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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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Is the arbitration agreement “not applicable”?

In Gemcan Constructions Pty Ltd v Westbourne Grammar School [2020] VSC 429, Lyons J of the Victorian Supreme Court (VSC) was required to consider whether the terms of the contract contained a valid arbitration agreement within the meaning of s 7 of the Commercial Arbitration Act 2011 (Vic) (CAA). His Honour found that inserting the words “Not Applicable” or “N/A” into corresponding items of Annexure Part A in an otherwise unamended Australian Standard (AS) contract may not evince the necessary intention that relevant clauses do not otherwise apply.

The case not only provides insight into when the court will find that a binding arbitration agreement exists, but also suggests that caution is required at the time of drafting an AS contract.

The case is relevant Australia-wide concerning the application of the CAA because uniform legislation has been enacted in all Australian states and territories.

Facts

On or about 25 July 2016, Gemcan Constructions Pty Ltd (Gemcan) entered into a contract for works to take place at Westbourne Grammar School’s (WGS) Williamstown Campus in Victoria. The contract was a standard form AS 4000-1997 which included the usual:

  • AS 4000 -1997 General Conditions of Contract;
  • particulars at Annexure Part A; and
  • deletions, amendments and additions at Annexure Part B.

A dispute arose between the parties via the exchange of a payment claim and payment certificate issued under their contract. The value of the dispute was circa $1.4 million and included contract works claims, variations, other heads of additional cost, extensions of time, liquidated damages, interest and retention.

Clause 42 of the contract was the dispute resolution clause. Clause 42.2 provided that (inter alia):

If the dispute has not been resolved within 28 days of service of the notice of dispute, that dispute shall be and is hereby referred to arbitration.

Clause 42.3 then went on to provide:

If within a further 14 days the parties have not agreed upon an arbitrator, the arbitrator shall be nominated by the person in Item 32(a). The arbitration shall be conducted in accordance with the rules in Item 32(b).

However, Items 32(a) and 32(b) respectively in Annexure Part A were completed with the words “Not Applicable”.

As the dispute had not been resolved in the time specified in clause 42.2, Gemcan sought to refer the dispute to arbitration and put WGS on notice of its preferred arbitrator.

WGS responded disputing that there was an arbitration agreement in existence because by the parties completing Annexure Part A items with “Not Applicable”, the parties had evinced an intention that its disputes would not be referred to arbitration. If there was no valid arbitration agreement within the meaning of the CAAs, the CAA would not apply and WGS could not be forced to arbitrate.

WGS also disputed Gemcan’s choice of arbitrator, chiefly because he was around twice as expensive as WGS’s selection – a more junior barrister. Gemcan’s view was that its arbitrator was much more experienced in arbitrations generally and had greater legal expertise, as he was senior counsel.

Decision

Lyons J determined:

  • clause 42.2 of the contract constituted a valid agreement to refer the dispute to arbitration, so that the CAA applied; and
  • Gemcan’s arbitrator should be appointed pursuant to s 11 of the CAA.

Whether or not there has been a valid arbitration agreement is a precondition to the application of the CAA. Section 7 of the CAA provides the requirements for a valid arbitration agreement.

Lyons J held that an agreement to arbitrate was evident on the terms of the contract because:

  1. clause 42.2 is ‘clear and unambiguous in its terms’.[1] The last sentence of the standard-form clause evince a clear and objective intention that disputes arising under the clause are to be referred to arbitration if they are not resolved within 28 days of the notice of dispute issuing;
  2. the use of the words “Not Applicable” in Items 32(a) and (b) of Annexure Part A do not evince an intention to negate the referral to arbitration because they only refer back to clause 42.3, not clause 42.2. Clause 42.3 only provides for the procedural aspects of the arbitration, not the agreement to arbitrate itself. In the absence of an agreement regarding procedural aspects (including the arbitrator to be appointed and applicable rules, ss 11(3) and 19(2) of the CAA steps in to provide a mechanism for decisions to be made on those issues). Those procedural mechanisms ‘are not essential characteristics of an enforceable arbitration agreement[2];
  3. the parties could have used Annexure B to make necessary amendments to delete the offending words from clause 42.2, but they did not do so.

Further, Lyons J accepted Gemcan’s proposed arbitrator on the basis that the arbitration was:

  1. likely to be both factually and legally complex;
  2. significant in quantum (and thus the importance to the parties);
  3. likely to require clear and precise written reasons.

