Opening the mailbox at my Hong Kong apartment block brings the usual array of bills, more bills, flyers and…what appear to be ‘notices’ (usually from my landlord): but as we know from the world of construction law, often it is argued that what is intended to be a ‘notice’ fails to meet up to the strict requirements of the contract.

Yet, how many reported cases are there where the notice provision is strictly enforced? Most commentators struggle to point to a decision where a contractor was deprived of his ability to claim an extension of time solely on the basis of non-compliance with a notice provision. The point sometimes seems more of academic interest than practical application.

The good news for the academics is that this struggle may now be partially over. In the Scottish case of Education 4 Ayrshire Limited v South Ayrshire Council , a contractor tried to claim an extension of time due to the discovery of asbestos. This was a “neutral event”, outside the control of the parties, but one which entitled the contractor to bring a claim.

The court “was minded to dismiss” a claim by a contractor who got into a bit of a contractual and semantic muddle with its notices. (Instead of being actually dismissed, the case was “put out By Order”, a Scottish procedure whereby the case is “returned” to the parties for further consideration in light of the court’s decision.)

The contractual muddle arose in that the contractor gave notice under clause 17.1 of the relevant contract, when it should perhaps have given notice under clause 17.6.1 as well. In terms of semantics, the contractor said “we will submit our full claim in accordance with clause 17.6 of the project agreement”, instead of saying something along the lines of “we hereby give notice of our claim”.

It was accepted by both parties that compliance with the notice requirements was a condition precedent to the right to bring a claim.

The bad news for contractors is that the Judge held that this condition precedent had not been complied with, despite the clear intention of the contractor’s letter.

Most pieces on notices conclude with the usual sage advice about getting notices right. This piece is no exception. In Education 4 Ayrshire the parties accepted that the employer was fully aware of the position regarding the asbestos. He was sent a survey report and attended a meeting to discuss its implications. The employer was also aware that the sub-contractor had claimed an extension of time against the contractor as a result of the same event. Yet the Judge still held the contractor to a very exacting standard regarding the provision of notices.

This was despite the fact that the basic commercial intention of the notice provisions had been satisfied. The employer suffered no prejudice as result of any muddle which the contractor may have got into, semantic or otherwise. However, that did not change the outcome of the case. Just when we were getting our heads round the application of the UK (Technology & Construction Court’s) 2007 decision in Steria Limited v Sigma Wireless Communications Limited, it seems that we are back in the danger zone if there is not strict compliance with contract terms regarding notices’ provisions.

So, just how bad is the news for contractors? As mentioned above, this case concerned a “neutral event”. Had a court reached the same decision following a delay caused by an employer breach or act of prevention, the news for contractors would be worse. It would certainly be very bad news for contractors if decisions like this were handed down by those courts or tribunals in Hong Kong who deal regularly with construction matters. But surely, that would never happen. Or would it…?
With that thought, just as I’m discarding the detritus from my mailbox into the trashcan, I stop: maybe that carelessly-drafted note from my landlord does deserve greater scrutiny, after all…Or maybe on the strength of Education 4 Ayrshire I am safe to ‘bin’ it, with impunity?!

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