Case article – Brolton Group Pty Ltd v Hanson Construction Materials Pty Ltd

In Brolton Group Pty Ltd v Hanson Construction Materials Pty Ltd [2020] NSWCA 63 (Brolton), the NSW Court of Appeal considered the jurisdictional and procedural fairness grounds of an adjudicator’s determination.

Background

Brolton was contracted by Hanson to build a quarry processing plant at Bass Point. The parties agreed on a guaranteed maximum price of $85 million (excluding GST) in which Brolton was entitled to claim monthly progress payments on the last Tuesday of each month. Hanson claimed liquidated damages and the contract was eventually terminated on 3 October 2018. In August 2019, Brolton served a payment claim on Hanson. The payment claim claimed work up to September 2018 as well as interest on unpaid amounts to August 2019. The adjudicator determined in favour of Brolton, issuing an adjudication amount of $2,877,052.75. Hanson challenged the decision in the Supreme Court, with the Supreme Court finding in favour of Hanson. This resulted in the appeal by Brolton to the NSW Court of Appeal.

The Court’s decision

Brolton raised two main grounds of appeal. The first and most pertinent issue, concerning jurisdiction, centred predominantly on the availability of a reference date on which Brolton could make its payment claim.
Importance of jurisdiction and the trouble of jurisdictional error
Under the Building and Construction Industry Security of Payment Act 1999 (NSW) (SOP Act) section 22, an adjudicator is given the statutory authority to determine the amount of a progress payment, the date on which such amount became payable and the rate of interest payable on any such amount. The importance of section 22 is that it sets out the jurisdiction of an adjudicator. As the saying goes, with great power comes great responsibility. While the adjudicator is given the power to make these determinations, section 22 sets out the limited factors that the adjudicator can consider. These are the responsibility components of the adjudicator’s determination. Two of the relevant factors to consider in Brolton was the provisions of the SOP Act and the payment claim.
While adjudicators are given the power to make determinations, they can only do so in certain circumstances or if there are specified preconditions. In the legal world, this is called a ‘jurisdictional fact’. As Gleeson JA described in Brolton (at paragraph 28), the term jurisdictional fact is used to describe ‘any precondition which a statute requires to exist in order for the decision-maker to embark on the decision-making process’. Jurisdictional facts fall into two types:

1. The existence of an identified state of affairs; or
2. A state of satisfaction of the decision-maker as to an identified state of affairs.

A jurisdictional fact gives a decision-maker the power to make the decision. If it exists, then an adjudicator can make a determination. In this way, the reference date activates the adjudicators powers to make a determination under the SOP Act.
Under the SOP Act, a claimant is only able to make a payment claim when there is a reference date under the construction contract. Therefore, the existence of a reference date is a jurisdictional fact that falls into the first category. This is because the existence or non-existence of a reference date is objective and does not depend on whether the adjudicator is satisfied that a reference date exists. Where an adjudicator exercises its power, but the jurisdictional fact does not actually exist, the adjudicator has made a jurisdictional error..
Getting back to the case, in submitting its payment claim, Brolton claimed in its adjudication submissions that the reference dates for August 2018 and September 2018 were available for the payment claim. Hanson also contended that the September 2018 reference date was available for the progress payment. However, the adjudicator ‘went rogue’ and determined that the reference date was in fact 23 October 2018. There were a few issues with this. Firstly, the 23 October 2018 was not the last Tuesday of the month (which in fact was 30 October 2018). Secondly, the contract had been terminated on 3 October 2018, meaning no further reference dates arose. As the clause entitling Brolton to a progress payment did not continue beyond the termination of the contract, the adjudicator had made a jurisdictional error. The reference date the adjudicator relied on did not exist, and therefore the determination was void and the $2.8 million decision was overturned (as if it had never been made).

Although Hanson succeeded on the first issue, the Court was still minded to consider the second issue on appeal. The second issue concerned the procedural fairness of the adjudicator’s decision. Like jurisdiction, procedural fairness is a legal term that has important consequences for adjudication determinations. Procedural fairness is an aspect of natural justice, a foundational legal principal that sets the standards of how people are to exercise their authority. The concept of procedural fairness means the process in which a decision is made should be just. Procedural fairness requires that parties have the right or opportunity to have their case heard by the decision-maker. If there is a substantial denial of natural justice, the decision-maker’s determination will be void. In this case, the issue of procedural fairness arose because the adjudicator determined that the relevant reference date was a date not submitted by either party. Brolton argued that while procedural fairness was denied to the parties, it was immaterial and should not void the adjudicator’s decision. The Court found that the findings by the adjudicator were a material breach of procedural fairness and therefore there was a breach of natural justice.