The arbitrator proposed by Gemcan was more expensive, however he had more experience in contested and complex arbitration decisions such that the choice was ‘likely to result in the arbitration being conducted in the most efficient way’.[3]

Take Home Tip

If you do not want your standard-form contract to refer you to arbitration, you must do more than insert “Not Applicable” into relevant Items in Annexure Part A. You must ensure that the General Conditions of Contract are correctly amended so that you are not forced into arbitration.

ADR Processes Part II

This article is Part II of our article on ADR process. In this article, we will be covering the common pitfalls of ADR clauses. In Part I, we discussed the different types of ADR processes that are common in construction law matters. You can find Part I of our article HERE. While there are benefits to ADR processes, the drafting of dispute resolution clauses can sometimes result in the clause being void and unenforceable. Alternatively, there are times where the drafting of the dispute resolution clause means parties are left with a result under the contract which is unfair or unjust in the relevant circumstances. Often dispute resolution clauses are thrown into a contract without the parties giving much thought or consideration as to its enforceability or suitability to the circumstances. The following matters are pitfalls you should consider when you are drafting a dispute resolution clause.

 

Factors that may make the clause void and unenforceable:

 

Precondition to Court or other legal action

 

One of the biggest problems with ADR clauses arises when they set compliance with the ADR process as a pre-condition to seeking any court relief. This is problematic because it attempts to prevent the parties from approaching the Court when it has jurisdiction. If not properly drafted, these types of clauses can make the dispute resolution term unenforceable.

 

Words or phrases to look out for:

 

The parties must not seek any court orders until the parties have attended mediation.

 

Words or phrases that can prevent the clause being unenforceable:

 

Nothing in this clause X prevents the parties from seeking urgent or injunctive relief from the Court.

 

The key difference between these clauses is that the first tries to remove the jurisdiction of the Court by preventing the parties from seeking any relief from the Court until after the ADR processes have been complied with. This can result in some of the parties’ legal rights being wrongly enforced under the contract. For example, in cases where one party seeks to have recourse to security and the other party disputes this, the ADR process mechanisms may be too slow in resolving this dispute. Therefore, it is appropriate for the Court to be able to order urgent or injunctive relief to prevent recourse to the security. The parties can still have the underlying dispute proceed to the elected ADR process, but the security providing party may be able to (in the interim) prevent recourse where it is contested that the other party is not entitled to the benefit of that security.

 

Agreement to agree

 

A dispute resolution clause will be unenforceable if it is void for uncertainty. This often happens when there is an agreement to agree in a clause. For example, if a contract provides that the parties must agree on a matter and the parties are unable to reach an agreement, where do the parties stand in respect of their contractual duties? In the context of a dispute resolution clause, this can occur when the parties are required to agree on the form of the dispute process, or the appropriate body to determine the dispute or the rules that are to be applied to determine the dispute.

 

Words or phrases to look out for:

 

The parties must agree on an expert’ or ‘the parties must agree on the form of dispute process

 

Words or phrases that can prevent the clause being unenforceable:

 

The parties must agree on an expert. If the parties cannot agree, the expert shall be appointed or administered by the [for example] Australian Disputes Centre.’

 

The important difference between the two clauses is the second has a mechanism for resolving the uncertainty. If the parties cannot agree on which expert should be appointed, the clause provides for a third party to appoint or determine who the expert will be. Obviously, when nominating a third party to make the decision, it is important to confirm that the third party can and will appoint a dispute resolution professional.

 

Time frames should also be included as part of these clauses to avoid uncertainty. For example, a clause may state that parties are given 14 days to meet together to discuss the dispute before it proceeds to mediation. Without the 14 day timeframe, there is no clear indicator of when the parties are to engage in their dispute resolution process. A deeming mechanism should also be included to account for when the parties simply do not comply with the dispute resolution process. For instance, if the parties do not meet within 14 days, then the dispute should be automatically referred to mediation, or expert determination (as per the next tier of the agreed dispute resolution process) or simply allowed to proceed to litigation.

 

Broad and unclear drafting

 

The last pitfall of dispute resolution clauses discussed in this article is broad and/or unclear drafting. As a general problem with contracts, broad and/or unclear drafting can result in less certainty in the obligations between the parties. In the context of a dispute resolution clause, unclear drafting may occur in any of the following circumstances:

 

  • where there is not a clear process for a dispute to be resolved;
  • where the scope of the ADR powers and what can they determine is not defined;
  • where the rules that guide the ADR process are not clearly referenced; and
  • when can parties appeal the decision.

 

The consequence of broad and/or unclear drafting is that when a dispute arises, further disputes may occur when it comes time to interpret the clause. If a Court considers that the clause is uncertain and is unable to be properly interpreted, it may be held that the clause is void for uncertainty.

