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A tale of two Acts

Last week the NSW Parliament passed two significant pieces of legislation for the construction industry. The first, passed on Tuesday 3 June 2020, was the Design and Building Practitioners Bill 2019 (at the time of writing, awaiting assent). The second, passed on 4 June 2020, was the Residential Apartment Buildings (Compliance and Enforcement Powers) Bill 2020 (which will commence on 1 September 2020).

Design and Building Practitioners Act 2020 (the DBP Act)

The DBP Act sets up a legislative regime which regulates design practitioners who provide designs for certain types of building works.

The DBP Act introduces a number of new regulatory provisions in relation to:

  • obligations of design practitioners, principal design practitioners and building practitioners;
  • restrictions on carrying out of professional engineering work and specialist work;
  • introduction of a statutory duty of care in favour of owners corporations and associations; and
  • registration, disciplinary action, investigations and enforcement decisions in relation to design practitioners

Important definitions:

The Act introduces several new terms into the law in order to set up the regulatory framework. The most notable definitions are set out below:

Building element means:

  • fire safety systems for a building within the meaning of the Building Code of Australia;
  • waterproofing;
  • an internal or external load-bearing component of a building that is essential to the stability of the building or a part of it;
  • a component of a building that is part of the building enclosure;
  • those aspects of the mechanical, plumbing and electrical services for a building that are required to achieve compliance with the Building Code of Australia;
  • other things prescribed by the regulations.

Design compliance declaration means a declaration as to whether or not:

  • a regulated design prepared for building work complies with the requirements of the Building Code of Australia;
  • the design complies with other applicable requirements prescribed by the regulations;
  • other standards, codes or requirements have been applied in preparing the design.

Essentially, the design compliance declaration confirms that the design practitioner has complied their obligations at law and under contract.

Regulated designs means:

  • a design that is prepared for a building element for building work;
  • a design that is prepared for a performance solution for building work (including a building element); or
  • any other design of a class prescribed by the regulations that is prepared for building work.

Being an incredibly broad definition means that anyone that provides design services, such as engineers, architects and other design consultants, will likely be covered by the DBP Act and therefore subject to its requirements.

Compliance declarations

The DBP Act requires a registered design practitioner and principal design practitioners to provide a compliance declaration to a person if:

  • the practitioner provides the person with a regulated design prepared by the practitioner; and
  • the design is in a form suitable for use by that person or another person in connection with building work.

Failure to comply with the compliance declaration provisions by registered design practitioners can result in fines of up to $165,000 for corporations and $55,000 for other persons. However, if a person makes a design compliance declaration that the person knows to be false or misleading, they could face a fine of up to $220,000, two years imprisonment, or both.

Duty of Care

The DBP Act imposes a duty of care on persons who carry out construction work to exercise reasonable care to avoid economic loss caused by defects:

  • in or related to a building for which the work is done; and
  • arising from the construction work.

The legislation states that this duty of care is owed to each owner of the land that the construction work is carried out. The duty of care also owed to all subsequent owners of the land.

The consequence of this provision is that builders and developers may end up having a duty of care in respect of defects for up to 6 years from the date that the loss was suffered. Builders will also want to consider these potential liabilities in conjunction with the 10 year limitation period for defective building work under the Environmental Protection and Assessment Act. The 10 year period for defective building work commences from the date of completion.

Other things to note with the statutory duty of care:

  • it cannot be delegated;
  • it cannot be contracted out of;
  • it operates in addition to the statutory warranties in the Home Building Act.

Practical considerations:

  • Like the Environmental Protection and Assessment Act, the DBP Act relies on the Regulations to give form and substance to many of the operative provisions of the DBP Act. At the time of writing, the Regulations for the DBP Act were not available for review.
  • Design professionals and head contractors will need to update their insurances to ensure they are compliant with the new provisions and duties of design professionals.
  • Builders and others that engage in construction work will now have a much greater duty of care to the land owners.

Residential Apartment Buildings (Compliance and Enforcement Powers) Act 2020 (the RAB Act)

The RAB Act is more restricted in its application, applying only to residential apartment buildings. The purpose of this legislation is to prevent developers from carrying out building work that might result in serious defects to building work or result in significant harm or loss to the public, current occupiers and future occupiers of the building.