Take-away points

While this article has discussed a few technical legal concepts, the main take away points from Brolton are that:
• A progress payment must be linked to a specific reference date. If an adjudicator incorrectly attributes a payment claim to a reference date which does not exist, the determination will be void.
• It is not enough that another reference date is available for the payment claim to be linked to. If the adjudicator goes rogue and determines a reference date not submitted by the parties, the decision will be void.
• Claimants should identify and make it abundantly clear the relevant reference date to which a payment claim relates and make submissions in the adjudication application as to what the relevant reference date is.
• Reference dates are essential for an adjudicator to make a determination. A failure by the adjudicator to appropriately determine a reference date can have dire consequences to claimants.
• Note: The recent amendments to the NSW SOP Act have eliminated the post-termination payment claim issue. Section 13(1C) now states that for construction contracts that have been terminated, a payment claim may be served on and from the date of termination. This change will only apply to contracts entered into after 21 October 2019.

Subcontractor Supporting Statements in the SoPA

It is commonly understood by participants within the building and construction industry that payment claims made by a head contractor under the Building and Construction Industry Security of Payment Act 1999 (NSW) (SoPA), are to be served with a supporting statement in respect of subcontractors.

The purpose of imposing this obligation on head contractors is clear and simple: to ensure payment of subcontractors is a priority. Ideally, the inherent insolvency risks will be passed ‘up the chain’ to head contractors and ultimately, to the developers who are often better placed to weather the consequences.

But, what happens when the Head Contractor does not comply with their supporting statement requirements under the SoPA? Does the developer still need to pay it?

This question has been the subject of some judicial deliberation, and has been answered with some finality in the recent case of TFM Epping Land Pty Ltd v Decon Australia Pty Ltd [2020] NSWCA 93.

The Parties

TFM Epping and Katoomba Residence Investments Pty Ltd (TFM), as the developer, engaged Decon Australia Pty Ltd (Decon) as the builder and head contractor to carry out building and construction works on a residential development located at Epping in Sydney’s North West.

The Facts

On 3 June 2019, Decon served on TFM a Progress Claim under the SoPA, seeking approximately $6.4 million (the Claim). The Claim included works carried out throughout project history, for which Decon had not previously been paid.

The supporting statement accompanying the Claim had referenced only one subcontractor that had completed works about 1 year prior to issuing the Claim and specified that the supporting statement applied for works undertaken between 27 June 2018 and 3 July 2018.

TFM did not, within the 10 days prescribed by SoPA, serve a Payment Schedule on Decon, and as a consequence, became liable to pay the full sum sought in the Claim. Payment was not made.

On 3 July 2019 Decon filed a Summons and Notice of Motion in the Supreme Court of New South Wales, both of which sought summary judgment in their favour, for the full amount of the Claim. Shortly after, TFM filed a response, challenging the validity and service of the Claim.

The Decision at First Instance and Issues on Appeal

It was the decision of the Court at first instance that the response filed by TFM did not raise triable issues and to find in favour of Decon. On appeal, TFB sought to challenge this decision.

TFM sought to challenge the decision at first instance on the following 3 grounds:

  1. The Claim was not valid as it had not been accompanied by a supporting statement as required under s13(7) of the SoPA;
  2. The Claim sought payment in respect of variations, which were not performed under the contract and ought to have been claims in quantum meruit; and
  3. The Claim was invalid as it was not made in respect of an available reference date.

The key argument on appeal was that the supporting statement served by Decon was defective for the following reasons:

  • It had not included a ‘list’ of the subcontractors, it had simply given details of one subcontractor; and
  • The dates for which the supporting statement applied did not align with the dates of the works which were the subject of the Claim.

On this Basis, TFM asserted there was an absence of a compliant supporting statement, which rendered the service of the Claim invalid. In the alternative, TFM asserted the Claim itself was invalid.

The Decision on Appeal

The Court found in favour of Decon on all 3 grounds and dismissed TFM’s appeal for the following reasons.

Supporting Statements

The critical document giving rise to the legal right to recover (and obligation to pay) a progress payment, is the payment claim. Despite the wording of s13(7) of the SoPA, the Court determined that it does not attach a condition to the nature or content of the payment claim itself.

In arriving at this Decision, the Court noted that s13(7) of the SoPA included within itself a penalty for parties that did not comply, in terms of a fine. The Court gave significant weight to the purpose of the SoPA, and noted that in circumstances where Parliament has not stated an intended consequence, the Court would be reluctant to imply one.

Variations

The Court found that it could be possible that the variations had not properly arisen under the contract, for example, if some procedural step had not been taken. However, if TFM were of this view, the Court determined it ought to have been raised in a payment schedule. The Court found that including the variation items in the Claim, even if they were disputed, did not render the Claim invalid.

In the present case, Decon had not formulated the variations as a claim for quantum meruit, but rather had stated them to be a claim for work undertaken under the Contract.

Takeaway

This case highlights the fact that the document giving rise to the right to recover (and obligation to pay) a progress payment is the progress claim itself.

