The float. Own it.

While the vast majority of parties to construction projects understand the practical importance of a program float, the contract provisions that control this issue are increasingly being overlooked. Indeed, in today’s growing construction climate, some of its participants do not seem to understand the effect that contract drafting can have on program contingency and which party actually receives its benefit.

It is now common for projects to be controlled by a ‘critical path’ method of programming. This means that all construction activities are identified, broken down and then plotted onto a matrix which establishes which activities are on the critical path to enable practical completion to be reached by the date for practical completion. Each critical path activity must be started and finished on fixed dates or the completion of the project will be delayed.

However, construction activities which are not on the critical path are assigned completion periods longer than actually required for the activity, during which the construction activity may be completed without delaying the entire project. The ‘float’ is the period between the earliest possible start and the latest possible finish, less the actual time taken to complete the activity itself. If completion of an activity is delayed beyond its available ‘float’, it becomes a critical path activity in relation to which further delay will result in practical completion not being achieved by the date for practical completion, and consequently the contractor may be liable to the principal for liquidated damages.

So the ‘float’ is the period of time that a contractor includes in its program to enable it to accommodate various risks (such as industrial action or wet weather). Traditionally, it has been accepted that the float is a ‘buffer’ and risk management tool for the benefit of the contractor (meaning that the contractor ‘owns the float’). However, after many years of contracts being amended to be more ‘principal-friendly’, many projects are currently moving forward in circumstances where the principal owns the float. While this, of itself, is not an issue (indeed, many contracting parties negotiate a position under which the principal owns the float for good reason), contractors and principals alike need to ensure that they understand the effect of drafting amendments included in many of today’s contracts.

Ownership of the float is dependent on interpretation of contractual provisions, and in the absence of such clear provisions, the principles of common law. The three possibilities are:

  1. the contractor owns the float; or
  2. the principal owns the float; or
  3. neither party owns the float.

So who should own the float?

Proponents for ‘the contractor owns the float’ position argue that the contractor is entitled to use the float for his own risk events and program rescheduling. The argument is based on the fact that the contractor is the party who develops and owns the program, and if work is planned and carried out in a way that allows for a float, then the contractor should be entitled to the benefit of that float.

Proponents for ‘the principal owns the float’ position argue that because the value of the float forms part of the contract price, and the program is one of the tools to manage the project, the principal should be able to control the float to reduce its costs and control progress. Further, the theory is that the only effect in using the float, is the reduction of the float, which does not affect project completion. On this reasoning, it is viewed as unfair (and unnecessary) to grant the contractor an extension of time while the contractor did not, in fact, suffer any delays to project completion (and will not therefore be liable for liquidated damages).

Each of these possibilities has its own merits. However, at common law, where no express agreement to the contrary exists, the float is not owned by either party. In theory, this should be for the benefit of both parties (as needed throughout the project) for the benefit of the project, however more often than not, this leads to uncertainty and dispute.

The parties’ intentions as to who ‘owns the float’ should be addressed expressly when drafting construction contracts. Properly drafted clauses can avoid disputes arising during the course of the project and they can minimise the incentive to claim extensions of time prematurely (for the purpose of using up the float).

Where a contract provides that an EOT may be granted whenever the contractor is delayed in reaching practical completion, the float remains ‘intact’ and can be carried forward by the contractor to use for its benefit where ‘non-qualifying’ causes of delay arise. For example, Australian Standard contract AS4902 provides:

The Contractor shall be entitled to such extension of time for carrying out WUC (including reaching practical completion) as the Superintendent assesses (‘EOT ’), if:

(a) the Contractor is or will be delayed in reaching practical completion by a qualifying cause of delay; and

Such drafting results in the contractor ‘owning the float’.

Alternatively, where a contract provides that an EOT will be granted only in circumstances where the delay will prevent practical completion being achieved by the date for practical completion, this means that the float needs to be used up before an EOT will be granted.

For example:

The Contractor shall be entitled to such extension of time for carrying out WUC (including reaching practical completion) as the Superintendent assesses (‘EOT ’), if:

(a) the Contractor is or will be delayed in reaching practical completion by the date for practical completion by a qualifying cause of delay; and

The inclusion of the words ‘by the date for practical completion’ results in the principal ‘owning the float’.

Courts are traditionally reluctant to imply obligations on parties to take action to preserve program floats and/or achieve completion dates, so it is important that parties ensure that the contract they are signing gives effect to the parties’ practical understanding of the float, and for whose benefit it is included.

Respondents despondent as the Court of Appeal further narrows scope for judicial review

In an important decision for adjudications in New South Wales, the Court of Appeal has determined that the existence of a reference date is not a “jurisdictional fact” that warrants intervention by the Courts.  The decision of Lewence Constructions Pty Ltd v Southern Han Breakfast Point Pty Ltd [2015] NSWCA 288 marks an about turn from previous Supreme Court decisions where adjudication determinations have been quashed for lack of a reference date1.  In a unanimous decision, the Court of Appeal has determined that the existence of a reference date is a matter to be determined by the adjudicator, not the Court.

