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How security of payment mistakes can turn the tables in a negotiation

We recently assisted a contractor client on a major infrastructure project in Queensland who was engaged in the early stages of dispute with the principal.  The contractor claimed to be entitled to significant additional time and costs under the contract, yet was facing a principal who:

  1. was generally unwilling to engage and properly consider the contractor’s claims; and
  2. had routinely failed to correctly apply contractual provisions.

Some of our client’s claims had been under consideration or assessment for several months and when decisions were ultimately made, reasons for those decisions were scarce or demonstrated the principal’s failure to properly consider the claims and apply the contract.

Strategy

We developed a without prejudice paper for the contractor to submit to the principal.  This paper set out in detail the contractual and evidentiary basis for the contractor’s claims and included the provision of expert reports where necessary.  The claims were ultimately put to the principal by contractual notices and open letters, which were then being discussed and negotiated between the parties.

One of the strategies we recommended was submitting these claims for assessment as part of a payment claim made under the Building Industry Fairness (Security of Payment) Act 2017 (Qld) (BIFA).  On previous occasions, the principal had failed to state or properly explain why the amount proposed to be paid in relation to certain claims was less, including their reasons for withholding any payment, as required by section 69(c) of the BIFA.

Accordingly, our view was that the principal may again slip-up by giving inadequate reasons in respect of certain claims, meaning that the contractor would be in a good position to run an adjudication.  This is because section 82(4) of the BIFA would operate to prohibit the principal from including reasons for withholding in any adjudication response that were not included in the payment schedule.

We assisted the contractor in formulating and submitting the payment claim, which claimed the significant additional costs that had been put to the principal via the without prejudice paper and contractual notices.

The principal’s mistake

As it transpired, the principal failed to serve a payment schedule within the time required under the BIFA.  The principal was only one business day late.  Nevertheless, this meant that the principal would become liable to pay the full claimed amount on the due date for payment under the BIFA[1].

The scheduled amount given by the principal was markedly less than the claimed amount.  While the principal had given some reasons in respect of some additional costs claims, the payment schedule ultimately served (and the arguments made within it) could not be relied upon by the principal for the purposes of the BIFA.

Our client was free to recover the full claimed amount as a debt due and owing in the Supreme Court of Queensland[2].  The principal would not be entitled to bring any counterclaim in those proceedings, nor raise any contractual defence to the action[3].

Letter of demand and engaging with the principal

We drafted an open letter of demand from the contractor to the principal, highlighting the mistake and advising that if payment of the full claimed amount was not received on or before the due date for payment under the BIFA, the contractor would take necessary steps to recover[4].

The next letter we assisted with was a without prejudice letter which set out why the principal’s position as put in the payment schedule was incorrect and demonstrated a failure to properly apply the contract.  This is important because the principal would be liable to pay the full claimed amount under the BIFA, however the BIFA provides the parties with interim rights only.  It would be open to the principal in future to exercise contractual rights to engage in dispute resolution and ultimately litigation.

Progress of negotiation

The principal’s level of engagement with the contractor increased noticeably once there was recognition that they were now liable to the contractor for the full amount claimed and could soon be the listed defendant in judgment debt proceedings for the full amount.  It was now in the principal’s best interests to try to cut a deal with the contractor to avoid the embarrassment and adverse financial impact of court proceedings.

The contractor was now in a position where it all but literally had the disputed sums in its pocket in the ensuing negotiations and discussions.  It was now up to the principal to work through the various claims and supporting documentation that the contractor had provided and come to the contractor with a reasonable settlement offer to avoid proceedings.

Furthermore, the principal was effectively forced to step into the shoes of a plaintiff should it wish to commence a contractual dispute that the contractor had been overpaid to overturn or circumvent the outcome of the BIFA.  Running this dispute would take a great deal of time and effort for the principal.

The contractor advised that the principal’s engagement on the issues had drastically increased in without prejudice discussions.  The principal had now given indications when it would revert to the contractor with assessments and offers on claims.

We recommended that any agreement reached in discussions be formally documented by a succinctly drafted deed of settlement and release.

We regularly assist construction industry participants Australia-wide in contractual disputes and security of payment processes.  Please feel free to get in touch if you would like assistance with these issues.

[1] Section 77(2) of the BIFA.

[2] Section 78(1) of the BIFA.

[3] Section 100(3) of the BIFA.

[4] The first step would be serving of a “warning notice” as required by section 99 of the BIFA.

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.

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].