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Case article – Brolton Group Pty Ltd v Hanson Construction Materials Pty Ltd

In Brolton Group Pty Ltd v Hanson Construction Materials Pty Ltd [2020] NSWCA 63 (Brolton), the NSW Court of Appeal considered the jurisdictional and procedural fairness grounds of an adjudicator’s determination.

Background

Brolton was contracted by Hanson to build a quarry processing plant at Bass Point. The parties agreed on a guaranteed maximum price of $85 million (excluding GST) in which Brolton was entitled to claim monthly progress payments on the last Tuesday of each month. Hanson claimed liquidated damages and the contract was eventually terminated on 3 October 2018. In August 2019, Brolton served a payment claim on Hanson. The payment claim claimed work up to September 2018 as well as interest on unpaid amounts to August 2019. The adjudicator determined in favour of Brolton, issuing an adjudication amount of $2,877,052.75. Hanson challenged the decision in the Supreme Court, with the Supreme Court finding in favour of Hanson. This resulted in the appeal by Brolton to the NSW Court of Appeal.

The Court’s decision

Brolton raised two main grounds of appeal. The first and most pertinent issue, concerning jurisdiction, centred predominantly on the availability of a reference date on which Brolton could make its payment claim.
Importance of jurisdiction and the trouble of jurisdictional error
Under the Building and Construction Industry Security of Payment Act 1999 (NSW) (SOP Act) section 22, an adjudicator is given the statutory authority to determine the amount of a progress payment, the date on which such amount became payable and the rate of interest payable on any such amount. The importance of section 22 is that it sets out the jurisdiction of an adjudicator. As the saying goes, with great power comes great responsibility. While the adjudicator is given the power to make these determinations, section 22 sets out the limited factors that the adjudicator can consider. These are the responsibility components of the adjudicator’s determination. Two of the relevant factors to consider in Brolton was the provisions of the SOP Act and the payment claim.
While adjudicators are given the power to make determinations, they can only do so in certain circumstances or if there are specified preconditions. In the legal world, this is called a ‘jurisdictional fact’. As Gleeson JA described in Brolton (at paragraph 28), the term jurisdictional fact is used to describe ‘any precondition which a statute requires to exist in order for the decision-maker to embark on the decision-making process’. Jurisdictional facts fall into two types:

1. The existence of an identified state of affairs; or
2. A state of satisfaction of the decision-maker as to an identified state of affairs.

A jurisdictional fact gives a decision-maker the power to make the decision. If it exists, then an adjudicator can make a determination. In this way, the reference date activates the adjudicators powers to make a determination under the SOP Act.
Under the SOP Act, a claimant is only able to make a payment claim when there is a reference date under the construction contract. Therefore, the existence of a reference date is a jurisdictional fact that falls into the first category. This is because the existence or non-existence of a reference date is objective and does not depend on whether the adjudicator is satisfied that a reference date exists. Where an adjudicator exercises its power, but the jurisdictional fact does not actually exist, the adjudicator has made a jurisdictional error..
Getting back to the case, in submitting its payment claim, Brolton claimed in its adjudication submissions that the reference dates for August 2018 and September 2018 were available for the payment claim. Hanson also contended that the September 2018 reference date was available for the progress payment. However, the adjudicator ‘went rogue’ and determined that the reference date was in fact 23 October 2018. There were a few issues with this. Firstly, the 23 October 2018 was not the last Tuesday of the month (which in fact was 30 October 2018). Secondly, the contract had been terminated on 3 October 2018, meaning no further reference dates arose. As the clause entitling Brolton to a progress payment did not continue beyond the termination of the contract, the adjudicator had made a jurisdictional error. The reference date the adjudicator relied on did not exist, and therefore the determination was void and the $2.8 million decision was overturned (as if it had never been made).

Although Hanson succeeded on the first issue, the Court was still minded to consider the second issue on appeal. The second issue concerned the procedural fairness of the adjudicator’s decision. Like jurisdiction, procedural fairness is a legal term that has important consequences for adjudication determinations. Procedural fairness is an aspect of natural justice, a foundational legal principal that sets the standards of how people are to exercise their authority. The concept of procedural fairness means the process in which a decision is made should be just. Procedural fairness requires that parties have the right or opportunity to have their case heard by the decision-maker. If there is a substantial denial of natural justice, the decision-maker’s determination will be void. In this case, the issue of procedural fairness arose because the adjudicator determined that the relevant reference date was a date not submitted by either party. Brolton argued that while procedural fairness was denied to the parties, it was immaterial and should not void the adjudicator’s decision. The Court found that the findings by the adjudicator were a material breach of procedural fairness and therefore there was a breach of natural justice.

