Case: Uber Builders and Developers Pty Ltd v MIFA Pty Ltd  VSC 596
One feature of construction contracts which is distinctive and unique from other types of contracts is the provision of security from the contractor to the principal. Commonly, security takes the form of retention monies or bank guarantees. The consequences of having recourse to bank guarantees can be serious for the party providing the security (the security provider). In September 2020, the Supreme Court of Victoria handed down a decision in relation to bank guarantees. The decision Uber Builders and Developers Pty Ltd v MIFA Pty Ltd  VSC 596 (Uber), sets out a helpful summary of the principles in respect of bank guarantees, interlocutory hearings and recourse to bank guarantees.
Uber Builders and Developers (Uber) sought an injunction preventing MIFA from calling on its bank guarantees. MIFA asserted that it was entitled to have recourse to the bank guarantee as the Superintendent had certified amounts as payable by Uber in respect of rectification costs for defective and incomplete work, liquidated damages, credit allowances and purported variations. As a result of non-payment by Uber of these amounts, MIFA sought to have recourse to the bank guarantees to recover the amounts certified against Uber. To prevent MIFA from having recourse to the bank guarantee, Uber sought interlocutory relief (lawyer jargon for an interim/immediate court order) that MIFA was not allowed to have recourse to the bank guarantee.
Nichols J summarised the governing principles in respect of where interlocutory relief is sought to restrain the calling of a performance bond/bank guarantee that has been given under a contract. There principles are:
- The applicant for interlocutory relief must show there is a serious question to be tried. The applicant, in this case Uber, must show that there is sufficient reason to think that the applicant would be successful if the matter were to progress to a final hearing;
- The applicant must show that the ‘balance of convenience’ favours the granting of the injunction. This means that the court should take whichever course appears to carry the lowest risk of injustice should it be wrong in either granting pr not granting the injunction;
- The court must consider whether damages would be an inadequate remedy. This means that the court has to consider whether the applicant would suffer irreparable injury for which monetary compensation would not be an adequate option; and
- These questions and factors to consider must be considered together and not as isolated issues.
In the context of setting out these guiding principles, Nichols J set out some drafting considerations for security clauses in construction contracts. These are summarised below:
- Purpose: Bank guarantee or performance bonds may be stipulated for two reasons.
- The first is to provide security against the risk that the security holder will not recover a sum owing by the defaulting party. In this way, the security acts as a means of ensuring the principal or security holder can recover some money if an amount is payable to the principal/security holder.
- The second is to allocate risk as to who will be out of pocket while a resolution of a dispute is pending. If the security is to allocate risk, then the party holding the security may have recourse, even if it turns out that the other party was not actually in default.
- Conditions of Recourse: If the purpose of the security is to act as an interim allocation of risk, then it is important to consider in what circumstances the principal/security holder will be entitled to have recourse to the security. The parties may agree to allow the security holder to have recourse to the security pending a final determination, but this right should be limited to certain circumstances. For instance, the parties may agree that recourse to the security can only occur if notice is given and/or where the dispute relates to damage caused by the security provider to the works/the project and/or adjoining properties.
- Conditions imposed by the Courts: Where there are no contractual conditions under the contract, the Courts will prevent a party from calling on security where the security holder acts fraudulently or unconscionably in calling on the security.
- Interim Risk Allocation: If the security is intended to be an interim risk allocation tool, the security holder will be entitled to have recourse to the security even if it turns out that the other party was not in default, notwithstanding the existence of a genuine dispute and a serious issue to be tried as to underlying entitlements.
So far, this article has discussed a lot about ‘interim risk allocation’ but what does this actually mean and when is it relevant? Throughout the projects, various issues (such as the valuation of variations and defective work) may arise and payments are generally made on account only. At the end of the contract, the Superintendent will generally issue the final certificate. The final certificate will determine if there has been any over or underpayment by the principal to the contractor, whether there are any liquidated damages, and any other interim issue (such as the valuation of defective work and variations). If a party does not agree with payments to be made under the final certificate, they are generally able to issue a notice of dispute under the contractual provisions or can commence proceedings in relation to the contract. In these circumstances, the interim risk is the amount certified under the final certificate and a final determination of the issue made pursuant to a Court or the dispute resolution process set out in the contract. As the dispute resolution process (whether it be Court, expert determination, arbitration, or another dispute resolution forum under the contract) can take substantial time to finally determine the issues, if the security is an interim risk allocation tool, the principal will be able to have recourse to the security until the matter is finally determined. If it turns out the final certificate was incorrect, this will not prevent the principal from having recourse to security. It will mean that the decision maker will generally order for the principal to make payment of however much they have been overpaid so that the parties’ entitlements are finalised and concluded.
Bringing it back to the case study, Uber, the Superintendent certified that an amount was payable by the contractor to the principal. The contractor disputed the amount that was payable and did not make payment as and when required by the final certificate. As a result, the principal was entitled to have recourse to the security once it had complied with the conditions of recourse under the contract. As these conditions were predominantly notice requirements, the principal was not prevented from having recourse to the security. If Uber had made payment of the final certificate amount and issued the notice of demand, it is arguable that MIFA would not have been able to have recourse to the security. This is because MIFA would not be able to claim that the amount in the final certificate remained unpaid. As a result, contractors are put in the difficult position of paying a disputed amount or the principal may have recourse to the security.
Intention of the Security
Parties need to be clear about the intentions behind providing security. This can be achieved by drafting the purpose of the security into the security clause of the contract. If there is an intention for the security to be an interim risk allocation tool, it will be much easier for the security holder/principal to have recourse to the security. If the security is only to protect against the failure to pay a sum owing by a party, then the security holder will be able to have recourse to the security if the amount is not paid as and when required under the contract.
Conditions of Recourse
Conditions of recourse essentially mean the security holder promises that they will not have recourse to the security unless those conditions are met. If the parties agree on the circumstances where the security holder can or cannot have recourse to the security, this will bind the security holder irrespective of the terms of the bank guarantee. Typical conditions include where the principal is entitled to payment under the contract.
If the security provider seeks to prevent the security holder from having recourse to the security, the security holder (generally the principal) will be required to show that it has met and/or followed the contractual process.
It is important to note that some jurisdictions, such as Queensland, may impose restrictions on when a party can have recourse to security. For example, under the Queensland Building and Construction Commission Act 1991 (QLD) section 67J(1)-(2), a principal may use a security or retention amount only if they have given 28 days’ notice in writing to the contractor advising of the proposed use and the amount owed. In these jurisdictions, the additional conditions will be imposed in addition to with the conditions of recourse under the contract.
Interim amounts owed
The crux of the purpose of security comes to a head in circumstances where a party disputes the amount owed. For instance, when the Superintended issues that final certificate (as was the case in Uber). If the security clause is drafted to allow for the security to be an interim risk allocation tool, the principal will be entitled to have recourse to the security. This will mean that contractor holds the risk of being out of pocket until the matter is finally determined.
If you are a developer, a contractor or a subcontractor and you or someone you know needs advice in respect of whether it is possible to have recourse to security, please get in touch with the staff at Bradbury Legal. Alternatively, if you are in the process of drafting and negotiating a contract, including the clauses relating to security, Bradbury Legal is able to assist and help you know exactly what you are signing up to.