Whether you can appeal an adjudication determination under the security of payment legislation depends on the type of error made by the adjudicator.
What types of errors can be challenged?
This question has been troubling construction lawyers for years. The fact that an adjudicator makes an error does not necessarily mean that the determination can be set aside.
For current purposes, there are three relevant categories of error:
- Obvious jurisdictional errors. A jurisdictional error can result in a determination being set aside.
- Obvious non-appellable errors. There are certain types of error that are recognised as obviously non-appellable.
- Errors that don’t fall within either of the above categories.
Obvious jurisdictional errors
A jurisdictional error occurs where the adjudicator does something they are not empowered to do, or where they fail to do something they are required to do.
For example, an adjudicator cannot issue an adjudication determination unless there has first been a valid adjudication application. A valid adjudication application cannot be made unless the requirements of the Act have been satisfied. This means that there must be:
- a construction contract covered by the Act;
- an available 'reference date';
- a valid payment claim; and
- a valid adjudication application.
If the adjudicator makes a mistake about any of these matters, this will likely involve a ‘jurisdictional error’ and normally be a sufficient basis to have the determination set aside.
Once the adjudication process is underway, the adjudicator must adhere to the procedure in the Act.
For example, the adjudicator must consider the provisions of the Act, the provisions of the Act, the payment claim, the payment schedule and the results of any inspection carried out by the adjudicator.
The adjudicator must also follow the rules of procedural fairness. For example, the adjudicator cannot communicate exclusively with only one party. If the adjudicator seeks further submissions, the parties must be given the same opportunity to advance their case.
If the adjudicator fails to consider the matters which he or she is required to consider under the Act, or considers other matters which are not permitted, or if the adjudicator fails to afford the parties procedural fairness, that is likely to amount to a jurisdictional error and result in any determination being capable of being set aside.
Obvious non-appellable errors
Just as there are some types of error that have been established as jurisdictional and therefore appellable, there are other types of error that are obviously not.
For example, if the adjudicator makes an incorrect finding of fact - that particular work was done (or not done), or that particular delays were caused (or not caused) by a particular person – that would generally not be a sufficient basis for challenging a determination.
Even if the adjudicator makes a blatant error of law – for example, by misinterpreting or misapplying a contract term – then, provided there has not been a jurisdictional error, that error of law will not be a sufficient basis for any resulting determination to be set aside.
The courts have taken this position as they consider that is how the legislation was intended to be applied. That is, the intent of the legislation is to give priority to fast payments down the contracting chain – even if that means principals or head contractors have to make over-payments from time to time.
In theory, it sounds easy enough to characterise an error as either jurisdictional or non-jurisdictional (and therefore appellable or non-appellable). There is a growing body of cases to help make the necessary classification.
At the margins however, there will continue to be difficult assessments to be made.
For example, the adjudicator must consider the terms of the contract and any failure to do so will be a jurisdictional error. But what degree of consideration is required?
In the Shade Systems case, the adjudicator put his mind and devoted significant attention to the issue, but nonetheless made a mistake. But what would have happened if the adjudicator had given the matter only momentary consideration and reached a conclusion that no reasonable person could have made, with anything more than a cursory glance?
The Shade Systems decision brings a much greater degree of certainty about the situations in which a challenge to an adjudication determination will succeed. Indeed, most types of error will neatly fall into one category or the other (jurisdictional or non-jurisdictional). However there will continue to be cases that sit at the margins, and it will be those cases that will continue to attract judicial attention.
Editor’s Note: This blog post was updated in early 2018 following the High Court decision in Probuild v Shade Systems.