Notification for intended completion

From 1 September 2020, developers will be required to provide the Secretary of the Department of Customer Service a notification that they expect completion to occur and an occupation certificate issued within 6 – 12 months from the application. The Secretary is given the ability to make orders prohibiting the issue of an occupation certificate in relation to residential apartment buildings and may prevent the registration of a strata plan for a strata scheme in certain circumstances.

Investigations

The RAB Act authorises the following people to carry out investigations:

  • Building Commission;
  • an employee of the Department of Customer Service;
  • investigators under the Fair Trading Act 1979;
  • a council investigation officer under the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979; and
  • a person set out in the regulations of the RAB Act.

These authorised officers are given various information gathering powers including being able to request information or records from persons where it is connected with an authorised purpose. Further, an authorised officer is able to enter premises without the need for a search warrant and will be able to undertake actions including:

  • examine and inspect any thing;
  • take and remove samples of a thing;
  • take photographs or other recordings that the authorised officer considers necessary;
  • copy of any records; and
  • seize a thing that the authorised officer has reasonable grounds for believing is connected with an offence against the RAB Act or its regulations or a serious defect in a building.

These powers are extensive and serious. Builders and developers should be seek legal advice. The Secretary for Customer Service is also empowered to issue stop work orders and rectification orders. Failure to comply with these orders may result the Secretary taking any action necessary or convenient to ensure the order is complied with. The cost of these actions are then able to be recovered by the Secretary.

Practical considerations:

  • Developers are required to give at least 6 months’ notice (but no more than 12 months) before an application is made for an occupation certificate.
  • Developers and builders should seek legal advice as to their rights in respect of the RAB Act. The powers of the authorised officers are extensive and the consequences for breach are serious.

Summary

The DBP Act and the RAB Act represent a major regulatory change from the NSW Parliament which will have serious consequences for building professionals. While these legislative reforms are aimed at promoting confidence in the building industry in light of developments such as Mascot Towers and Opal Tower, they radically shift the current status quo for building professionals. Those who carry out building work, from consultants and designers to builders and developers should seek specific legal advice as to where they stand in respect to these new legislative regimes.

Builders licensing requirements – who is a “fit and proper person”?

Entry into various professions usually requires that a person be ‘fit and proper’, and that they be granted and continue to hold a licence or registration relevant to that profession.

An authority charged with the administration of a registration scheme or licensing scheme must be satisfied that an applicant is ‘fit and proper’ before granting the licence or registration.

Entering the building profession

The relevant certification authority will depend on the location of the builder’s work. Some examples are:

  • NSW Fair Trading, for licensing of builders and tradespersons in New South Wales;
  • Victorian Building Authority, for registration and licensing requirements for building and plumbing practitioners in Victoria; and
  • Queensland Building and Construction Commission, for  licensing in Queensland.

Although each jurisdiction has its own specific requirements, usually applicants must demonstrate that they firstly have the necessary qualifications, skills, knowledge and experience applicable for the registration or licence sought, and secondly that they satisfy certain probity conditions.

The requirement to be a fit and proper person not only applies to new applicants. It also extends to those wishing to maintain and renew their registration or licence.

How does an authority determine if an applicant is ‘fit and proper’?

The term ‘fit and proper’ is rarely defined in legislation. Rather, there are criteria and certain matters that an authority will consider, many of which relate to a person’s honesty, good character and integrity in commercial and other dealings. It is related to, but not the same as, being a person of good character.

In addition to providing evidence of relevant insurances, qualifications and experience, applicants are requested to disclose details of certain adverse or relevant matters. These are matters that may indicate that he or she is not a fit and proper to practise as a building practitioner. The disclosure of an adverse or relevant matter may trigger a request for further information or investigation.

Details of prescribed offences, convictions, licence or registration suspensions or disqualifications, and court or tribunal orders are amongst those matters investigated by an authority, as is the solvency of an individual or corporate entity.

