Posts

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.

Subcontractor Supporting Statements in the SoPA

It is commonly understood by participants within the building and construction industry that payment claims made by a head contractor under the Building and Construction Industry Security of Payment Act 1999 (NSW) (SoPA), are to be served with a supporting statement in respect of subcontractors.

The purpose of imposing this obligation on head contractors is clear and simple: to ensure payment of subcontractors is a priority. Ideally, the inherent insolvency risks will be passed ‘up the chain’ to head contractors and ultimately, to the developers who are often better placed to weather the consequences.

But, what happens when the Head Contractor does not comply with their supporting statement requirements under the SoPA? Does the developer still need to pay it?

This question has been the subject of some judicial deliberation, and has been answered with some finality in the recent case of TFM Epping Land Pty Ltd v Decon Australia Pty Ltd [2020] NSWCA 93.

The Parties

TFM Epping and Katoomba Residence Investments Pty Ltd (TFM), as the developer, engaged Decon Australia Pty Ltd (Decon) as the builder and head contractor to carry out building and construction works on a residential development located at Epping in Sydney’s North West.

The Facts

On 3 June 2019, Decon served on TFM a Progress Claim under the SoPA, seeking approximately $6.4 million (the Claim). The Claim included works carried out throughout project history, for which Decon had not previously been paid.

The supporting statement accompanying the Claim had referenced only one subcontractor that had completed works about 1 year prior to issuing the Claim and specified that the supporting statement applied for works undertaken between 27 June 2018 and 3 July 2018.

TFM did not, within the 10 days prescribed by SoPA, serve a Payment Schedule on Decon, and as a consequence, became liable to pay the full sum sought in the Claim. Payment was not made.

On 3 July 2019 Decon filed a Summons and Notice of Motion in the Supreme Court of New South Wales, both of which sought summary judgment in their favour, for the full amount of the Claim. Shortly after, TFM filed a response, challenging the validity and service of the Claim.

The Decision at First Instance and Issues on Appeal

It was the decision of the Court at first instance that the response filed by TFM did not raise triable issues and to find in favour of Decon. On appeal, TFB sought to challenge this decision.

TFM sought to challenge the decision at first instance on the following 3 grounds:

  1. The Claim was not valid as it had not been accompanied by a supporting statement as required under s13(7) of the SoPA;
  2. The Claim sought payment in respect of variations, which were not performed under the contract and ought to have been claims in quantum meruit; and
  3. The Claim was invalid as it was not made in respect of an available reference date.

The key argument on appeal was that the supporting statement served by Decon was defective for the following reasons:

  • It had not included a ‘list’ of the subcontractors, it had simply given details of one subcontractor; and
  • The dates for which the supporting statement applied did not align with the dates of the works which were the subject of the Claim.

On this Basis, TFM asserted there was an absence of a compliant supporting statement, which rendered the service of the Claim invalid. In the alternative, TFM asserted the Claim itself was invalid.

The Decision on Appeal

The Court found in favour of Decon on all 3 grounds and dismissed TFM’s appeal for the following reasons.

Supporting Statements

The critical document giving rise to the legal right to recover (and obligation to pay) a progress payment, is the payment claim. Despite the wording of s13(7) of the SoPA, the Court determined that it does not attach a condition to the nature or content of the payment claim itself.

In arriving at this Decision, the Court noted that s13(7) of the SoPA included within itself a penalty for parties that did not comply, in terms of a fine. The Court gave significant weight to the purpose of the SoPA, and noted that in circumstances where Parliament has not stated an intended consequence, the Court would be reluctant to imply one.

Variations

The Court found that it could be possible that the variations had not properly arisen under the contract, for example, if some procedural step had not been taken. However, if TFM were of this view, the Court determined it ought to have been raised in a payment schedule. The Court found that including the variation items in the Claim, even if they were disputed, did not render the Claim invalid.

In the present case, Decon had not formulated the variations as a claim for quantum meruit, but rather had stated them to be a claim for work undertaken under the Contract.

Takeaway

This case highlights the fact that the document giving rise to the right to recover (and obligation to pay) a progress payment is the progress claim itself.

A failure to provide a supporting statement in accordance with the SoPA will not invalidate a progress claim. However, head contractors should take a strong note of the reference to the penalty provisions within the SoPA, and should ensure strict compliance with their obligations when serving payment claims for progress payments.

The case also serves as a reminder to respondents that the Court system cannot be used as a ‘second chance’ forum to respond to payment claims. The Court has shown it will not hear matters which should have been raised by way of a payment schedule, and determined in the adjudication system.

As always, preventing problems with your payment claims and payment schedules is much easier (and cheaper) than fixing them. If you or someone you know wants more information or needs help or advice, please contact us on 02 9248 3450 or email info@bradburylegal.com.au.