Risky Business: Don’t start work until you’ve finalised the contract

A new legal ruling is a stark warning to contractors about beginning work on a project without finalising the contract first, says a leading construction consultancy. 

MPG, which advises contractors, employers and project managers worldwide, says the industry should take note of the Court of Appeal decision. It reversed a previous decision on the dispute between AMEC and Arcadis, ruling that even though a contract hadn’t been completed, terms in a letter of instruction still applied. 

MPG’s managing director, Michael Gallucci, says: “In this particular case, it meant there was a legally-binding cap on the contractor’s liability, but the ruling means that any terms in a letter of instruction are binding until there is a finalised contract that specifies a different agreement.” 

Problems began when Arcadis was employed to design a car park and began work with only a letter of instruction from the employer, AMEC. It was planned that both would sign up to a detailed contract but it was not finalised. 

When it was discovered that the car park had to be rebuilt because of faults, Arcadis rejected claims that it was liable because of design error. It also said a cap on liability had been agreed at £610,000, compared with the £40 million cost of rebuilding the structure. 

When the case first came to the Technology and Construction Court, those claims were rejected, meaning Arcadis would be fully liable, but the Court of Appeal ruled otherwise. That was because even though the letter of instruction didn’t mention a liability cap, it alluded to pre-existing terms and conditions agreed between the two companies on another project, which did specify a cap. 

Michael sums up: “It’s often tempting to forge onwards with a project but contractors do so at their peril without a finalised contract in place. We would advise all parties to ensure that an adequate contract is concluded before work starts, and that the contractor has effective programmes in place to ensure that any claim that does arise can be resolved without the need to go to court. That might seem obvious but it is surprising how many projects go ahead without these fundamentals in place. It is one reason that the construction sector is beset by legal disputes, so contractors, employers and PMs involved with new projects all have a responsibility to ensure best practice is observed before work begins and throughout the lifetime of the project.” 

For more information, or advice on construction contracts, contact Michael Gallucci LLM MRICS MCIArb MAE, Managing Director, MPG, Email: michael.galucci@mpgqs.com