the written terms are. This makes sense, as effective relations depend on the meaning of an agreement being fixed and clear.
Permitting outside factors to change the meaning of a contract introduces significant uncertainty. As any businessperson will know, where there is uncertainty there is conflict. A party could for example attempt to impose its own view on the meaning of the document. External conduct is used to make the meaning of the contract clearer, not to change it. In practice, however, the line between these two can be very difficult to draw.
Secondly, matters outside of the contract become relevant only where there is ambiguity or more than one meaning in what is inside the contract. Words may have different meanings in different contexts, so the context is important in choosing the right interpretation.
To this end, courts may consider the commercial purpose of the contract, the market and industry in which it arose, and the factual background of the agreement. All of this can shed light onto what the parties “must have” intended when they drafted the contract.
It is important to note that courts will only consider outside circumstances that are known to both parties.
However, courts will only consider these factors if the meaning of the written document is not clear. Negotiations that occurred prior to the signing of the agreement are also rarely considered, for the simple reason that they do not often show what was agreed.

For example …

Cherry v Steele-Park [2017] NSWCA 295 was a case that turned on the meaning of a deed of guarantee. Specifically, whether this deed of guarantee required the guarantor to pay the damages that resulted from the failure of their company to complete a contract for sale of land. The guarantor argued that the deed only covered the amounts promised for extending the contract’s completion date. The difference was around $145,750.
The case appeared to challenge the principles talked about above.
The argument was around whether the meaning of term had to be ambiguous before a court would admit evidence outside of the contract to explain its meaning. What happens when a term that appears to have a plain meaning “becomes” ambiguous only when outside material is introduced?
The answer is that as long as the evidence is relevant as information about the genesis or purpose of the transaction, it can bear on the contractual language and can be considered. Then the court will make a conclusion about whether the written terms are clear or ambiguous.
In Cherry v Steele-Park, Cherry wanted to include in evidence emails exchanged between the parties, that represented negotiating positions that were communicated between the parties. (As a side note, it was important that both parties knew about these emails when entering the contract.)
The Court considered the emails. However, the case ultimately reinforces not challenges the conclusions talked about above. The interpretation of the clause given by the court ultimately did not bend to what was said in these emails.
Rather, the Court considered as primary the terms and the structure of the contract, including the definitions and the generality of their language. The interpretation put forward by Cherry was some but clearly not all of the guarantee.
The Court concluded that the emails did not defeat “the wide words in the Guarantee”. The emails showed that there may have been a commercial purpose to make a limited guarantee. However, this context could not overcome the content of the Guarantee. Or, as Leeming JA stated, “such context – even relatively powerful evidence of context such as the present – does not warrant doing the violence to the general language of the document executed by them that they require.”
It was in effect a warning, that regardless of how persuasive evidence of negotiations is, it will not limit or take away from what is stated in a contractual document.

Conclusion

Prevention is always better than the cure. In the early stages of a commercial agreement, a little expense given to ensuring a contract tabled between the parties truly expresses your intentions goes a long way to preventing protracted disputes.
Problems can arise even between parties with a great relationship, and as discussed, once a problem does arise courts will be very reluctant to look beyond the written document that was exchanged. What this written document says will be of paramount importance, so it is worth the extra attention.
If you or someone you know wants more information or needs help or advice, please contact us on +61 2 9248 3450 or email info@bradburylegal.com.au