Posts Tagged ‘money’

Public procurement – the not-so-new rules

October 21, 2010

Complaining about unsuccessful public bids – the new rules

Over the last few years, more and more contractors are disputing decisions by public bodies when unsuccessful in public tenders. This has long been the hallmark of construction disputes in Scandanavian countries but represents a shift in the mindset, in view of harsh economic times, of UK contractors. Morrison Facilities Services Limited v Norwich City Council [2010] is a recent example.

In this case, Norwich City Council awarded a contract for £17.5m bid to Connaught Partnerships Limited. All other bids were in the £23m-£26m range, including the one from Morrison.

Morrison complained that Connaught’s tender was accepted despite it being “abnormally low” and that the Council had applied undisclosed criteria when assessing the ‘quality’ of bids. As a result, Morrison applied for an injunction to prevent the award of the contract to Connaught, pending the outcome of a trial on its various claims.

The court ruled that Morrison had a seriously arguable case that Connaught had submitted an abnormally low tender and that the Council had failed fully to investigate whether the bid was sustainable. Furthermore, the Court found that Morrison had a seriously arguable case that the Council had relied on undisclosed award criteria in its assessment of the bids. The Court also concluded that, in the absence of an injunction, damages were an inadequate remedy for Morrison. Thus the injunction was awarded.

Morrison had to endure the costly and lengthy process involved in getting their injunction. Under the new Public Contracts (Amendments) Regulations 2009 (“the 2009 Regulations”) there is an automatic suspension of the tender process as soon as proceedings, such as those commenced by Morrison, are started. The issuing of the claim form (without even a letter before action) is sufficient now  to suspend the contract award process.

As Morrison sought an injunctions before 20 December 2009 (the date that the 2009 Regulations came into force) in order to obtain an injunction Morrison was forced to meet the high threshold for being awarded an injunction, set out in the well known American Cyanamid case.

Under those rules, a claimant needs to show that there is not only a serious issue to be tried, but also that damages would not be an adequate alternative to an injunction. Furthermore, a claimant has to show that the balance of convenience does not favour the contracting authority entering into the contract. A claimant also risks being held liable for the contracting authority’s costs, should they successfully resist the claim. This combination represented a significant hurdle for potential claimants to overcome for contractors, some of whom have limited resources, when constantly unsuccessful in public tenders for no good apparent reason.

Since 20 December 2009, when proceedings alleging a breach of public procurement procedure are brought at the contract award stage and before the contract is entered into, the contracting authority must automatically suspend the procurement process. There is no need to apply for an injunction to prevent the contract in question being awarded.

This suspension remains in force until proceedings are determined or discontinued, or until the court passes an interim order lifting the suspension. This shifts the balance much more in favour of aggrieved bidders. The onus is now on the contracting authority to have the suspension lifted.

It is important to respect the timeframes within the 2009 Regulations and to note especially that:

  • proceedings must be started promptly and, in any event, within three months beginning with the date when grounds for starting the proceedings first arose. Proceedings need not be started before the end of the standstill period.
  • proceedings which seek a declaration of ineffectiveness must be brought within six months from the date of the contract, if there has been no publication, or 30 days beginning on the day after the date on which a contract award notice is published in the Official Journal or when the contacting authority has informed the bidder. However, in the 2009 Regulations, the 30 day time period only begins in case of notification to the bidder on the day after the date on which the bidder receives a summary of the relevant reasons, as well as being informed of the conclusion of the contract.
  •  a claim form can be issued even though the contracting authority has not been informed of the breach or anticipated breach of duty. The requirement for a letter before action is therefore removed.

 

The scope for the application of the 2009 Regulations is clear to see in overcoming the initial hurdle and to mitigate the risk of the contract being awarded quickly without others being able to air their grievances. Success will depend on advancing legitimate grounds and not simply using these enhanced remedies as a strategic tool to prevent competitors benefiting from a legitimate award.

NEC3 – the finished product for effective procurement?

October 5, 2010

Is NEC3 the finished product for effective procurement?

I recall having a similar discussion about 5 years ago when NEC3 was first published. At that time, we were seeking to make sense of the changes from the second to third edition for clients.

Five years on, where are we? Our experience is that certain perennial debates are still ongoing such as:

–          Contract formation: how do clients achieve the desired result by choosing the various options;

–          Partnering: what exactly does it mean?

–          Life: how do I cope with industry expectations/evils which threaten the  precise workings of the contract?

An appraisal of NEC3, as with all industry form contracts, must come with a caveat attached. It is all-too-easy to criticise a particular contract for its failings. Contracts are not meant to be and cannot be one size fits all, which must be borne in mind here.

