Melville Dundas Limited (in receivership) and others (Respondents) v. George Wimpey UK Limited and others (Appellants) (Scotland), (2007)

 
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HOUSE OF LORDSSESSION 2006-07 [2007] UKHL 18 on appeal from: OPINIONS OF THE LORDS OF APPEAL FOR JUDGMENT IN THE CAUSE Melville Dundas Limited (in receivership) and others (Respondents) v. George Wimpey UK Limited and others (Appellants) (Scotland) Appellate Committee Lord Hoffmann Lord Hope of Craighead Lord Walker of Gestingthorpe Lord Mance Lord Neuberger of Abbotsbury CounselAppellants: Robert Akenhead QC Sean Smith (Instructed by MacRoberts)Respondents: Robert Howie QC Jonathan Lake (Instructed by Maclay Murray & Spens)Hearing dates: 12 and 13 March 2007ON WEDNESDAY 25 APRIL 2007HOUSE OF LORDSOPINIONS OF THE LORDS OF APPEAL FOR JUDGMENTIN THE CAUSEMelville Dundas Limited (in receivership) and others (Respondents) v. George Wimpey UK Limited and others (Appellants) (Scotland)[2007] UKHL 18LORD HOFFMANNMy Lords,1.  This is a dispute over liability to make an interim payment under a building contract. The facts may be shortly stated. The appellant George Wimpey UK Ltd ("Wimpey") contracted with the respondent Melville Dundas Ltd ("the contractor") for the construction of a housing development in Whitecraigs, Glasgow for a total sum of £7,088,270. The contract incorporated the conditions of JCT Standard Form of Building Contract with Contractor's Design (1998 edition) which provided in clause 30 for monthly applications for interim payments. By clause 30.3.6 the final date for payment of the amount due in an interim payment was 14 days after receipt by the employer of the application.2.  On 2 May 2003 the contractor applied for an interim payment of £396,630. There is no dispute that the contractor was entitled to be paid that sum or that the final date for payment was therefore 16 May 2003. Wimpey did not pay on that date and on 22 May 2003 administrative receivers of the contractor were appointed by its bank. Clause 27.3.4 provides that if the contractor has an administrative receiver appointed, the employer may determine the employment of the contractor. Wimpey exercised this right on 30 May 2003. That brought into effect clause 27.6.5.1, which is central to the dispute:"Subject to clauses 27.5.3 and 27.6.5.2 the provisions of this contract which require any further payment or any release or further release of retention to the contractor shall not apply; provided that clause 27.6.5.1 shall not be construed so as to prevent the enforcement by the contractor of any rights under this contract in respect of amounts properly due to be paid by the employer to the contractor which the employer has unreasonably not paid and which, where clause 27.3.4 applies, have accrued 28 days or more before the date when under clause 27.3.4 the employer could first give notice to determine the employment of the contractor…"3.  In the lower courts it appears to have been conceded that the effect of this clause was that upon determination by Wimpey, the interim payment was no longer payable. It had accrued less than 28 days before 22 May 2003, which was the date on which Wimpey could first have given notice of determination. Before the House, however, Mr Howie QC submitted on behalf of the contractor that the words "which require any further payment…to the contractor" should be read to mean "which give rise to any further liability to make payments to the contractor" and have no application to a liability for interim payment which has already accrued. In my opinion this is not what the clause says. "Require any further payment" means require the employer to pay any more money. Mr Howie's construction would make the proviso pointless, since the clause could not then apply to any amounts "properly due to be paid by the employer to the contractor", whenever they had accrued.4.  The next question is whether the effect of clause 27.6.5.1 is invalidated by the provisions of Part II of the Housing Grants, Construction and Regeneration Act 1996. These were enacted to give effect to certain of the recommendations of Sir Michael Latham's report Constructing the Team (1994). Broadly speaking, they deal with three topics: summary adjudication to enable the parties to obtain a provisional but enforceable ruling on any matter in dispute (section 108); entitlement to stage payments (sections 109 and 110) and the prohibition of conditional payment provisions (section 113). There are also certain provisions about notices in sections 110 and 111 to which I shall return later.5.  The only provisions directly relevant to the validity of clause 27.6.5.1 are those which concern the entitlement to stage payments. The effect of the clause is to disentitle a contractor from being paid an instalment to which, until determination under clause 27.3.4, he would have been entitled under the contract. Is there anything in the Act which says that the contract cannot so provide? Section 109(1) says that, subject to an exception for short contracts—"A party to a construction contract is entitled to payment by instalments, stage payments or other periodic payments for any work done under the contract"6.  