A failure to provide a supporting statement in accordance with the SoPA will not invalidate a progress claim. However, head contractors should take a strong note of the reference to the penalty provisions within the SoPA, and should ensure strict compliance with their obligations when serving payment claims for progress payments.

The case also serves as a reminder to respondents that the Court system cannot be used as a ‘second chance’ forum to respond to payment claims. The Court has shown it will not hear matters which should have been raised by way of a payment schedule, and determined in the adjudication system.

As always, preventing problems with your payment claims and payment schedules is much easier (and cheaper) than fixing them. If you or someone you know wants more information or needs help or advice, please contact us on 02 9248 3450 or email info@bradburylegal.com.au.

Letter of Demand 101

Given the current economic climate, it is important more than ever for a business to ensure that they are able to receive payment for work carried out. This is particularly important for businesses in the construction industry as cashflow is the lifeblood of many construction companies, particularly subcontractors.

If an invoice remains unpaid past the due date for payment, one of the first steps would be to issue a letter of demand.

A letter of demand is a demand to get a third party to do a specific thing, or to cease doing a certain thing. However, in most instances, it is used to seek payment for debts due and payable.

A comprehensive letter of demand for an outstanding debt should include the following:

  1. Details of the arrangement/contract between the parties regarding the debt that is due and payable;

 

  1. Set out the amount owed and why it is owed;

 

  1. Provide a breakdown of the amount owed with any relevant supporting information;

 

  1. Provide a timeframe for the payment to be made, but in most instances should be a minimum of seven days; and

 

  1. The letter should clearly state what could happen if no response and no payment is received e.g. legal proceedings will be commenced.

The letter of demand should provide sufficient detail for the recipient to understand the claim that you have and why you have issued the letter of demand.

It is advisable to include a copy of the outstanding invoice, though it is not necessary. However, the added benefit of including the unpaid invoice is that issuing a letter of demand with the outstanding invoice will also start time ticking pursuant to the Security of Payment Act, in the event that you are entitled to issue a payment claim.

The courts generally do not require a letter of demand to be sent prior to commencing proceedings, however failing to issue a letter of demand prior to commencing proceedings may reduce the amount of legal costs you can claim should you be successful in the proceedings.

Whilst you do not need a lawyer to write a letter of demand, there are a number of benefits in having a lawyer draft and issue a letter of demand on their letterhead. In particular, it gives an indication to the recipient of the letter of demand that you are serious about pursuing the matter, and that you are willing to spend money in legal costs to obtain the item sought in the letter of demand. Further, seeking legal advice prior to issuing a letter of demand may assist you to understand your legal rights, and based on the legal advice, you might find that there are other potential actions or claims that could be pursued against the recipient of the letter of demand.

Bradbury Legal has issued many successful letters of demand in which our clients have obtained payment in full, even for claims exceeding $100,000.00. Though, each response will depend on the position of the recipient.

Once the letter of demand is issued, the recipient can:

  1. pay the money sought in the letter of demand in full;

 

  1. start a dialogue between the parties that could assist in reaching a settlement of the dispute; or

 

  1. not respond or dispute the claim.

 

Should you wish to pursue the matter further if there is no response and no payment received, you could:

  1. commence proceedings in a court or a tribunal; or

 

  1. prepare an adjudication application in accordance with the Security of Payment Act,

depending on your legal rights to do so.

If you require any assistance with any issues regarding debt recovery, or any other disputes which require a letter of demand, feel free to get in contact with Bradbury Legal on 02 9248 3450.

 

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

 

 

What’s in a name?: The Supreme Court Reviews ambiguity in SoPA Payment Claims

Those who are familiar with the Building and Construction Industry Security of Payment Act 1999 (‘the Act’) will likely be aware that the provisions it contains are quite strict, and can leave parties out in the cold when they fail to comply with what are seemingly administrative oversights.

However, the overarching purpose of the Act is ultimately to keep money flowing through the construction system, aimed at ensuring those who perform building and construction works, or supply goods and services to construction projects are able to be paid.

The Supreme Court of New South Wales, in the recent decision of decision Modog Pty Ltd v ZS Constructions (Queenscliff) Pty Ltd [2019] NSWSC 1743 reminded parties of this fact when asked to turn its mind to issues of ambiguity in payment claims and whether a party could be allowed to have an adjudication determination quashed on the basis of technicalities.

The Facts

The facts of the case were reasonably clear and did not form a substantial component of the dispute between the parties. In September 2016, Modog Pty Ltd (‘Modog’) entered into a design and construct head contract with Wyndora 36 Pty Ltd (‘Wyndora’) for the development of senior living apartments at a property located along Wyndora Avenue in Freshwater. Modog then entered a sub-contract with ZS Constructions (Queenscliff) Pty Limited (ZS Queenscliff) for the demolition of the existing structure and the construction of the new seniors living complex, including apartments, basement parking and associated site works (‘the Sub-Contract’).