Take-away points

While this article has discussed a few technical legal concepts, the main take away points from Brolton are that:
• A progress payment must be linked to a specific reference date. If an adjudicator incorrectly attributes a payment claim to a reference date which does not exist, the determination will be void.
• It is not enough that another reference date is available for the payment claim to be linked to. If the adjudicator goes rogue and determines a reference date not submitted by the parties, the decision will be void.
• Claimants should identify and make it abundantly clear the relevant reference date to which a payment claim relates and make submissions in the adjudication application as to what the relevant reference date is.
• Reference dates are essential for an adjudicator to make a determination. A failure by the adjudicator to appropriately determine a reference date can have dire consequences to claimants.
• Note: The recent amendments to the NSW SOP Act have eliminated the post-termination payment claim issue. Section 13(1C) now states that for construction contracts that have been terminated, a payment claim may be served on and from the date of termination. This change will only apply to contracts entered into after 21 October 2019.

Coronavirus (COVID-19) and Construction Contracts: What are your options?

Coronavirus (COVID19) and the construction industry: What are your options?

We recently published an article about how construction contracts can incorporate concepts of force majeure events. A copy of our article can be found here.

As the disruptions of corona virus begin to become more extensive with government mandates coming into effect, we believe it’s important for those in the construction industry to have a quick reference guide as to their options or important things to think about.

 

Pre-contract: Tendering, negotiating and drafting of contract
Force Majeure clause ·         Manages the relationship between the parties where there has been an ‘Act of God’ or other similar severely disrupting event

·         Depends on the contractual definition of the term

·         Generally, suspends the obligations until the force majeure event has concludes

·         Important to consider when the parties’ obligations will resume – what will indicate the end of the force majeure event

Scope of Works and mitigation of supply chain risk ·         Where possible, alternative supply or materials should be specified in the scope of works with pre-agreed variation prices
Extensions of Time ·         Can include force majeure event as a qualifying cause of delay

·         What circumstances can the contractor or subcontractor seek an EOT?

·         Generally appropriate for an EOT to be granted where there is suspension of works, variation, act, omission or breach of the other party, force majeure events and/or industrial action occurring across the relevant state or territory

·         Are there any duties to mitigate the delay which are a precondition to receiving an EOT

Delay Costs and/or damages ·         Does the contract provide for any delay costs or damages?

·         What are the circumstances that the contractor or subcontractor is entitled to costs and are there any relevant caps?

Legislative Provisions ·         How are the change in legislative requirement provisions worded?

·         Consider the definition of legislative requirement (and/or equivalent and related definitions)

·         Consider whether legislative provisions should include a carve out for where there is a change in the legislative requirements in relation to COVID19. Given the uncertainty around how the government will proceed, it is difficult to predict how the legislative regimes or executive orders will change as the response to COVID changes and adapts

Labour and Key Personnel ·         Are there any key personnel of the contractor or the subcontractor that should be specifically identified?

·         Are there specific measures the Principal/Contractor want to specifically implement? Examples may include split teams

Security ·         Consider what types of security will protect against insolvency risk of contractors or subcontractors – Parent guarantee, retention monies, material security and/or bank guarantees

·         Consider circumstances where there may be recourse to the security such as where a party becomes insolvent or there are defective works that require rectification

·         Consider Principal security for payment if there are any solvency concerns

Insurance ·         Principals should consider whether there are suitable insurance policies to protect from any delays to the works or any consequences that the delays may have at the end of the project

·         For example, Principals may wish to discuss delay in start-up insurance with their insurance broker

Warranty deeds and defects ·         Principals may wish to require warranty deeds from the subcontractors to insure against any insolvency risk from contractors and to allow for any defects to be rectified independent of the contractor
Financial capacity of the tenders ·         When assessing potential contractors, Principals should consider the financial capacity of contractors and whether there are any solvency concerns and if there are any parent companies that can provide guarantees
Project deadlines ·         What deadlines are imposed by related contracts such as sale of land for off the plan properties