Also relevant will be any examples of dishonesty or carelessness by the builder when dealing with the regulatory body itself. Even where there is no actual intention to deceive the authorities, failure to declare relevant information can lead to the regulatory body refusing the application. The authorities take a very dim view of builders who do not understand the regulatory regime and the importance of accuracy when dealing with it.

A failure to deal promptly with, or take seriously, customer complaints can also be relevant.

The fit and proper person requirement applies to individuals as well as directors of company entities seeking registration or licensing.

What is a relevant or adverse matter?

The following are common matters that must be disclosed, and will be considered, by an authority when determining if a person is fit and proper to enter (and remain in) the building profession:

  • the applicant’s criminal history and whether he or she has been convicted of an offence that involves fraud or dishonesty;
  • whether the applicant has had a licence or registration cancelled or suspended;
  • whether the applicant has been disqualified from managing a corporation;
  • whether the applicant is or has previously been bankrupt;
  • whether the applicant is or has previously been involved in the control of a corporate entity under administration or liquidation;
  • any previous breaches of the consumer law or contraventions of relevant building legislation and regulations;
  • the failure to disclose an adverse matter or the making of false or misleading representations in an application, which subsequently becomes known to the authority;
  • whether any court or tribunal orders have been made against the applicant;
  • whether the applicant has had an unreasonable number of complaints, penalty notices or cautions issued against him or her;
  • any disciplinary or legal action previously taken against the applicant by a regulatory body, authority or person; and
  • whether the applicant has previously been refused relevant insurance as a building practitioner.

Disclosure of an adverse or relevant matter does not necessarily mean that registration or licensing will not be granted. The authority will consider all matters, in all circumstances, and whether they establish a pattern of conduct that might deem the applicant does not have the appropriate standards to be considered a fit and proper person. The authority may also consider how recently the conduct took place as well as any relevant or mitigating circumstances. Further, it will assess whether the matters show that improper conduct in the future is likely.

The importance of disclosure – case study

It is important to disclose all information concerning a relevant or adverse matter when seeking registration with a building authority. Failing to do so can seriously jeopardise the application. Such was the case in Taouk v Director General, NSW Fair Trading [2016] NSWCATOD 41.

In this case the applicant was refused a contractor’s licence by NSW Fair Trading on the grounds that he did not meet the relevant industry experience required for the licence sought, and that he was not a ‘fit and proper person’ as required by the relevant legislation.

The applicant sought review by the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal.

There were various irregularities and omissions of relevant matters in the application, including a failure to disclose the applicant’s previous directorship of a liquidated company.

While satisfied that the applicant had ‘probably’ met the requirement of relevant experience for the licence sought, and that there was insufficient evidence showing that he was deceptive, the Tribunal nevertheless considered he was:

…careless in his response to the application form questions that related to previous business difficulties and in regard to the accuracy of the information that he provided…

[The] discrepancies and irregularities and the applicant’s failure to declare his directorship of [the liquidated company] are consistent with the approach that he took in regard to his application. It is apparent from his evidence that he held the view that in order to obtain the licence he just needed to establish that he had two years’ building experience and that any other considerations were secondary … They show a cavalier attitude to the regulatory regime.

The Tribunal pointed out the consumer protection purpose of the legislation, stating that being fit and proper “involves more than honesty and integrity, it involves knowledge and ability.”

The issues raised regarding the applicant’s honesty and his attitude to the regulatory requirements of the scheme led the Tribunal to believe that he did not demonstrate such knowledge and ability. The Tribunal confirmed that the licence should not be granted until such time as the applicant could satisfy the authority otherwise.

Conclusion

In addition to holding the relevant qualifications and experience, an applicant must be a fit and proper person to be granted registration or a licence in the building industry.

When seeking or renewing registration, applicants must ensure they provide full disclosure of any relevant or adverse matters, have a sound understanding of the regulations, and demonstrate the ability to properly deal with a regulator. Honesty and accuracy when dealing with the regulator are essential.

Applicants who are refused registration and licensing, or have their registration or a licence suspended or cancelled, for failure to meet the fit and proper person test may have a right to an internal review or appeal through the Tribunal of their state.

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.