In March 2018, the Sub-contract was varied to engage ZS Queenscliff to provide Construction Management and procurement services, for which ZS Queenscliff would receive a project manager’s allowance, a contract administrator’s allowance and payments for subcontractors and suppliers to be made at the end of each month.

ZS Queenscliff was part of a wider group of entities, which also included ZS Constructions (Australia) Pty Ltd (‘ZS Australia’) and Zaarour Investments Pty Ltd had been engaged as the project manager for the project. Mr Christopher Zaarour was employed by ZS Queenscliff, was the director of ZS Constructions Pty Ltd and was the primary contact with Modog for the duration of the project.

The further sub-contracts on the project were administered by ZS Queenscliff, however invoices from sub-contractors had historically been issued to a mixture of Modog, Wyndora and ZS Australia, as opposed to ZS Queenscliff. During the course of the project, ZS Queenscliff and Modog adopted a progress payments process in which Mr Zaarour would, on behalf of ZS Queenscliff, prepare and email a payment summary sheet listing all amounts due for procurement and management services, as well as materials acquired, and work completed by trade contractors.

On 29 August 2019, Modog issued a Show Cause Notice to ZS Queenscliff and terminated the Sub-contract on 13 September 2019.

The Payment Claim and Adjudication

On 11 September 2019, ZS Queenscliff served a payment claim on Modog which was comprised of seven emails, from Mr Zaarour using an email signature from Zaarour Sleiman and containing a reference to ZS Australia in fine print at the bottom of the email.

The emails attached supporting invoices from suppliers, and followed the process adopted in earlier progress payments, where sub-contractors and suppliers had addressed their invoices to a mixture of the entities involved with the project, and not to ZS Queenscliff, who were issuing the payment claim.

The payment claim served on Modog was, as highlighted by the Court, unclear in the following respects:

  • It did not specifically assert that it was a progress payment claim under the Act;
  • It did not specify the reference date or refer to the clause within the contract upon which the progress payment was based;
  • It failed to ask Modog to pay ZS Queenscliff;
  • It did not include a total for the sum claimed, only determinable by a thorough review of the claims

Modog, in turn responded to the payment claim with payment schedules which certified the amount payable in respect of the Claim was nil.

The matter proceeded to an adjudication, where, on 23 October 2019, the adjudicator found in favour of ZS Queenscliff in the sum of $89,111.89 (GST incl.).

Modog challenged the decision of the adjudicator before the Supreme Court of Sydney, seeking orders that the Adjudication Determination of be deemed void, that the determination be quashed, and ancillary relief.

The Disputed Issues

At the hearing, Modog challenged the decision of the adjudicator on 3 primary grounds:

  • Whether the 11 September 2019 emails constituted a payment claim within the meaning of s13(1) of the Act;
  • If the emails did constitute a payment claim, whether the claim was sent by ZS Queenscliff as a person who was entitled to seek a determination for the purposes of s17 of the Act; and
  • Whether the Adjudicator has committed a jurisdictional error by allowing multiple payment claims in respect of a single reference date?

The Arguments, Decision and Reasoning

Issue 1: Was there a Payment Claim:

The argument advanced by Modog was effectively, ZS Queenscliff had not submitted a valid payment claim as they did not specifically demand payment from Modog (i.e.: did not say, Modog must pay ZS Queenscliff the sum of $X.). Modog relied on the fact that the invoices provided in support of the payment claim, were addressed to various entities, not ZS Queenscliff, and that ZS Queenscliff could not establish they were actually entitled to the money claimed for.

Modog argued that ZS Queenscliff had indicated invoices would be sent at a later time, which Modog was to pay as directed and that, pursuant to the Court’s decision in Quickway Constructions Pty Ltd v Electrical Energy Pty Ltd, ZS Queenscliff had not served a payment claim pursuant to clause 13(1) of the Act.

The counter argument raised by ZS Queenscliff relied upon the case of Icon Co NSW Pty Ltd v Australia Avenue Developments Pty Ltd [2018] to support their position that Modog had simply misunderstood the payment claim, and that this could not be a basis for quashing the adjudicator’s decision. ZS Queenscliff argued the fact that the invoices were addressed to other parties did not invalidate the payment claim as they were simply disbursements to be paid to suppliers.

Ultimately, the Court favoured the position raised by ZS Queenscliff, noting there is nothing within the Act that requires a payment claim to state the total of the sum claimed. The Court stated and that even if the invoices in support of the payment did require Modog to direct payment elsewhere, as long as ZS Queenscliff had an entitlement to the sum under the contract, this did not invalidate the payment claim itself.

Issue 2: Was the Payment Claim Sent by ZS Queenscliff?