In addition, section 110(1) provides that—"Every construction contract shall—(a)  provide an adequate mechanism for determining what payments become due under the contract, and when, and(b)  provide for a final date for payment in relation to any sum which becomes due.The parties are free to agree how long the period is to be between the date on which a sum becomes due and the final date for payment."7.  If the contract does not comply with the requirements of sections 109 and 110(1), the terms of a statutory model contract called "the Scheme for Construction Contracts" are to apply instead. It is not however suggested that the JCT conditions failed to provide for payment by instalments or for the matters mentioned in section 110(1). The question is whether they could in addition provide that in the circumstances specified in clause 27.6.5.1, an instalment payment which had previously been payable should cease to be payable.8.  Apart from the requirements of sections 109(1) and 110(1), the Act does not purport to interfere with the freedom of the parties to make their own terms about interim payments. Section 109(2) says:"The parties are free to agree the amounts of the payments and the intervals at which, or circumstances in which, they become due."9.  The references to "circumstances" shows that Parliament did not require that stage payments should become inexorably due at fixed intervals but that liability to pay them could be subject to contingency. Mr Howie submitted that the parties were free to agree on the circumstances in which interim payments would "become due" but not on any circumstances in which, having become due, they would cease to be due. In my opinion this is an over-literal reading of legislation which was intended to have practical application to a wide variety of contractual relationships. I can think of no reason why Parliament should have left the parties free to agree the circumstances on which instalment payments should fall due but then insisted that nothing should be capable of discharging that liability. Mr Howie suggested that it was in the interests of certainty. But certainty does not require unalterability if the grounds of alteration are sufficiently certain. There can be no uncertainty about whether administrative receivers have been appointed and the contract therefore provides an "adequate mechanism" for determining whether a payment is due.10.  It is apparent from sections 109 and 110(1) that their object was to introduce clarity and certainty as to the terms of a construction contract rather than to dictate to the industry what those terms should be. The only substantive requirement is that the contractor should be "entitled to payment by instalments" and that there should be an adequate mechanism for determining what he is entitled to be paid and when. But the statute goes no further.11.  I would not go so far as to say that there could not be an agreement as to the circumstances in which instalment payments should fall due which would amount in practice to a denial of the entitlement to payment by instalments altogether. But this is not such a case. Instalments payments are in their nature provisional liabilities. As has been frequently said, they are to provide the cash flow for the contractor or sub-contractor to enable him to perform his duties under the contract. But when the contractor's employment has been determined in consequence of the appointment of a receiver, two consequences follow. First, the contractor no longer has any duties to perform. Secondly, the liability to make an interim payment is no longer provisional. While the employer retains the money, he can set it off against his cross-claim for non-completion against the contractor. In practice, where the contractor has become insolvent, the employer will have a cross-claim for damages which exceeds the contractor's claim for unpaid work. On the other hand, once the employer has paid the money, it is gone. It is swept up by the bank's floating charge and the employer will have to prove in the liquidation for his cross-claim. Upon insolvency, liability to make an interim payment therefore becomes a matter which relates not to cash flow but to the substantive rights of the employer on the one hand and the contractor's secured or unsecured creditors on the other.12.  The Inner House ([2006] SLT 95) in holding that clause 27.6.5.1 was in conflict with the terms of the 1996 Act, said (at p. 104) that if a contractor became insolvent, Parliament "has provided quite clearly that…the losses should be borne by the…employers under the contract." My Lords, I can find no trace of such an intention. It seems to me most unlikely that Parliament intended that provisions intended to improve the efficiency of the construction industry should determine priorities between the employer and an insolvent contractor's creditors. The Inner House...

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