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Is the arbitration agreement “not applicable”?

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

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

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

Facts

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

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

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

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

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

Clause 42.3 then went on to provide:

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

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

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

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

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

Decision

Lyons J determined:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take Home Tip

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

ADR Processes

 

ADR Processes: What are they and how do they work?

 

In many construction contracts, it is common to have a clause that deals with the process the parties will go through if a dispute arises. These clauses attempt to provide an alternative dispute resolution (ADR) process to litigating over every dispute that arises. While there are some disputes that are suited to being litigated (such as where a specific legal remedy is needed, the subject matter involves the legal rights of the parties or the issues are legally complex), many can be resolved through an ADR processes. ADR processes, if effective, can reduce the time and cost of disputes for parties.

 

This article discusses the different types of ADR processes and Part II will address some of the common pitfalls of ADR clauses that render these clauses unenforceable.

 

Types of ADR processes:

 

When it comes to construction disputes, there are several standard types of ADR processes. These include:

 

  • Negotiations between senior executives or authorised representatives;
  • Mediation;
  • Arbitration; and
  • Expert determination and appraisal.

 

Negotiations

 

Negotiation between senior executives is the most simple and informal dispute resolution process. The senior executives or authorised representatives meet and discuss the dispute that has arisen. Using their best endeavours, the authorised representatives can talk about how the dispute may be resolved and attempt and find any potential compromises. While the discussions may not necessarily resolve the dispute, it gives the parties a chance to hear the other side and understand the issues faced by the other party. This can help narrow the issues that are in dispute between the parties, saving significant time and money if the dispute escalates to litigation.

 

Mediation

 

The next step in the ADR ladder is mediation. Mediation is slightly more formal than negotiations between the parties’ authorised or senior representatives. This is because mediation involves appointing a third party (the mediator) to meet with the parties and work to resolve the dispute. The mediator will discuss the positions and interests of each party and try to find common ground on which the parties can agree and tries to help facilitate a resolution of the dispute.

 

One of the biggest benefits of mediation is the fact that it is so flexible in the resolutions that can be generated in response to a dispute. For instance, parties can find creative or unorthodox solutions to their problems which would not be available if the dispute were to be litigated. At mediation, the parties have the control over the resolution of the dispute and can work together to create a solution that is potentially more appropriate than a court order.

Arbitration

 

Arbitration is a common dispute resolution process in the building industry. Between commercial parties, arbitration can be an effective alternative to court because it operates much like a Court. The Commercial Arbitration Act 2010 (NSW) sets out the various matters relating to domestic commercial arbitrations including the arbitrator’s powers and the appeal process. The decisions of arbitrators are binding and the resulting awards can be enforced by the Courts.

 

Arbitrations can sometimes be as expensive and time consuming as litigation. This is because of several factors such as the cost of hiring an arbitrator and decisions are often appealed. However, some of the benefits of choosing arbitration include that it can be confidential and allows the parties to have more control over the rules and procedures that resolve the dispute. Subject to any overriding arbitration legislation or rules, the parties can essentially decide how they want the determination to run, how many arbitrators they want involved or any grounds of appeal.

 

Expert Determination

 

Another ADR process discussed in this article is expert determination. Expert determination can be binding, or non-binding (dependent on the rules of the particular expert agreement or contract that sends the parties in dispute into that forum). Unlike arbitration, there is no statutory framework for expert determination or appraisal. Therefore, it is the contract that will guide the expert and their decision. Using an expert to make a final and binding decision is useful, as the majority (if not all) building disputes will rely on expert evidence to determine issues such as program, defects or rectification costs.

 

Using non-binding expert determination can prevent or reduce the need for a court to consider these technical issues and can simplify the litigation process. A potential drawback for expert determination is that it can be very difficult to challenge. Provided the expert has understood the scope of their obligations and the issues they need to review, it often will not matter if the expert made a mistake, a gross over or under valuing or if irrelevant considerations were considered. As stated by the NSW Supreme Court in TX Australia Pty Limited v Broadcast Australia Pty Limited [2012], the fundamental question is whether the exercise performed by the expert in fact satisfies the terms of the contract.

 

It is not uncommon for a dispute resolution clause to have multiple different ADR processes available to the parties. For example, parties may be required to enter negotiations with each other and then must proceed to mediation or arbitration. Therefore, it is important to understand the aspects of each different ADR process so that you can choose the one most appropriate for your business. Each ADR process has its benefits and its drawbacks and will be more effective for certain types of disputes. In the Part II of this article, we will look at dome of the common pitfalls of ADR clauses. Particularly, how you ensure that the clause is enforceable, the key aspects of the ADR clause, and what are the common issues that arise when negotiating an ADR clause.