Modog then raised the issue that, as the 11 September 2019 email enclosing the payment claim was sent by Mr. Zaarour, using an email signature that did not belong to ZS Queenscliff, and the only legal entity named in the email was ZS Australia, the payment claim had not been served by the appropriate entity for the purposes of s17 of the Act.

The counter argument raised by ZS Queenscliff was that these errors were irrelevant in light of the fact that the previous correspondence between the parties had been exchanged in much the same way, including when detailing the terms of the caries contract agreements, and the point was not taken at the contract negotiation stage.

The Court ultimately agreed again with ZS Queenscliff, making the point that not was not actually disputed that ZS Queenscliff was entitled to make the payment claim and made the determination that the email payment claim had simply been sent by Mr Zaarrour in his capacity as the project manager, on behalf of ZS Queenscliff.

Issue 3: Was there an issue with multiple emails being used to comprise the payment claim?

Finally, Modog sought to raise the point that multiple invoices had been served on them in the emails from ZS Queenscliff and that it was not open for ZS Queenscliff to seek to have all invoices adjudicated.

Relying on the decision of the court in Rail Corporations of NSW v Nebax Constructions [2012] NSWSC6, this point ultimately failed as well, on the basis that, when viewed in the context of the previous conduct between the parties, and the nature of the invoices supplied, Modog had been more accurately provided with one payment claim, and a number of invoices in support of the claim.

What does this decision mean?

This decision serves as a timely reminder to parties that the Building and Construction Industry Security of Payment Act 1999 (‘the Act’) is intended to allow money to flow through to sub-contractors. Parties should be mindful of this purpose when considering whether to attempt to argue a payment claim on the basis of a minor technicality or ambiguity.

If you or someone you know wants more information or needs help or advice in relation to NSW’s security of payment legislation (or any other state’s or territory’s equivalent), please contact us on (02) 9248 3450 or email info@bradburylegal.com.au.

CHANGE HAS ARRIVED

Amendments to the Building and Construction Industry Security of Payment Act are finally in force

Late last month changes to the Building and Construction Industry Security of Payment Act 1999 (Act)’ (‘the Act’) came into effect under the Building and Construction Industry Security of Payment Amendment Act 2018 (‘the amendments’), passed in November 2018.
The overarching purpose of the amendments is to address issues of insolvency and late-payments within the industry. They aim to alleviate the impact of these issues on small businesses and subcontractors by promoting cash flow and greater transparency in the contracting chain.
Our regular readers may recall, we have been discussing these changes and their potential consequences over the course of the year, but here is a refresher now that the amendments are in force.

What do the changes mean again?
As of 21 October 2019 the amendments are effective and apply prospectively to all building and construction as contracts covered by the Act, entered into on or after this date.
The changes are extensive and place significant new responsibilities on parties within the NSW building and construction industry. In broad terms, the legislative changes cover the following points:

Investigation, Enforcement and Penalties

Officers of the Department of Finance Services and Innovation have been given a suite of new powers to investigate monitor and enforce compliance with the Act, including but not limited to powers of entry to premises to gather information.
Directors and managers may now be personally prosecuted in circumstances where a corporation has committed an offence, under new provisions introducing the concept of executive liability.
Tougher maximum penalties have been applied, particularly when supporting statements are not supplied.

Adjudication

Confirming previous decisions of the Court, the amendments confirm jurisdictional errors made by adjudicators are now reviewable by the Supreme Court, with the power to effectively ‘carve’ out the invalid sections of adjudicator’s decisions.
The amendments also provide parties with an option to withdraw their application for adjudication in circumstances where the adjudicator is not yet appointed. In circumstances where the adjudicator has been appointed, parties are still able to object to the adjudication application being determined.

Progress Claims and Progress Payments

The amendments have removed the concept of the reference date in making a progress claim, and the due date for payments to subcontractors has been reduced from 30 business days to 20 business days.
The amendments again require payment claims to state that they are in fact payment claims made under the Act.

Conclusion

The changes have far reaching consequences for parties operating within the building and construction industry. It is important for all parties operating within the industry to be aware of the changes and the way in which the amendments may affect their rights and obligations under building and construction contracts.
For an in-depth review of each amendment please see our detailed review on the changes here.
If you or someone you know wants more information or needs help or advice in relation to NSW’s security of payments legislation, please contact us( 02) 9248 3450 or email info@bradburylegal.com.au.

Changes coming in October 2019

As we have covered in a previous article (see here), 2019 is the year of change for NSW’s security of payment legislation. In November 2018, the NSW Government passed the Building and Construction Industry Security of Payment Amendment Act 2018, which introduces significant amendments to the Building and Construction Industry Security of Payment Act 1999 (Act).

In July 2019 it was confirmed that these amendments would commence on 21 October 2019 (rather than in stages as previously speculated) and apply to prospectively to construction contracts entered in into after that date.