There are real benefits to using the NEC suite, as we all know. The three main advantages are often hailed as flexibility, simplicity and clarity.

But is that due to the terms of the contract itself, such as the early warning mechanism, or are other factors in play? How much of its apparent success is also due to market forces or strong on site project management.

It is, of course, slightly disingenuous to criticise a contract that may substantially avoid disputes by its very operation. But from a legal perspective there are aspects which, if tested, could result in the consequences of certain ambiguities in drafting being magnified.

There are, in reality, both pluses and negatives as with any contract.

Flexibility vs clarity

One of the core features of the NEC3 is, of course, its flexibility.

The forms can be used for any procurement method in an international, multi-discipline environment (be it building, civil, process engineering etc) and whether it includes contractual design or not:.

The contract is made up of various sections, as we all know:

– 9 core clause selecting the appropriate main option clause;

– 15 secondary option clauses;

– bespoke terms or amendments from the Z clauses; and

– a choice of two different schedules of cost components.

The negatives with NEC3 are exacerbated by inexperience and lack of care which may inadvertently result in no contract at all being agreed, or at least not in the way parties intended.

In terms of adjudication, there may not be a contract sufficiently evidenced in writing to enable an adjudication to take place but that may become less important with the proposed changes to the Construction Act due next year subject to the points below.

From experience, problems in the contract could arise from one or several of the following:

–          A lack of attestation clause affecting insurance cover and the duration of parties’ intended obligations;

–          The scope of services being vaguely drafted;

–          The Employer’s risks ignored in the Contract Data. This is a problem for the Contractor since it bears the risk of any not so stated.

–          In relation to the risk register, there is only an obligation to record; not to do – decision making is not mandatory (condition 16.3)

–          There may be a lack of proper programme or a failure to set out adequately sectional completion information. (X5) must be included within the contract;

–          Confusion as to the meaning and consequences of key dates as opposed to section completion dates. For clarity, a key date is an obligation to meet the condition stated in the contract by that time, whereas a section completion date acts as a trigger for the Employer to take over the works not later than two weeks after completion.

 

May be a lack of contract at all…does it really matter?

The well-known case of RJT Consulting Engineers Ltd v DM Engineering (NI) Ltd  may well be overturned by the amendments to the Construction Act but at the risk of uncertainty as to payment terms. Additionally, the right to adjudicate will still need to be in writing.

A fundamental lack of agreement over rates will remain a fertile ground for dispute, irrespective of the procedural requirements. Experience suggests that this seems to arise when the draft contract goes out to tender, the contractors then price on the information given but the contract data is sometimes never firmed up.

As a practical point, you should always get the contract data firmed up as soon as accepted, whichever side of the fence you are on. Why leave it to chance when you are undoubtedly dedicating so much administrative resource to the operation of the contract anyway?

Partnering – meaning and enforceability

Core clause 10.1, of course, states: “The Employer, the Contractor, the Project Manager and the Supervisor shall act as stated in this contract and in the spirit of mutual trust and co-operation.”

The simple problem is determining precisely what this clause means.

Core clause 10.1 comes close to a requirement to act in good faith and reflects the good faith requirements of those countries that operate under a civil code. This doesn’t work so well in England & Wales, which has a common law system. A few cases have tried to make sense of it though.

See, for example, Bedfordshire County Council v Fitzpatrick Contractors Limited [1998] where Dyson J would not imply such a term into a road maintenance contract that neither party should conduct itself in such a way that would “damage the relationship or confidence in trust” between them.

One reason for this was the care taken by the parties to detail out the terms which were to govern their contract. There was no scope to imply this further relationship.

One thing is clear from this case – being too prescriptive in terms can result in the parties losing the whole ethos of partnering. The problem is that not prescriptive enough risk the terms being too uncertain to be enforceable.

On the other hand, in Petromec Inc and Others v Petrobras and Others the Court of Appeal had to consider the whether an agreement to negotiate in good faith was enforceable. It was said the Court of Appeal because:

  • The requirement was expressly agreed by the parties as part of a contract drawn up by lawyers.
  • The Court recognised that it would be able to calculate the cost referred to and so would be able to establish whether there was a lack of good faith on the part of a party.

The questions then arise – (1) what is the standard of care in partnering and (2) how do you measure it to know if the standard has been breached?

As a reminder, it does appear that the English courts will pay attention to the intentions of the parties. Birse Construction v St David Limited is such an illustration  in which the  terms of a partnering charter was deemed not to be, and never intended to be, a binding contract even though it had been signed by the parties. As the judge said, the terms, whilst:

“clearly not legally binding, are important for they were clearly intended to provide the standard by which the parties were to conduct themselves and against which their conduct and attitude were to be measured.