Relevant sections of the Security of Payment Act

Essentially, the Court considered the effect of sections 8 and 13 of the Act.

The Court of Appeal considered the extent to which “On and from each reference date” in section 8(1) of the Act was an essential pre-condition for making a payment claim.  The Court found that it was not.

The Court placed emphasis on the words “or claims to be” in section 13(1) of the Act to support the finding that a dispute as to a person’s entitlement to a progress payment (including whether or not a reference date existed) does not preclude the making of a valid payment claim.

The role of the adjudicator

It is a matter for the adjudicator to determine when a reference date arises under a contract or the Act.  Unless it can be established that the payment claim is the second payment claim in respect of the same reference date (in which case the second payment claim cannot be validly served), the adjudicator’s determination as to the existence of a reference date cannot be subject of judicial review.

In theory, respondents now have one less reason to apply to the Supreme Court if they are dissatisfied with the adjudicator’s determination.

Having said that, practically speaking, a typical reason for a respondent to assert that there is no reference date for a payment claim is because the payment claim is alleged to be the second payment claim in respect of the same reference date, in breach of section 13(5) of the Act.  The Court of Appeal has confirmed that section 13(5) of the Security of Payment Act prevents more than one payment claim being served in respect of the same reference date and therefore is a jurisdictional fact capable of judicial review.  It is likely that dissatisfied respondents will now alter the approach adopted when applying for judicial review to assert a breach of section 13(5) of the Act, rather than asserting that no reference date existed to make the payment claim.

The construction contract

As previously discussed in our article entitled “Contractors beware: risk of no reference dates after termination”, whether reference dates accrue after termination of a contract depends on the words of the contract.

If the contract makes no provision for reference dates, statutory reference dates under the Security of Payment Act apply and continue to apply after termination of the contract (see our article entitled “The importance of unequivocal termination of construction contracts in the eyes of Security of Payment legislation”).

If the contract makes provision for reference dates, whether reference dates continue to accrue after termination will require an interpretation of the contract by an adjudicator.  To avoid ambiguity, construction contracts should clearly state whether the accrual of reference dates survives termination of the contract.

Far reaching consequences for the validity of payment claims?

The Court of Appeal’s reasoning (at paragraph 93, Ward JA (and similarly at paragraph 120, Emmett JA)) is likely to have even more far reaching consequences than set out above because the Court said:

The appellant was a person who claimed entitlement under the construction contract to progress payments in the general sense contemplated by the Act.  It satisfied the description in s 8(1)(a) and (b).  Whether that claim was valid (including whether it was valid because it was supported by a reference date) is not a jurisdictional fact.

On its face, the word “claim” in the above paragraph may be interpreted as a reference to a payment claim and therefore a finding that an invalid payment claim (for whatever reason) does not warrant judicial intervention.  Further, in paragraph 136, Sackville AJA said:

If s 13(1) of the Act is construed as I think it should be, it permits a claimant to serve a valid payment claim if the following conditions are satisfied:

  • the claimant has undertaken to carry out construction work under a construction contract (or has undertaken to supply goods and services under the contract);
  • the claimant is or claims to be entitled to a progress claim under the construction contract; and
  • the claim is served on the person who, under the construction contract concerned, is or may be liable to make the payment.

A question remains whether a payment claim must comply with section 13(2) of the Act for it to be a valid payment claim and therefore invoke the jurisdiction of the Act.  For example, a payment claim that does not sufficiently identify the construction work claimed or does not claim a particular amount was previously considered to be invalid and a jurisdictional fact capable of judicial review2.

On the face of the Court of Appeal’s judgment, it appears that compliance with section 13(2) of the Act is not a jurisdictional fact and, therefore, whether or not a payment claim complies with section 13(2) of the Act is a matter for the adjudicator that cannot be subject of judicial review.  It is likely that this issue will be the subject of further litigation before the Supreme Court.

Payment claims

It follows from the Court of Appeal’s judgment that, to avoid falling foul of a jurisdictional fact, a payment claim under the Security of Payment Act must, at a minimum, be:

  1. made by a person who has entered into a construction contract (as that term is broadly defined in the Security of Payment Act);
  2. made by a person who has undertaken to carry out construction work or related goods and services;
  3. made by a person who is or, who claims to be, entitled to a progress payment (irrespective of whether or not there exists a reference date or the person, in fact, has any entitlement); and
  4. validly served on the person who is liable to make payment, which includes that:
    – the payment claim must be served in accordance with the requirements of the construction contract or the Act;
    – the payment claim must not be the second payment claim in respect of the same reference date; and
    – if the payment claim is made by a head contractor to a principal, the payment claim attaches a supporting statement in the form prescribed by the Security of Payment Act and that supporting statement cannot be false or misleading in a material particular.

1 Including the recent decisions in Patrick Stevedores Operations No 2 Pty Ltd v McConnell Dowell Constructors (Aust) Pty Ltd [2014] NSWSC 1413 and Omega House Pty Ltd v Khouzame [2014] NSWSC 1837

2 As summarised by Palmer J in Brookhollow Pty Ltd v R & R Consultants Pty Ltd [2006] NSWSC 1