A more in-depth explanation of the amendments can be found in our previous article but as a refresher the key amendments to the Act are:

  • Officers from the Department of Finance, Services and Innovation have new powers to investigate, monitor and enforce compliance with the Act;
  • The concept of executive liability has been introduced, exposing directors and management to prosecution if a corporation commits an offence under the Act;
  • Tougher maximum penalties apply, especially in regards to failing to provide a supporting statement;
  • Jurisdictional errors made by adjudicators are reviewable by the Supreme Court (this confirms previous decisions of the courts);
  • Companies in liquidation can no longer serve a payment claim or seek to enforce them;
  • The reference date concept has been removed;
  • Payment claims must again state that they are made under the Act;
  • The due date for payment to subcontractors has been reduced to 20 business days (from 30 business days);
  • Residential owner-occupier exemptions in the Act have been removed; and
  • The threshold for retention moneys that must be held in a trust account has been reduced to $10 million.

What this means for you

As can be seen from the above, these new amendments are significant and wide ranging.  Parties involved in the NSW construction industry have just over one month to consider how these amendments will effect their business and construction contracts before they commence on 21 October 2019.

If you or someone you know wants more information or needs help or advice in relation to NSW’s security of payment legislation, please contact us on +61 (02) 9248 3450 or email info@bradburylegal.com.au.

I Fought the Law and I Won: construction contracts under SOPA

The New South Wales Supreme Court has delivered a judgment on an issue vital to any construction project: what is a construction contract under the Security of Payment Act (SOP Act)?

The respondent in an adjudication convinced the judge not to follow previous judgments on this point, so it is important that those involved in building stay up to date with this issue.

As the decision was about the unique Security of Payment Act regime, it will not directly apply to situations outside of SOP Act claims.

The ruling targets situations in which there is some understanding between two parties that construction work is to be done in exchange for remuneration, but where there is no clear oral or written contract spelling out the terms.

These cases sit right at the borderline of what the law will enforce and will not enforce. We discuss the case, where it sits among other similar cases, and what we can learn from it.

Case facts

The dispute was between two groups:

  • Timecon Pty Ltd (Timecon) which was the claimant; and
  • The unincorporated joint venture between Lend Lease Engineering Pty Ltd and Bouygues Construction Australia Pty Ltd (LLBJV), which were the respondents.

LLBJV was the principal contractor for the NorthConnex Project, which was constructing two nine kilometre road tunnels linking the M1 to the M2. The project involved excavation and tunnelling, which produces waste known as Virgin Excavated Natural Material (VENM), or “spoil”.

Throughout the project, LLBJV stored 201,700 tonnes of spoil at a site in Somersby, NSW. The site was owned by a company that had the same sole director as Timecon.

Timecon claimed that it entered into a contract or arrangement with LLBJV, for LLBJV to store the waste generated at the NorthConnex project at the Somersby site. Timecon claimed that such an arrangement was for $4.00 per tonne of spoil.

LLBJV claimed that there was no “construction contract”, or else that it had deposited the spoil at the site pursuant to a contract with another party, Laison Earthmoving Pty Ltd (Laison). Laison had been managing the site at the time.

At first instance in adjudication, Timecon had won an adjudication determination in its favour to the tune of $887,532.80 (incl. GST).

In the NSW Supreme Court review of this determination, LLBJV’s main argument was that the adjudicator had no jurisdiction to hear the matter, as there was no “construction contract” between the parties.

Key issues

The key issue was the definition of “construction contract”. The issue is clear cut when there is a written document signed by both parties that are involved in the adjudication, with construction work or goods being the subject matter.

More complicated is the situation in which one party has given to another party some measure of assurance or indication (often only verbal) that it will pay for such goods or services. How do you draw the line between negotiation and a construction contract?

Under the SOP Act in NSW, a construction contract is defined as:

a contract or other arrangement under which one party undertakes to carry out construction work, or to supply related goods and services, for another party.” (emphasis added)

All States and Territories except Western Australia and Northern Territory use this or a very similar definition, so the decision has wide implications.

Ball J found that before any other SOP Act questions can be asked, every claimant must ask themselves: is the arrangement “a legally binding obligation by which the claimant is entitled to be paid by the respondent for the services the claimant undertakes to provide”? (emphasis added)

The key part here was that to be able to use the SOP Act, there had to be a “legally binding obligation” for the respondent to pay for the work.

This did not necessarily have to be a contract. Though there are not many other examples, one is estoppel which if proven prevents businesspeople from going back on their word, even where there is no actual contract.

For Ball J, the rationale was that if Security of Payment regime could be used even where there was no underlying legal obligation to pay, then in all cases the claimant would have to later return the sum awarded by the adjudicator. His Honour considered that this cannot have been the intention of the SOP Act. It would also be difficult for adjudicators to draw the line between what types of non-legally binding arrangements were to be enforced, and which ones were not.