 

To assist with some of the considerations that arise with broad or unclear drafting, the next section of this article gives commentary on some of the considerations of ADR clauses so as to ensure your clause is suited to the parties and properly drafted.

 

Important Considerations in ADR clauses

 

Scope of ADR power

 

A dispute resolution clause can be customised by the parties. One way that parties can customise their dispute resolution clause is by determining what types of dispute will be resolved in which ways. For example, the parties may agree that technical matters to do with the scope of works or variations are unsuited to a determination by a legal professional. In such technical matters, the Courts will often have to consider expert reports from both parties, including any updates and responses from the experts. Even after considering the expert reports, the Court may nevertheless be unequipped or unsuitable to determine exactly what the correct outcome is or should be. Methods such as expert appraisal or expert determination can be effective ways of the parties reducing their costs and ensuring an appropriate resolution of the dispute. If this method is agreed by the parties, it is important to clearly set out exactly which disputes are to be resolved in which way. For example, the dispute resolution clause may state that any dispute involving a disputed variation or defective work that hinges on a technical interpretation must be resolved through expert determination. Accordingly, such a clause would also express that any dispute that hinges on legal interpretation be directed to a court of competent jurisdiction.

 

Statutory Provisions

 

When drafting a dispute resolution clause, it is important to consider whether there are any statutory provisions that may impact on the operation of the clause. For example, the Home Building Act 1989 (NSW) prevents the use of arbitration in some contracts for residential building work. In Victoria, the Building and Construction Industry Security of Payment Act 2002 (VIC) has an intricate regime for claimable variations in high value contracts (being contracts with a consideration over $5,000,000). These statutory provisions can have significant impacts on the clauses chosen by the parties. Further, while the Home Building Act prohibits the use of arbitration, the Victorian Security of Payment Act has consequences for the parties depending on the type of resolution used. It is important then to consider the statutory provisions and what their effects may be.

 

Binding or non-binding

 

A major consideration that parties should think about is whether to have the dispute resolution process as a binding or non-binding method. The Courts have generally held that where parties agree to a binding dispute resolution process, they will be unable to appeal the determination. While there may be circumstances where the parties can appeal to have the determination overturned, as a general rule, parties should expect to be bound by the decision. Therefore, parties should consider when they want to be bound by the decision of the dispute resolution professional.

 

Rights of appeal

 

While the process may be binding, the parties may agree to allow for appeal rights in the dispute resolution clause. For example, the parties may agree that a decision can be appealed where a party claims there has been a manifest error of law or where the amount in dispute exceeds a specified threshold. These mechanisms are interesting ways that parties can customise their dispute process and ensure that they are satisfied with the way any potential disputes will play out. It is important to consider any cost implications with appeal rights. While parties may not wish to be bound by a decision in certain circumstances, appeal rights may inevitably lead to higher costs in resolving a dispute.

 

 

Contractual interpretation: What did we even agree upon?

It is the question as old as human trade and commerce: when we made that agreement, what did we mean?

This is a deceptively simple question. It may appear to parties with amicable relations that the meaning of a document is clear, but when a dispute opens up, what tends to happen is that each party will stretch every definition to suit its purposes.
As will become clear, courts are still grappling with difficult questions about how an agreement should be interpreted, and what evidence put forward by the parties can be considered to discern its meaning.
We consider some basic principles to do with contractual interpretation, and look at a recent example of the circumstances in which courts will look at negotiations between the parties and the effect this has on the meaning of the agreement.

Basic principles

Where there is a written contract between two parties that are legally represented and commercially experienced, the law will likely consider this contract to be the complete statement of their legal rights and obligations. In some cases, a contract may be both oral and in writing, but proving this is onerous.
As a result, where there is a dispute, the contract is the first thing that the lawyers and judges will consider. The contract is considered to reflect how the parties intended to allocate risk.
When looking at a contract, the court will assess and interpret the contract to give effect to what is called the objective intention of the parties. This is not what was actually in the minds of the parties. Rather, it is what a reasonable person, a third-party bystander, would understand the words or actions of the parties to show about the parties’ intention.
In the commercial context, this means the court will look at the words used in drafting the contract and determine what they mean to a reasonable businessperson informed about the circumstances of the case.

