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A Downer of a decision: The importance of articulating adjudication submissions

In Diona Pty Ltd v Downer EDI Works Pty Ltd [2020] NSWSC 480 (Diona), the Supreme Court considered an application to set aside an Adjudicator’s Determination for failure to consider the terms of the contract as required by s 22(2)(b) of the Building and Construction Industry Security of Payment Act 1999 (the SOP Act).

Key takeaway:

  • It is important to ensure that adjudication submissions clearly articulate all relevant arguments and contractual provisions. Unclear, poorly framed or ambiguous submissions can be costly.
  • An adjudicator’s decision will not be declared void simply because it contains what one party considers to be an error or failure by the adjudicator to expressly address all arguments made in parties’ submissions.
  • Lawyers can be useful to assist in preparing an adjudication application and response. Having prepared and responded to numerous security of payment claims, the lawyers at Bradbury Legal are experts at ensuring your arguments are clearly articulated.

 

Background

Diona Pty Ltd (Diona) entered into a subcontract with Downer EDI Works Pty Ltd (Downer), for Downer to provide works in relation to safety upgrades on the Great Western Highway, Blackheath. Downer proceeded to adjudication on a payment claim under the SOP Act. On 16 April 2020, the relevant Adjudicator determined that Downer was entitled to a progress payment of $430,990.13 (Determination).

Diona made an application to the Supreme Court, seeking a declaration that the Determination was void and an injunction preventing Downer from requesting an adjudication certificate or filing the adjudication certificate as a judgment debt. Diona contended that the Adjudicator had incorrectly awarded a set off claim by Downer, in response to Diona’s liquidated damages claim, in the amount of $30,000 on account of two extension of time claims (EOT Claims).

Diona argued that the Adjudicator had not fulfilled the requirements of s 22(2)(b) of the SOP Act because the Adjudicator had failed to give any reference to, or consideration of, Diona’s contention in its adjudication response submissions that Downer was not entitled to these extensions of time, due to the operation of a time bar in the contract.

 

Did the Adjudicator consider the time bars?

The central question was whether the Adjudicator considered the provisions of the contract. Under section 22(2)(b) SOP Act, an adjudicator must consider the provisions of the construction contract.

To determine if the Adjudicator did consider the contractual provisions, especially those containing the time bar, the Court looked at the submissions made by both parties and the Adjudicator’s determination.

The Court noted that Downer had ‘devoted a number of pages to its contentions concerning extension of time and, in particular, its asserted entitlement to EOT 18 and EOT 21’. This was contrasted with Diona’s submissions, the Court found did not properly engage with Downer’s EOT Claims. Diona’s submissions stated:

Determinations of claims for…extension of time…by Diona are final and cannot be disturbed except by raising a Claim under the Contract, see relevant clauses of the Subcontract.’

The Court highlighted a part of the Adjudicator’s reasons which stated:

The Act at section 22(2)(b) requires the adjudicator to consider the provisions of the construction contract when making the determination

Having regard to the Adjudicator’s express reference to s 22(2)(b) of the SOP Act, the Court stated that there were several reasons why the Adjudicator did not refer to the dispute clause in the Determination. Firstly, the Adjudicator may have felt that Diona did not properly articulate and develop the time bar argument. Alternatively, the Adjudicator may have misunderstood the submissions. The Court concluded that:

The Adjudicator may have come to the wrong decision about Dower’s entitlement to EOT 18 and EOT 21. But that, without more, is not a basis to set aside the set aside the determination.

The argument that Diona sought to raise, while potentially valid, was not properly articulated. Therefore, it could not be inferred that the Adjudicator had failed to consider the provisions of the subcontract as required by s 22(2)(b) of the SOP Act.

 

So what?

The significance of this case is that it shows that what appear to be errors or failures to consider an argument by an adjudicator will not always result in a basis to set aside the adjudicator’s determination. The adjudicator’s decision can be rough and ready, provided the adjudicator makes their decision in accordance with the SOP Act. Payments made under SOP Act are on account only and may be determined on a final basis at a later stage.

 

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.

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.

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

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.