Back to the case

It was up to Timecon to prove that a contract or other legally enforceable arrangement was in place.

LLBJV and Timecon had exchanged some contractual documents, including a document called “Heads of Agreement” and a draft agreement that was sent “for review”. Both had left the price section blank. Later, LLBJV had even sent an execution copy of an agreement, which Timecon had not signed and returned.

Timecon pointed to a meeting at the Somersby site between a few of the interested parties. During this meeting, the director of Timecon gave the LLBJV representative a Heads of Agreement with the rates left blank. Someone proposed trialling the tipping of 50,000 tonnes of spoil at $4 per tonne.

Unfortunately for Timecon, Ball J was not satisfied with the director of Timecon’s presentation as a witness, as he had failed to address important points in his written evidence and gave evasive answers in person. His version of the meeting was disbelieved.

Moreover, the conduct of the parties subsequent to this meeting was not consistent with there being a legally enforceable arrangement. The director of Timecon had later sent emails asking if LLBJV was still interested in tipping spoil to the site, there had been an unexplained time gap between when an unsigned contract was finalised and when the deliveries of spoil took place.

There was also an issue that Timecon should have known that LLBJV had engaged another party, Laison, to perform the work.

As a separate issue, the tipping of spoil at the site was not construction work. Nor was it supply of related services, as it was not integral to construction work at the NorthConnex project. It was also not a “good”, as it was not a component of the relevant building, structure or work, and was not used in connection with carrying out construction work.

The decision of the adjudicator was void. Timecon walked away with nothing.

Conflicting authority

Unfortunately, this issue of what is a “construction contract” is not done and dusted. We may not know definitively how courts treat this issue until a Court of Appeal rules on this question.

This is because there have been three previous judgments that went the opposite direction and found that an arrangement that is not legally enforceable can still be the subject of adjudication.

Ball J acknowledged these cases, but did not consider them to be “binding”. His Honour’s interpretation was that these cases in fact concerned arrangements that were legal obligations. To the extent that they spoke to hypothetical situations, they were persuasive but not binding.

Upshots

One thing is common to all of these cases. They address the difficult situation in which Party A has made assurances or indications of some description to Party B that it will be paid, but there is no contract. This situation is right at the borders of when the SOP Act can be used and when it cannot be used.

The conflict in authority will make it difficult to predict how cases in the near future will end up. However, regardless of how the law is ultimately decided, there are a number of things that developers and builders can learn from Timecon v Lendlease Engineering to avoid being in this grey area.

The first regret of Timecon will be assuming that contractual documents will be “sorted” down the line. It had a chance to sign and return the contractual documents but failed to do so. This was apparently because it still had to test the capacities of the site to take spoil. However, this non-response led LLBJV to look elsewhere and no contract was signed.

Timecon’s failure to seal the deal or at least keep negotiations going was largely why it did not get the result it wanted. Do not let the agreement or understanding lapse and make it binding as soon as possible.

Further, Timecon should have documented everything. Numerous times, Ball J preferred LLBJV’s version of events thanks to other evidence corroborating their account. In other cases, where claimants have written records of their meetings with respondents, or contemporaneous emails that are consistent with their story, they have been able to convince judges that representations had been made to them about payment.

Being scrupulous about these will ensure that builders and contractors avoid the expensive and difficult-to-predict process of litigation.

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.

Errors in Security of Payment: does one bad apple spoil the barrel?

The Security of Payment regime is infamously inflexible and technical, demanding that parties and their lawyers adhere rigidly to the rules and procedure set out by the Security of Payment Act (SOP Act). The neglect of seemingly small details has led to entire adjudications being voided for lack of jurisdiction or for denial of procedural fairness.

In Rhomberg Rail Australia Pty Ltd v Concrete Evidence Pty Limited [2019] NSWSC 755, the Supreme Court of NSW was asked at what point will clerical errors lead to a judgment being quashed for want of natural justice and procedural fairness.

This case lends itself to the position that a respondent cannot challenge an adjudicator’s determination for denial of natural justice unless the circumstance in question is substantial enough to effect to the outcome of the determination.

In exercising their discretion as to whether natural justice has been denied, the Court will apply an assessment of reasonableness. In deciding on any relief, the Court may also determine that part of the determination that is affected by error can be severed from the part that is not.

Facts

Rhomberg Rail Australia (Rhomberg) engaged Concrete Evidence (Concrete) under a subcontract to lay reinforced concrete for the track slab in connection with a light rail project in Newcastle. The Contract Sum for the works was $3,146,278.36 (excluding GST). During the term, Concrete lodged and adjudication application for $1,061,800.61 (the balance owing under the subcontract and in respect of 119 variations), in which Concrete referred to a register of variations as being enclosed under Tab 7 of the application.

