Dangers of Terminating Building Contracts before Contractual Stages are Completed

Dangers of Terminating Building Contracts before Contractual Stages are Completed

31 May 2021

By Justin Cotton, Director, Lovegrove & Cotton – Construction and Planning Lawyers

In Victorian domestic building contract administration, it is considered contrary to the legislative scheme under the Domestic Building Contracts Act 1995 (Vic) (‘DBCA’) for a payment claims under DBCA Method 1 to be made out of sequence and/or where prior stages have not been completed. Moreover, the case law in Victoria favours a narrow and tight definition of ‘Lock Up stage’ in the building process. There are also very strict requirements for the issuing of suspension notices by builders on the grounds of late payment by an owner after the issuing of a payment claim. The laws surrounding payment claims in Victoria are therefore quite strict.

Cardona v Brown

Cardona v Brown (2012) 35 VR 358, a decision of the Victorian Supreme Court of Appeal, concerned issues surrounding payment claims under DBCA Section 40 (what we will refer to as “Method 1” to use HIA standard form contract parlance), specifically whether claims needed to be made in sequence. It also shed light on what is contemplated for completion of certain building stages for purposes of making payment claims. It overturned earlier decisions concerning the same facts at VCAT and the Supreme Court that could be described as more ‘builder friendly’.

The case highlights that it is critical that builders in the residential industry ensure that their contract administration is tight and correct in such matters as:

  • the timing and sequencing of progress payment claims; and
  • how they utilise contract mechanisms such as notices of suspension and notices of default.

You do not necessarily need to see a lawyer to get the simple things right, such as properly documenting variation approvals and extension of time requests. Good, organised paperwork is very important not only for commercial but also domestic building works.

However, it is a wise course to seek advice from a lawyer before taking protective action such as a notice of suspension or a notice of default (or intention to terminate) and you should certainly seek professional assistance in drafting these significant documents.

Requirement that Payment Claims be Made in Sequence

Many industry standard building contracts allow for progress payments to be made pursuant to either Method 1 (i.e. at the completion of the main defined stages) or Method 2. The Court of Appeal found that builders claiming progressively under Method 1 can only make consecutive claims incrementally at the completion of each stage (in accordance with the legal definition of completion of each stage).

This means that the builder can only make the progress claim for each stage payment once the previous stages (and the current stage) have been completed. Further, the claims must be in sequence.

Given that in the past it has been widespread in the industry for some builders to claim Method 1 payments when prior stages had not been fully completed (eg claiming for Fixing stage, even though Lock Up had not been claimed due to some missing brickwork), this decision has now effectively forbidden this practice.

Narrow and Strict Construction of “Lock Up”

But that is not the only discrepancy with industry practice found in the decision. In the past garages have not always been considered to be part of ‘the home’ as it is a class 10a non habitable area – further, builders often delay the installation of the garage door as it can be damaged during construction.

In Cardona the Victorian Court of Appeal found that the garage is indeed part of the home and falls within the scope of the Lock Up stage, if the garage is part of the agreed scope of works in the contract. The Court supported this approach given the wide definition of ‘home’ in the Domestic Building Contracts Act.

Section 40 of the DBCA defines Lock Up stage to be when:

“the home’s external wall cladding and roof covering is fixed, the flooring is laid and external doors and external windows are fixed, (even if those doors or windows are only temporary).”

The Court of Appeal found that the VCAT, at first instance, had made a mistake in not considering whether the garage itself was part of the home. Because it was held that the garage was part of the contract scope and part of the home, the non installation of the garage front door meant the home could not be secure.

Notices of Suspension

Perhaps the most resonant part of this decision for builders is the strict approach taken by the Court of Appeal to the timing of notices of suspension.

Some contracts have contractual provisions that allow the builder to suspend works by notice where the owner fails to pay a progress claim within 7 days after it becomes due or is otherwise in breach of the contract. Here the builder suspended works due to failure to pay for the Lock Up claim, but the suspension started two days too early.

Consequently, the Court decided the builder was not entitled to suspend when it did and so this was a substantial breach of the contract by the builder. Ordinarily this would entitle the owner to then serve the builder with a notice of substantial breach requiring an end to the wrongful suspension.

In the Cardona case, only a letter had been sent on behalf of the owner, arguing that (amongst other matters) the suspension was wrongful, and the Court seemed mindful that even the owner had not strictly complied with the contract by serving the appropriate default notice. However, that did not stop the Court from taking a strict approach to the effect that the wrongful suspension then the failure to return to work when asked constituted a repudiation of the contract by the builder, that the owner was entitled to accept and then sue for damages.

Some people could mount a reasonable argument that the ‘wrongful suspension’, even if it was technically unlawful, should not necessarily amount to a repudiation in and of itself, until such time as the owner followed the correct contract procedure of a notice of default/intention to terminate and then the later notice of termination if the breach remains un-remedied.

Nevertheless this case is a salutary reminder that when tensions on a project mount to the point where such contractual notices are considered or manifested, urgent legal advice from lawyers with construction expertise needs to be sought.

Lovegrove & Cotton Lawyers to the Building Industry

For thirty years, Lovegrove & Cotton have represented builders, building surveyors and building practitioners in Melbourne, Canberra, Sydney and Queensland. Justin Cotton is a leading Australian construction lawyer and widely respected in the building fraternity. Justin is the Chairperson of the HIA Industrial Relations and Legal Services Committee. Lovegrove & Cotton can help practitioners resolve any type of building dispute and are leading in the area of building practitioner advocacy.

If you wish to engage the firm, feel free to contact us via our website or by emailing enquiries@lclawyers.com.au.