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CONTRACTOR STRIKES SECURITY OF PAYMENT GOLD BY SKIRTING THE MINING EXCEPTION

Mining owners and operators in most Australian States[1] will be aware of the “mining exception” in security of payment legislation.  The mining exception excludes ‘the extraction (whether by underground or surface working) of minerals, including tunnelling or boring, or constructing underground works for that purpose[2] (Mining Exception) from the definition of the term “construction work” and, consequently, the ambit of statutory interim progress payment mechanisms.

However, in a decision handed down on 11 November 2020, the NSW Supreme Court[3] followed the approach of the Queensland courts[4] by construing the Mining Exception narrowly in favour of contractors and subcontractors.  In short, the Mining Exception does not  extend generally to some broad category of mining industry operations.[5]

Facts

Downer EDI Mining Pty Ltd (Downer) was engaged by Cadia Holdings Pty Ltd (Cadia) the operator of the Cadia East underground panel cave mine south-west of Orange, under a “Works Contract” dated 16 November 2018 (Contract), to perform “development phase” works, being (for the most part) underground works to provide access to the proposed undercut and extraction levels for future extraction of minerals in the “production phase”[6]

Downer proceeded to adjudication on a payment claim served on Cadia.  An adjudicator appointed under the Building and Construction Industry Security of Payment Act 1999 (NSW) (SOPA) determined that Cadia pay Downer $1,017,741.72.[7]

Cadia challenged the determination on two grounds:

  1. the Mining Exception applied so the Contract was not a “construction contract” within the meaning of the SOPA; and
  2. there was no available reference date to support Downer’s payment claim.

Decision

Cadia’s challenge to the adjudication determination was unsuccessful on both grounds.

Stevenson J framed the effect of the Mining Exception as excluding ‘from the definition of “construction work”, the following works:

  • extraction (whether by underground or surface working) of minerals;
  • tunnelling or boring for the purpose of extraction (whether by underground or surface working of minerals; and
  • constructing underground works for the purpose of extraction (whether by underground or surface working) of minerals.[8]

His Honour held that the heart of the question of the application of the Mining Exception to a contract is what a contractor undertakes to do under the contract in question, not what work that contractor actually does[9] (which comes to be answered later).

The works under the Contract did include “tunnelling or boring” as well as “constructing underground works”.  However:

  1. these activities were not for the “purpose of” extraction of minerals; and
  2. the Contract required Downer to undertake work beyond these activities which fell within the meaning of “construction work” or the supply of “related goods and services”.

On considering generally whether activities performed by a contractor are for the “purpose of” extraction of minerals, His Honour:

  1. agreed with Fryberg J in Thiess that the relevant purpose should be decided ‘by reference to what a reasonable person in the position of the parties would conclude as to the object of what purpose of the contract[10];
  2. held that the Mining Exception is to be construed narrowly to benefit the subcontractor[11];
  3. held that a close “proximity” between the act of extraction and the tunnelling and boring or construction of underground works was required (and this was not so in this case, where the extraction phase would not begin until 2022 after subsequent works)[12];
  4. considered that “extraction” does not include work “associated with” or “preparatory to” extraction[13]; and
  5. noted that the SOPA expresses where there is an intention to bring in ancillary activities, which is not the case with the Mining Exception[14].

Further, in this case, His Honour considered that some works under the Contract required of Downer were “construction work” or supply of “related goods and services”, meaning the SOPA applied.  Relevantly, His Honour stated (accepting Downer’s counsel’s submission):

…if there is a contract which contains undertakings to carry out construction work and undertakings to carry out work that it not construction work, the contract remains a construction contract. If a payment claim includes a claim for work that is not construction work, the payment claim is valid, but the adjudicator should not award an amount for work that is not construction work. Thus, the Mining Exception has an important role to play in limiting the amount that the adjudicator should award.[15]

On the reference date point, His Honour determined that there was an available reference date under the Contract for the service of the payment claim.  Most of the points raised were of limited significance for general application.  One point of general interest was that a clause of the Contract required Downer to invoice ‘in respect of the Services performed’ of the proceeding month.[16]  Downer’s works were performed not in the preceding month, but at an earlier time.

His Honour relied on s.13(4) of the SOPA which allows a contractor to serve a payment claim within the period determined under the construction contract or 12 months after construction work to which the claim relates was last carried out.  The payment clause in the Contract attempted to restrict the operation of s.13(4) and was a void provision, by operation of s.34 of the SOPA.