·         How long are the deadlines and timeframes of the project? Can they be extended to account for coronavirus

Contract structures ·         Profit/cost-saving sharing models of contract or guaranteed maximum price may be considered by Principals to minimise cost exposure of contracts that may be affected by coronavirus (such as supply chain risk)
Contract administration
Extension of time ·         Principals and Superintendents generally have the power to issue an EOT even when a claim may not be made by the Contractor. While they are not obliged to use this power for the benefit of the contractor, there may be practical and goodwill benefits in using these powers

·         Contractors should seek legal advice in terms of the relevant EOT clause and whether they have a right to seek an EOT or what other options are available to them under the contract

Suspension ·         Suspension is generally a grounds for an EOT

·         Consider who bears the cost of suspension under the contract

·         Is there a right for the contractor to claim any suspension costs or costs associated

Change to legislative requirements ·         In the event of government mandated shutdown, there is likely going to be claims for legislative changes. These will largely depend on the wording of the clauses, who bears the risk on legislative changes and the form of the government shut down

·         Other considerations include whether construction work is considered an essential service and to what extent

Variations ·         Where there is a supply chain breakdown due to closed borders, there may be claims for variations being made by Principals or Contractors to allow the project to continue

·         Variations will be linked to the scope of work and whether there are alternatives that can be sourced

Payments ·         Principals may wish to change payment terms to accommodate contractors or subcontractors

·         As the effects of coronavirus move throughout the economy, there will undoubtedly be businesses that struggle and become insolvent. Where possible, Principals may want to consider changing milestone payments or frequency of payment claims to assist contractors’ cashflows

·         Any agreement between the Principal and relevant contractor should be evidenced in writing

Acceleration ·         If there is relatively small amount of work left, Principals may consider giving directions to accelerate

·         While this may increase the cost of the project, the Principal may be able to ensure the project is completed before shutdowns come into effect

Employment ·         Employment law advice should be sought about how to manage employee relationships while projects are on hold by reason of coronavirus
Teams and social distancing ·         Head contractors may wish to implement policies that flow down the contracting chain in relation to splitting teams and social distancing where possible
Other arrangements agreed between the parties ·         Sometimes the best changes are those made between the parties and not from the lawyers

·         However, even where this is the case, ensure that such agreements are evidenced in writing and you seek legal advice on the impacts of the agreement and whether there are any potential consequences that you may not have considered

Other issues
Financiers ·         In many developments, there may be a financier involved and different obligations that arise under these loans and security documents

·         Principals should consider their obligations to notify their financier(s) where appropriate

Other stakeholders ·         There may be a range of other stakeholders that may have an interest in the construction contracts

·         It is important to manage these aspects of the development to reduce or eliminate any potential problems later on

Dispute resolution
SOPA claims ·         At the time of writing, there have been no changes to the strict deadlines imposed on submitting and responding to payment claims under the NSW Security of Payment legislation

·         SOPA is a contractor friendly forum, allowing for money to flow down the contracting chain

·         SOPA claims can be challenged on jurisdictional grounds or can be settled at the end of the contract if there has been an overpayment

Alternative dispute resolutions ·         Many alternative dispute resolution professionals are not taking new appointments. This can create a delay in parties complying with the relevant dispute resolution clauses

·         Parties may consider teleconferences or videoconferences to resolve disputes, rather than physically meeting

Courts ·         Many courts are operating via videoconferencing, with physical appearances limited

·         The court process may have more delays than usual as judges and parties adjust to the temporary measures of case management

·         Where a party is seeking urgent injunctive or other relief, it is important to seek legal advice as soon as possible to ensure that an application can be made efficiently and protect your interests

Contract termination ·         If you are seeking to terminate the contract it is important to terminate in accordance with the contractual provisions and to consider any common law rights or duties in relation to termination

·         Those seeking to terminate where the counterparty has become insolvent will also need to be aware of the recent insolvency changes and the restrictions on terminating pursuant to insolvency

 

 

Corona virus and force majeure in construction contracts: Has your contract been immunised