This is the approach that any judge or adjudicator should follow if asked to consider the effect of core clause 10.1 in NEC3.

How do you establish the standard of care in partnering? The answer is to  list out any activities which demonstrate that the parties are acting in good faith.

How do you measure the standard? By the use of KPIs as an option to ensure that objectives surrounding cost, completion and accuracy are achievable.

Please mind the gap…z clauses

Notwithstanding the above, some would suggest that the lack of detail contained in NEC3 can lead to ambiguity and that clarity in respect of certain matters should be set out at the outset, rather than as particular events occur. Accordingly, Z clauses may typically address the following:

  • The provision of collateral warranties. Notwithstanding the Contracts (Rights of Third Parties) Act 1999, the construction industry still relies heavily on collateral warranties. It is often the case that funders, tenants and the like will insist on an employer procuring collateral warranties from its contractor. An employer will therefore be forced to include such provision within the contract;

 

  • Copyright. Where a contractor has design responsibility, it is important to include a provision addressing matters relating to copyright. Without such clarity the employer’s rights, if any, to use the design would be uncertain.

 

  • Prohibited materials and Codes of Practice. Again, where a contractor has design responsibility a provision requiring the contractor to refrain from using prohibited materials in design and construction may be necessary so as to prevent the use of unsuitable materials;

 

  • Assignment. A provision prohibiting the contractor from assigning the contract may be necessary so that the employer has certainty in respect of who is actually carrying out the works.

 

  • Confidentiality clauses – of particular importance in the public sector.

 

  • Project specific definitions – one size does not fit all, as mentioned earlier.  

 

  • Notice to Contractor of any third party interests, e.g. a landlord or funder, so that it does not act inconsistently and inadvertently put Employer in breach of its obligations. If the Contractor cannot comply, then it is best to say upfront at which point relief from any indemnity that may be put in.

 

  • Details of the insurance provisions actually in place for the project.

 What should be remembered is that Z clauses are not intended to substantially rewrite the standard clauses of contract. Indeed, improper use of Z clauses can be problematic.

No doubt it is quite easy for parties to simply “cut and paste” provisions contained in some “special conditions” or a “schedule of amendments” into Z clauses. The problem is that in doing this the parties can quite easily fall back into old habits, thereby defeating the benefits of using the NEC. Put simply, wholesale amendments to the standard form through the use of Z clauses should normally be resisted.

Saying that…certain conditions are (by the parties’ desire for clarity as to their consequences) still amended and redress the contractual balance. For example, dealing with the consequences of ambiguities/inconsistencies being discovered in condition 17.1.

Unamended, the Contractor is duty bound to notify the Employer of any ambiguity or inconsistency between “documents which are part of this contract.” Normally, an instruction follows. If it amends the Works Information, then this normally amounts to a Compensation Event.

A proportionate amendment would be to avoid the Contractor benefiting from its own breach where it fails to submit design information to the Employer and this leads to direct loss or delay.

What’s the feeling – does it tick all the boxes?

Success in using NEC3 requires a lot of pragmatism. Get the contract formation right and get the legal obligations drafted carefully so that they are effective. Partnering works when it can be measured.

There remain other barriers to effective procurement in addition to the legal uncertainties mentioned above including:

• The change in mindset required in complying with NEC3 weighed against the appearance of being “contractual”.

Experience of managing a project on NEC3 terms.

Resource having to deal with an administratively burdensome contract.

Knowledge The increased use of NEC3 by both the public and private sector.

Get this right and the benefits can be considerable leading to cost savings and success in terms of delivery.

FIDIC – engineering a smooth project

May 7, 2010

Another week, another blog post…

I initially wrote this briefing note as an aide memoire for the RICS in November 2009 as part of their series of talks to a visiting Chinese delegation tasked with understand more about FIDIC as a possible procurement tool for the upgrade of their domestic electricity supply infrastructure.

I hope this short-hand note is of wider interest to some of you.

Overview

Since 1999, the FIDIC forms have been popular for all types of engineering projects, in particular those that are project financed. Lenders appreciate the greater certainty afforded in terms of project costs.

The performance of the asset to be built is typically critical to the lender’s security insofar as the loan is normally linked to its ability to operate and generate revenue e.g. selling electricity. Therefore, there is much emphasis in FIDIC on testing, commissioning and handover procedures and the use of key performance indicators to measure time, cost, designed production and output levels. Full completion is not deemed to have been achieved until final performance tests have been carried out and results positive.

