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Adjudication payment triggered implied contractual right to recover overpayment

Adjudication in construction disputes is designed to provide provisional resolution of disputes to preserve cash flow but the outcome is subject to final determination in later legal proceedings.

Provisions are implied into a construction contract under section 108(5) of the Housing Grants, Construction and Regeneration Act 1996, read with the Scheme for Construction Contracts (England and Wales) Regulations 1998 (“the Scheme”).

By providing that the decision of an adjudicator is binding and that the parties shall “comply with it”, paragraph 23(2) of the Scheme makes the decision enforceable for the time being. It is enforceable by action founded on the contractual obligation to comply with the decision combined, in a normal case, with an application for summary judgment.

The limitation period for enforcement will be six years from the adjudicator’s decision. But the decision is only binding and the obligation to comply with it only lasts “until the dispute is finally determined” in one of the ways identified.

By use of the word “until”, paragraph 23(2) appears to contemplate that there will necessarily be such a determination. The short time limits provided by paragraph 19(1) also indicate that adjudication was envisaged as a speedy provisional measure, pending such a determination.

But there is nothing to prevent adjudication being requested long after a dispute has arisen and without the commencement of any proceedings.

Also its unlikely that the Scheme imposes on either party any sort of obligation to start court or arbitration proceedings in order to confirm its entitlement.

Either or both of the parties might understandably be content to let matters lie.

The Supreme Court in Aspect Contracts (Asbestos) Ltd v Higgins Construction Plc (2015) has now provided some guidance as to when those proceedings must be brought and has come to some conclusions which could have bizarrely inconsistent results.

In that case Aspect had failed to pick up some asbestos on a survey which later impeded and added cost to Higgins’ contruction work. Higgins were awarded over £600,000 adjudication which was 75% of their claim. Aspect paid.

The contract was not entered into as a deed so the limitation period for bringing proceedings for breach of it was 6 years rather than 12 years from breach.

More than 6 years after their breach of contract Aspect sought recovery of monies they had paid Higgins under that adjudication award. However they issued proceedings for it within 6 years of paying it.

Aspect rested its claim on an implied term, alternatively in restitution.

The implied term was that:

“in the event that a dispute between the parties was referred to adjudication pursuant to the Scheme and one party paid money to the other in compliance with the adjudicator’s decision made pursuant to the Scheme, that party remained entitled to have the decision finally determined by legal proceedings and, if or to the extent that the dispute was finally determined in its favour, to have that money repaid to it.”

The court said it was a necessary legal consequence of the Scheme implied by the 1996 Act into the parties’ contractual relationship that Aspect must have a directly enforceable right to recover any overpayment to which the adjudicator’s decision had led to, once there had been a final determination of the dispute.

The obvious basis for recognising that right was by way of implication arising from the Scheme provisions which were themselves implied into the construction contract.

If and so far as the court’s decision abolishes the basis on which the payment was made an overpayment is, retrospectively, established. Repayment must then be required either by contractual implication or, if not, then as an independent restitutionary obligation.

Since Aspect’s cause of action arose from payment and was only for repayment, then whether it was analysed as in implied contractual terms or restitutionary terms, it was a cause of action which could be brought at any time within six years after the date of payment to Higgins on 6 August 2009.

Higgins complained that this gave Aspect a one-way throw and undermined finality. By delaying commencement of the present claim until 2012, Aspect can sue to recover all or part of the £658,017 paid to Higgins, without having the risk of ending up worse off, since Higgins was barred by limitation from pursuing the £331,855 balance of its original claim.

That, however, resulted from Higgins’s own decision not to commence legal proceedings within six years from April 2004 or early 2005 and |Higgins has assumed the risk of not confirming (and foregoing the possibility of improving upon) the adjudication award it had received.

Adjudication had been conceived as a provisional mechanism, pending a final determination of the dispute.

Though it was understandable that Higgins should wish matters to lie as they were following the adjudication decision, Higgins could not ensure that matters would so lie without either pursuing legal or arbitral proceedings to a conclusion or obtaining Aspect’s agreement. In the absence of Higgins doing that there would be finality.

This post is made out of general interest. It does not replace the need to get bespoke legal advice in individualcases.