But wait there’s more

What is said above does not mean that the actions of the parties are irrelevant. Far from it.
In fact, it is sometimes necessary for courts to consider the surrounding circumstances of an agreement, so that they can determine what the intentions of the parties are with respect to what exactly constitutes the agreement and what its terms mean.
This might seem contrary to the court’s tradition of only looking at the contract. However, it will generally only be done when there is ambiguity in the words of the contract.
For example, in Toll (FGCT) Pty Ltd v Alphapharm Pty Ltd (2004) 219 CLR 165, the High Court stated that it is not what the parties think about their rights and obligations that govern contractual relations. Rather, it is the words and conduct of each party that would lead a reasonable person in the position of the other party to believe.
Ten years later, the High Court again commented on the use of evidence outside the contract in Electricity Generation Corporation v Woodside Energy Ltd (2014) 251 CLR 640. In this case, the High Court said that evidence of the parties’ actual (subjective) intentions is not relevant to construction. What is relevant is the evidence of surrounding circumstances known the parties.
External circumstances can be considered by the courts when interpreting contracts between disputing parties.

So how does this all work?

If courts are supposed to consider the contract as the full statement of the parties’ rights and obligations, but they are able to look at circumstances beyond the contract, how does a judge determine what is the agreement?
Firstly, the contract is still the primary document that is interpreted. The evidence considered by a court of what has been said or what has happened outside of the contract cannot be used to give the contract a meaning that is contrary to what the contract clearly states.
Put another way, evidence outside of the contract cannot be used to add to, vary or contradict the language of the written contract. This is the case no matter how unjust or inconvenient the written terms are. This makes sense, as effective relations depend on the meaning of an agreement being fixed and clear.
Permitting outside factors to change the meaning of a contract introduces significant uncertainty. As any businessperson will know, where there is uncertainty there is conflict. A party could for example attempt to impose its own view on the meaning of the document. External conduct is used to make the meaning of the contract clearer, not to change it. In practice, however, the line between these two can be very difficult to draw.
Secondly, matters outside of the contract become relevant only where there is ambiguity or more than one meaning in what is inside the contract. Words may have different meanings in different contexts, so the context is important in choosing the right interpretation.
To this end, courts may consider the commercial purpose of the contract, the market and industry in which it arose, and the factual background of the agreement. All of this can shed light onto what the parties “must have” intended when they drafted the contract.
It is important to note that courts will only consider outside circumstances that are known to both parties.
However, courts will only consider these factors if the meaning of the written document is not clear. Negotiations that occurred prior to the signing of the agreement are also rarely considered, for the simple reason that they do not often show what was agreed.

For example …

Cherry v Steele-Park [2017] NSWCA 295 was a case that turned on the meaning of a deed of guarantee. Specifically, whether this deed of guarantee required the guarantor to pay the damages that resulted from the failure of their company to complete a contract for sale of land. The guarantor argued that the deed only covered the amounts promised for extending the contract’s completion date. The difference was around $145,750.
The case appeared to challenge the principles talked about above.
The argument was around whether the meaning of term had to be ambiguous before a court would admit evidence outside of the contract to explain its meaning. What happens when a term that appears to have a plain meaning “becomes” ambiguous only when outside material is introduced?
The answer is that as long as the evidence is relevant as information about the genesis or purpose of the transaction, it can bear on the contractual language and can be considered. Then the court will make a conclusion about whether the written terms are clear or ambiguous.
In Cherry v Steele-Park, Cherry wanted to include in evidence emails exchanged between the parties, that represented negotiating positions that were communicated between the parties. (As a side note, it was important that both parties knew about these emails when entering the contract.)
The Court considered the emails. However, the case ultimately reinforces not challenges the conclusions talked about above. The interpretation of the clause given by the court ultimately did not bend to what was said in these emails.
Rather, the Court considered as primary the terms and the structure of the contract, including the definitions and the generality of their language. The interpretation put forward by Cherry was some but clearly not all of the guarantee.
The Court concluded that the emails did not defeat “the wide words in the Guarantee”. The emails showed that there may have been a commercial purpose to make a limited guarantee. However, this context could not overcome the content of the Guarantee. Or, as Leeming JA stated, “such context – even relatively powerful evidence of context such as the present – does not warrant doing the violence to the general language of the document executed by them that they require.”
It was in effect a warning, that regardless of how persuasive evidence of negotiations is, it will not limit or take away from what is stated in a contractual document.

Conclusion

Prevention is always better than the cure. In the early stages of a commercial agreement, a little expense given to ensuring a contract tabled between the parties truly expresses your intentions goes a long way to preventing protracted disputes.
Problems can arise even between parties with a great relationship, and as discussed, once a problem does arise courts will be very reluctant to look beyond the written document that was exchanged. What this written document says will be of paramount importance, so it is worth the extra attention.
If you or someone you know wants more information or needs help or advice, please contact us on +61 2 9248 3450 or email info@bradburylegal.com.au