While many were recovering from New Years’ celebrations, corona virus was starting to make its way into the headlines. For the last 2 months, corona virus has dominated the news with many people and businesses starting to feel its impact as borders are shut down and quarantines are imposed. At the time of writing, the World Health Organisation has reported that corona virus has spread to many parts of the world including Australia, North America and parts of Europe. With much of the corona outbreak concentrated to China, several businesses are starting to feel the economic impact. As the manufacturing hub of the world, China is responsible for much of the world’s imports. Further, as the corona virus spreads and causes further border shutdowns, it becomes harder for businesses to have certainty in knowing when they will be able to import or export their goods. With businesses having to meet their contractual deadlines, the uncertainty can create a real issue for some. Consequently, many businesses may be put into a position where they are unable perform their contractual obligations. This article focuses on the different ways a construction contract may deal with situations such as corona virus.

The clause typically suited to situations or events like the outbreak of corona virus is a force majeure clause. Force majeure means ‘superior force’ and commonly covers natural events such as earthquakes or unforeseeable and disruptive manmade events such as war and industrial strikes. In the Australian context, force majeure clauses are creatures of the contract. This means that they only exist by virtue of a contractual provision which allocates the risk between the parties. Further, Australian courts will interpret these clauses strictly, giving the clauses the minimum application available within the ordinary meaning of the provision. In the construction contract context, it is unusual to see a specific force majeure clause. By way of illustration, the Australian Standard contracts do not contain a standard force majeure clause. Therefore, it is up to the parties to amend and insert a specific force majeure provision into the contract if they wish to have a specific mechanism dealing with the risk arising from these types of events.

As many readers may be aware, at the core of construction contracts is the allocation of risk through program. Therefore, construction contracts may, by their very essence, be differentiated from non—construction contracts. For example, extension of time (EOT), delay costs and liquidated damages clauses assign time related risks between the parties. The definitions of qualifying causes of delay and compensable causes in the Australian Standard provide a mechanism to pass time and cost related risks from contractors or subcontractors to the developer or head contractor. Amending the definition of qualifying causes of delay to extend to force majeure events is one way a construction contract can account for circumstances such as the corona virus. The key difference between allowing relief through a force majeure clause and allowing an EOT for force majeure events is that an EOT provides a contractor or subcontractor protection against liquidated damages. This is differentiated from a force majeure clause which may generally limit a party’s liability under the contract.

Irrespective of the way force majeure events are incorporated into construction contracts, care must be taken in drafting these clauses. When getting into the force majeure territory, contractors and subcontractors need to make sure that the definition of ‘force majeure’ or ‘force majeure event’ is drafted clearly, but not too broadly. For example, stating that a subcontractor is entitled to an EOT for anything outside of their control may be clear, but too broad to specifically cover corona virus. However, stating that the subcontractor is entitled to an EOT for delays related to the corona virus may be clearly drafted, but it does not provide much further scope. The clause would not protect from outbreaks or re-emergence of SARS or other endemics, epidemics or pandemics. A balance must be reached between these two extremes and will depend on the specific project.

When drafting a force majeure clause, it is important to consider some broad points. Firstly, force majeure clauses are usually exhaustive in nature, meaning that only what is in the contract is covered. Secondly, the party affected by the force majeure event must not have caused or contributed to the event and will required to take all steps to overcome or mitigate its effects. There also needs to be a connection between the force majeure event and the performance of the contractual obligations. For instance, the mere occurrence of the corona virus is not sufficient to justify an EOT in all cases. It will only entitle relief from liquidated damages when the event has caused a delay. By including these conditions, a force majeure clause (whether in EOT form or specific clause form) will generally entitle a party to relief or suspension of their obligations under the contract.

A significant problem with force majeure events is that it can be difficult for parties to establish that they should be entitled to relief under the clause. For example, in relation to the mitigation element discussed above, a party is often required to show that it cannot fulfil its supply obligations. While a party may have its preferred third party supplier, the mere fact that supply is not available from this supplier will not justify force majeure relief. The parties are bound by their contractual deal and this remains the case even if the obligations become significantly more onerous or expensive to complete. However, if all of the supply of product X is unavailable, then a party should be entitled to relief under the relevant clause until the supply becomes available again.

If you or someone you may know is in need of advice on existing contracts or advice regarding the force majeure clause, please contact our office by phoning (02) 9248 3450 or by email at info@bradburylegal.com.au.