Take Home Tips

Contractors who consider that they are not entitled to have recourse to security of payment legislation simply because they work on a mine site should re-examine closely the terms of their contract.  Can it really be said that the contract works are for the “purpose of” extraction?  Or is there some distance between the works to be performed and the eventual act of extraction?

Perhaps there are portions or stages of works under the contract to which the Mining Exception would apply, but this would not necessarily mean that the entire contract is not a “construction contract” within the meaning of the security of payment legislation.

 

 

[1] Queensland, Victoria, South Australia, Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory.  However, Western Australia is likely to shortly follow suit once the Building and Construction Industry (Security of Payment) Bill 2020 (WA) passes through Parliament.

[2] Section 5(2) of the Building and Construction Industry (Security of Payment) Act 1999 (NSW).

[3] Cadia Holdings Pty Ltd v Downer EDI Mining Pty Ltd [2020] NSWSC 1588 per Stevenson J.

[4] HM Hire Pty Limited v National Plant and Equipment Pty Ltd [2012] QSC 4 and Thiess Pty Ltd v Warren Brothers Earthmoving Pty Ltd [2012] QCA 276 (Thiess)

[5] At [133].

[6] At [92] and [93].

[7] At [3].

[8] At [34].

[9] At [70].

[10] At [96], quoting Fryberg J in Thiess at [76].

[11] At [102]

[12] At [103] and [91].

[13] At [104].

[14] At [105].

[15] At [134].

[16] At [171].

Spring is here and so is the Building and Construction Industry Security of Payment Regulation 2020

On 1 September 2020, the Building and Construction Industry Security of Payment Regulation 2020 commenced (2020 Regulation) repealing the 2008 Regulation.

The 2020 Regulation will provide the legislative support and administrative detail for the operation of the Building and Construction Industry Security of Payment Act 1999 (NSW) (Act) as provided by the amendments which commenced on 21 October 2019. These amendments came about to address poor payment practices and the high incidence of insolvencies in the building and construction industry and also, to facilitate prompt payment, preserve cash flow and resolve disputes quickly and efficiently.

The 2020 Regulation is not retrospective and will not apply to contracts entered into prior to its commencement date.

Key reforms of the 2020 Regulation include:

  • removing the annual reporting requirements for trust accounts to NSW Fair Trading,
  • introducing a requirement for head contractors to keep a ledger for retention money held in relation to each subcontractor and provide the subcontractor with a copy of a ledger at least once every 3 months or longer period of 6 months if agreed in writing, and also to provide trust account records to subcontractors if their money is held in trust,
  • supporting statements are only required for subcontractors or suppliers directly engaged by the head contractor,
  • removing owner occupier construction contracts as a prescribed class of construction contract to which the Act does not apply, and
  • introducing qualifications and eligibility requirements for adjudicators to improve the quality of adjudication determinations under the Act.  The eligibility requirements include either a degree or diploma in a relevant specified field with at least 5 years’ experience, or at least 10 years’ experience in a relevant specified field.  The continuing professional development requirements for adjudicators will commence on 1 September 2021.

Of particular note, the project value threshold (value of the head contractor’s contract with the principal) for retention money trust account requirements will not be reduced from $20 million to $10 million as previously foreshadowed. The existing threshold will remain. Perhaps, given the current climate, it was considered too much of an administrative burden on head contractors who are already dealing with the pressures of delivering projects during Covid. A copy of the 2020 Regulation is  here.

If you would like to discuss or would like any more information, please contact us at info@bradburylegal.com.au or (02) 9248 3450.

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Contractors – don’t use Dropbox if you want to get paid!

In Wärtsilä Australia Pty Ltd (ACN 003 736 892) v Primero Group Ltd (ACN 139 964 045) & Ors [2020] SASC 162, a contractor has failed to recoup $15M because it tried to submit completion reports via Dropbox link.  This is adds to the line of authorities which caution reliance on cloud-based technologies for issuing documents, whether under contract or statute.

Facts

Primero Group Ltd (Primero) contracted with Wärtsilä Australia Pty Ltd (Wärtsilä) to perform civil, mechanical and electrical works and supply tanks for the construction of the Barker Inlet power station on Torrens Island in South Australia.