By way of clerical error, Tab 7 was incomplete, such that every other page was missing, resulting in reference to some variations being omitted. However, Tab 8 housed supporting documents in respect of all variations in the register under Tab 7, including for those variations omitted by clerical error under Tab 7. The submissions in Concrete’s application referred to some variations omitted in Tab 7. Both Rhomberg and the Adjudicator received copies of the application with the same clerical error.

Rhomberg served its adjudication response and stated in its submissions that “given the Claimant’s withdrawal of all variations which do not appear in Tab 7, the Respondent has not addressed those variations in this Adjudication Response.”

The Adjudicator, in providing his determination, said “the Respondent considers that the variations not shown in tab 7 have been withdrawn by the Claimant. I do not agree. The adjudication application is to be read as a whole including the amounts included in the payment claim, those disputed in the payment schedule and the submissions made.”

Rhomberg disputed the determination on the grounds that the Adjudicator denied it procedural fairness because the Adjudicator dealt with variations without giving Rhomberg an opportunity to make submissions in relation to them.

Judgment

Ball J found that there was no substantive denial of procedural fairness in respect of the omitted variations.

His Honour determined that in order to ascertain whether Rhomberg had been denied procedural fairness, the assessment would fall to whether Rhomberg ought reasonably to have concluded that Tab 7 was incomplete and that the adjudicator might deal with all the claims set out in Tab 8.

At [20], Ball J stated:

“In my opinion, a person acting reasonably would at least have appreciated that there was an inconsistency between Tab 7 and Tab 8 and therefore appreciated that there was at least a risk that the Adjudicator would proceed with his adjudication by reference to Tab 8 rather than Tab 7. That conclusion is reinforced by the fact that some of [Concrete’s] submissions specifically included references to variations that were not referred to in the Tab 7 schedule. It follows that [Rhomberg] ought reasonably to have appreciated that the Adjudicator might deal with all the Tab 8 variations. That is what the Adjudicator did. Consequently, [Rhomberg] was not denied procedural fairness.” (emphasis added)

Further, His Honour reasoned that the evidence to which Rhomberg argued it had no knowledge of, were the very variations that had been the subject of previous claims and correspondence between the parties, which “must be understood as referring back to what had previously been said in relation to those variations.”

To the question of whether Concrete was entitled to recover in respect of those variations omitted under Tab 7, Ball J at [25] said, reserving Rhomberg’s rights on appeal:

[T]he adjudication determination should be set aside only to the extent that the Adjudicator determined that [Concrete] was entitled to recover in respect of variations on which [Rhomberg] was not invited to make submissions on and on which it could have made submissions consistently with s 20(2B) of the SOP Act.” (emphasis added)

His Honour found for Concrete, agreeing with their submissions, that Rhomberg was not denied procedural fairness because:

  1. it was evidenced that the Adjudicator might proceed to deal with the claims referred to in Tab 8;
  2. any denial of procedural fairness was not substantial as there were no further submissions of substance that Rhomberg could have made; and
  3. if there was a denial of procedural fairness, it did not affect the whole determination and Concrete should be entitled to recover the unaffected portion of its claim.

Commentary

The New South Wales Courts seem to be moving towards a more practicable position in their application of the SOP Act and in exercising their discretion on denial of natural justice considerations. Though other jurisdictions maintain a far stricter interpretation of the requirements of the SOP Act (see Niclin Constructions Pty Ltd v SHA Premier Constructions Pty Ltd & Anor [2019] QSC 91; Conveyor & General Engineering Pty Ltd v Basetec Services Pty Ltd and Anor [2014] QSC 30), the approach in New South Wales appears to prioritise the merits of a matter over strict statutory compliance.

There are two key takeaways from this decision:

  1. a denial of natural justice, of which a denial of procedural fairness is a species, may give rise to jurisdictional error on the part of an adjudicator to determine a payment claim under the SOP Act, in circumstances where a party could not reasonably have anticipated that either the adjudicator or the other party would rely upon the issue or principle concerned; and
  2. the generally accepted position in Fulton Hogan Construction Pty Ltd v Cockram Construction Ltd [2018] NSWSC 264, that the effect of a jurisdictional error will render a determination void, on the basis that a determination is a single determination of a single payment claim, is no longer the favored position in New South Wales. Following the position in the Court of Appeal in YTO Construction Pty Ltd v Innovative Civil Pty Ltd [2019] NSWCA 110, Ball J found that part of a determination affected by error can be severed from that part that is not so affected.

It would be an interesting exercise to consider what the Court’s position would have been had the clerical error only affected Rhomberg’s copy of the adjudication application and not the adjudicator’s (see section 17(5) SOP Act), and whether such a difference would amount to a denial of natural justice and lend itself to the same conclusions.

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.