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