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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.