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Attention residential builders in NSW – big changes ahead from 1 March 2021 you will be able to use the Building and Construction Industry Security of Payment Act to recover money owed by homeowners

On 1 September 2020, the NSW Government released the Building and Construction Industry Security of Payment Regulation 2020 (2020 Regulation) which radically changes the way residential builders and homeowners resolve disputes in relation to outstanding progress claims after 1 March 2021.

Currently, section 7(5) of the Building and Construction Industry Security of Payment Act 1999 (NSW) (the Act) and section 4(1) of the Act provide that the Act does not apply to owner occupier construction contracts, that is, contracts where the homeowners intend to live in the premises.  In these instances, residential builders cannot use the Act to recover outstanding progress claims due from homeowners.

This will all change on 1 March 2021 when the 2020 Regulation commences which will remove owner occupier construction contracts as a prescribed class to which the Act does not apply.

This means come 1 March 2021, residential builders will have a statutory right to payment and be able to serve payment claims on homeowners under the Act and apply for adjudication in relation to any outstanding progress claims.

This is a big game changer for residential builders as it will improve cash flow and mean that residential builders will be able to claim outstanding progress claims from homeowners without having to get involved in expensive and lengthy Tribunal and Court proceedings in order to get paid.

Whilst homeowners will still be entitled to bring a building claim in the Tribunal or Court for defective work and the like, such a claim will not defeat or delay residential builder’s entitlements under the Act.  This means that homeowners will be required to pay any amount awarded pursuant to an Adjudication Determination prior to the determination of any Tribunal or Court proceedings which will (in most cases) reduce in the issues in dispute in any Tribunal or Court proceedings.

What residential builders need to know now

The NSW Government has given residential builders and homeowners a transition period to adjust to these major reforms.  We suggest during this period residential builders should familiarise themselves with the Act and their contracts in relation to:

  • the requirements of valid payment claims including serving supporting statements with all payment claims where builders contract directly with homeowners;
  • the dates from and methods of service of valid payment claims;
  • identification of a valid payment schedules by homeowners;
  • review of your standard contracts to ensure that they comply with the minimum contracting requirements and minimum variation requirements under the Home Building Act 1989 NSW (HBA), as this may effect how an adjudicator assesses amounts payable under the contract so your paperwork has to be in order;
  • review your practices and procedures to ensure that you have the necessary resources to utilise the adjudication process and respond within the strict time frames. The benefit of this is that it will reduce the time and cost (in most cases) of litigation as an Adjudication Determination will usually be received within 21 days of lodging the Adjudication Application; and
  • get legal advice to set yourself up so you can utilise the Act and put yourself in the best position to get paid.

Suspension of relief: take out notices, jurisdictional error and Security of Payment Act

In Parrwood Pty Ltd v Trinity Constructions (Aust) Pty Ltd, the Court confirmed that, for the purposes of the Building and Construction Industry Security of Payment Act 1999 (NSW) (SOPA), taking the work out of the hands of a contractor will not remove reference dates accrued before the take out notice is served, even if they are not actually used until after the take out notice is issued.

Although the facts were unusual and complicated, in the unique world of the SOPA they are not unheard of. This note is useful for parties considering whether:

  1. to issue a take out notice instead of a termination notice (particularly for NSW construction contracts entered into before 21 October 2019); or
  2. to withdraw an adjudication application in the event of jurisdictional error by an adjudicator on the first determination, to re-lodge before a new adjudicator.

The facts

The contractor was working under the principal in a residential building project. The contractor accrued reference dates on the 25th day of each month. The contract contained an AS standard clause where the contractor fails to show reasonable cause for its default:

“the Principal may by written notice to the Contractor:

(a) take out of the Contractor’s hands the whole or part of the work remaining to be completed and suspend payment until it becomes due and payable pursuant to subclause 39.6; or

(b) terminate the Contract.”

The parties fell into dispute and the principal asked the contractor to show cause.

Then:

  • on 25 August 2019, the monthly reference date for a SOPA claim came about;
  • on 3 September 2019, the principal issued a notice that took out of the contractor’s hands all of the work remaining to be completed, instead of terminating the contract; and
  • on 6 September 2019, the contractor issued a payment claim in the amount of $2,023,645.76. This payment claim was said to use the 25 August 2019 reference date.

In response, the principal scheduled “$Nil”.

The contractor applied for adjudication under the SOPA. The adjudicator declined to determine an amount that the contractor was owed (if any), finding the payment claim was invalid.

After it received the first adjudicator’s decision, the contractor “withdrew” its application, and made a second adjudication application. The contractor argued that the first adjudicator had failed to exercise his statutory function in declining to determine the amount owing. The second adjudicator considered the application and awarded over $400,000 to the contractor. The principal applied to the Supreme Court to set aside the second adjudication determination.

There were two broad issues that the Court was required to consider.

Suspension and payment claims

The first issue was what effect the take out notice had on the ability to issue payment claims.

The Court found that even though the payment claim was served after a take out notice, it was saved by the fact that it was served for a reference date occurring before the take out notice was made.

The outcome would have been different if the take out notice was served before the reference date. In this case, the contractor’s rights are suspended by the take out notice, and it cannot make a payment claim under the fast-track SOPA. It can, however, still make a claim under general law.

A take out notice cannot extinguish a right to make a payment claim that already exists.

Second Adjudication

Jurisdictional error

The second issue concerned the unusual circumstances in which a claimant may effectively redo its application.

The Court found that the first adjudicator had not made a ruling that, for example, the contractor was entitled to “$Nil”. Rather, the adjudicator had decided that, no matter what he thought about the facts, he could not determine any adjudicated amount (“I must decline therefore from determining …”).

The first adjudicator had failed to determine the amount of the progress payment (if any) to be paid, as required under section 22(1) of the SOPA. Therefore, the first purported determination was void.

Making a second application

Section 26(3) of the SOPA allows for a claimant to withdraw an application and make a new adjudication application, if the adjudicator accepts the application but then “fails to determine the application within the time allowed”. The claimant must withdraw and make the new application within five business days after it is entitled to withdraw the previous adjudication application.

This may occur where the adjudicator has made a jurisdictional error in failing to determine the application.

If the original decision is decided by a court to be valid (because there was no jurisdictional error), then the second application is wasted. However, if the original decision is declared void, then the second application may still be valid.

Conclusion

It pays to be aware of when reference dates arise, and when take out notices can and should be served. Principals concerned to issue effective take out notices should be mindful of existing reference dates which have or may accrue before that notice.

Claimants should be keenly aware of the existence of any jurisdictional error on the part of adjudicators. Such error may allow them to re-lodge an adjudication application.