The hallmark of FIDIC is balanced risk. In the context of the turnkey version (the Silver Book), the contractor is tasked with achieving the performance of whatever is necessary for a certain purpose. For example, the particular yield of power generation.   But it is not the case that all risk is necessarily transferred to the turnkey contractor in FIDIC, despite assumptions. Many large project involve several specialist turnkey contractors.

This can cause interface problems, as a contractor will not be willing to assume another’s work given the performance tests that it knows it must satisfy. Also, if plant and machinery are brought in on licence from a 3rd party, a contractor will not assure its performance.

Further, contractors are increasingly risk adverse in the current market. This means that they may wish to design first and then enter into a full FIDIC turnkey contract at a later stage. The risk is that the contractor will then seek to re-negotiate the terms of the FIDIC contract unless there is a mechanism at the time of contracting for design and placing of materials, for them to then enter into the FIDIC contract with its obligations.

Traits of FIDIC:

–         fixed price;

–         contractor can organise itself as it sees fit provided it achieves the deliverables;

–         Employer exercises limited control provided informed of programme and progress; and

–         Contractor must prove the reliability and performance of plant and material.

 The guidance published alongside the contract explains that FIDIC is not suitable in the following circumstances; namely where:

–        there is insufficient time for checking relevant information and scrutinising the Employer’s requirements. This is not a contract to ‘bounce’ on contractors to gain a commercial advantage in tendering;

–        the works involve a lot of underground work or areas where the contractor cannot verify the physical conditions;

–         if Employer needs to supervise closely or inspect the drawings closely throught the build and installation; or

–         if interim payments require an official or other intermediary to certify them.

There are cost implications, so the suite may not always be commercially viable for all projects. NEC3 may be better for more straightforward projects.

Specific points in the standard form

Priority of documents – be aware that the standard form may be amended. The terms of any other Contract Agreement always take precedence (clause 1.6).

Non assignable without consent (clause 1.7)

Responsibility for noticing errors or defects on both parties, not just the contractor as in some other standard forms (clause 1.8)

Duty on the Employer with helping the Contractor to obtain consents where the contractor asks the employer to do so (clause 2.2).

Concept of “Determinations” – a process by which the employer and contractor shall consult and endeavour to reach an agreement on any matter arising (clause 3.5). Leave for either party to refer a dispute to a Dispute Adjudication Board’s Decision (DAB).

Fit for purpose obligation (clause 4.1). Rare in other forms but success in FIDIC is measured by performance.

Contractor automatically needs to provide security to assure its performance. Not a matter for negotiation as in other forms. Clause 4.2 lays out the triggers for the employer using that security (normally upon 42 days contractor default).

Can’t subcontract all of the works (clause 4.4), so cannot be used as a management contract.

Implicit in the terms that labour will be of a sufficient standard and paid a sufficient wage according the local rates.

Employer can ask Contractor to search for the cause of defects (clause 11.8).Cost agreed and added to the Contract Price.

Acceptance by the employer of the works not achieved until Performance Certificate issued (clause 11.9), which is normally 28 days after the last Defect Notification Period has expired.

Scope for value engineering but no obligation to achieve savings (clause 13.2).

The main areas of negotiation

Ground conditions

The Employer provides all the relevant data on sub-surface conditions not later than 28 days prior to submission of tender.

Contractor deemed to base contract amount on data.

In the red and yellow book, the Contractor is however only responsible for interpreting the data – the accuracy of that data is warranted by the Employer who carries the risk of any physical conditions that are not reasonably foreseen at the date of the tender.

In the Silver book however, due to its turnkey nature, the Contractor takes all risk including any unforeseen conditions apart from items listed in clause 5.1 which include the purpose of the works and any specific information which the Employer can only verify contained in the Employer’s Requirements.  The contract price will not be amended otherwise.

One way contractors seek to get around the onerous conditions, if not negotiated out, is to obtain all relevant reports before tendering and then to make all assumptions based on that material. The risk stays with the employer in such circumstances if there is any variance between those assumptions and the physical conditions as any incidence is deemed to be unforeseen in such circumstances.

Handover, testing and commissioning

There is problem where the employer wants to start selling electricity as soon as it is being generated following commissioning. This is however prior to performance testing.

The employer can prejudice itself if it takes over before tests are completed. It is wise to wait.

Force majeure

Time and cost impact stays with the Employer unless amended.

FIDIC is a very effective contract provided to know and adapt to its limitations. Hopefully, this short article goes some way to explaining how to avoid its pitfalls.