The contract provided the following requirements for ‘SW Completion’:

(2) the tests, inspections and communications required by this subcontract (including Schedule 3) to have been carried out before SW Completion have been carried out, passed and the results of the tests, inspections and commissioning provided to [Wärtsilä]

(8) the completed quality assurance documentation … is available for inspection by [Wärtsilä] at the Facility Land’ (emphasis added)

Primero emailed Wärtsilä on 28 February 2020 a Dropbox link to the documents.  Yet Wärtsilä was unable to access the documents via the link until 2 March 2020.

On 2 March 2020, Primero served a payment claim under s 13 of the Building and Construction Industry Security of Payment Act 2009 (SA) in the amount of $85,751,118 (excluding GST).  On 10 March 2020, Wärtsilä responded with a payment schedule which scheduled “nil” but also stated that the payment claim was invalid as it was not supported by a reference date.

Primero proceeded to adjudication and the adjudicator determined Primero’s payment claim was valid, awarding $15,269,674.30 (excluding GST).  Key to the adjudicator’s determination was that the payment claim was supported by a reference date of 28 February 2020.  Wärtsilä made an application to the Supreme Court for an order quashing the adjudication determination.

The parties agreed that if SW Completion under the contract had not occurred on 28 February 2020 the adjudicator’s determination was invalid.[1]

Primero argued that it had provided the documents and made them available for inspection by sending the email.

Primero also contended that the Electronic Communications Act 2000 (SA) (ECA) permitted the contractual obligation for the provision of the documents to be satisfied by electronic communication.  Under s 8 of the ECA, the time of receipt of an electronic communication was when it is ‘capable of being retrieved by the addressee’.

Decision

Sending a Dropbox link to the documents was not sufficient for SW Completion.  On 28 February 2020, Primero had emailed the link to Wärtsilä, but Wärtsilä was unable to completely download the documents.[2]

Accordingly, the adjudication determination was quashed because it was not made with reference to a valid payment claim.[3]  The $15M award to Primero was nullified.

Stanley J held[4]:

  1. in relation to SW Completion item (2), ‘the provision of the hyperlink merely provided a means by which Wärtsilä was permitted to download the documents stored in the cloud. Until it did so, those documents had not been provided.

 

  1. in relation to SW Completion item (8), ‘the hyperlink did not amount to making the documents available for inspection… because until all the documents were downloaded, they were not capable of being inspected at the facility land.’

His Honour stated:

a common sense and businesslike construction of the contractual requirements that the documents be provided and are available for inspection necessarily requires that the documents were capable of being downloaded on 28 February 2020. I find they were not.[5]

Stanley J applied a Queensland case Conveyor & General Engineering v Basetec Services & Anor [2015] 1 Qd R 265 (Conveyor) and a Federal Court case Clarke v Australian Computer Society Inc [2019] FCA 2175 (Clarke), which went to the point that a document could not itself be considered to be “left at” or “sent” to an intended recipient if an email containing a link to the document was sent to that recipient.[6]  To summarise, it is only the email itself which is sent or transmitted, not the document housed on the cloud server.

The ECA did not apply to the communication to solve the problem for Primero because[7]:

Both s 8 and s 10 prescribe circumstances that condition the operation of those provisions. Those circumstances include: first, that at the time the information is given by means of electronic communication, it was reasonable to expect that the information would be readily accessible so as to be useable for subsequent reference; and second, that the person to whom the information is required to be given consents to the information being given by means of an electronic communication.

His Honour held that Conveyor and Clarke stood as authority for the proposition that the provision of the documents by hyperlink did not constitute an “electronic communication” for the purposes for the ECA.

This point is highly relevant to because the relevant legislation governing electronic transmissions and communications are modelled off uniform Commonwealth legislation (Electronic Transactions Act 1999 (Cth)) and have largely consistent provisions.

Take Home Tips

It is important to consider closely whether the terms of your contract allow you to submit completion documents (or other documents) via a Dropbox link.  If the contract uses words like “provide”, “send”, “make available”, etc, it is unlikely that merely providing a link to those documents will satisfy the obligation unless and until the documents are actually downloaded or accessed in full by the intended recipient.  This can be difficult to prove.

It is unlikely that you will be able to fall back on the relevant electronic communications or transactions legislation in your jurisdiction because the provision of the link will not be considered an “electronic communication” of the document itself.  Strict compliance with the contract and statute (particularly in the realm of security of payment) is always required.

[1] At [12].

[2] At [93].

[3] At [128].

[4] At [94].

[5] At [105].

[6] At [98] to [101].

[7] At [117].