10 April 2024

Should I recover my debt by SOPA or debt recovery?

PCL Lawyers


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If you are involved in the construction industry, it is essential that you understand the legal mechanisms for debt recovery.
Australia Real Estate and Construction
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SOPA v Other debt recovery methods

The construction industry has been one of the most volatile in recent years. With the rise of interest rates and costs of materials negatively impacting the building industry this has led to many insolvencies.

Where subcontractors go unpaid for work performed, not only is this destructive to that subcontractor's cash flow, it often also delays the eventual completion of the build. It is essential if you are involved in the construction industry that you understand the legal mechanisms available to you for debt recovery.

Security of payment legislation (SOPA) operates throughout Australia, with differences between each of the states. Fundamentally, the legislation exists to address the disparity between the bargaining power of a builder or developer and the subcontractors engaged in building works who wind up in a dispute about payment.

While this legislation is not uniform between the states, there are common aspects amongst the different jurisdictions, so you should obtain legal advice to ensure you are properly complying with the relevant legislation, as failure to comply with technical aspects of the legislation may be fatal.

As well as the Security of Payment scheme, traditional debt recovery methods are still available, but may not be preferable depending on the circumstances. The following clarifies the options available to reclaim unpaid invoices. While, in this article reference is made to the legislation applicable across Victoria, NSW & Queensland, PCL Lawyers is adept at recouping payments in all jurisdictions through the different debt recovery processes.

Navigating the legal landscape of debt recovery

When faced with a non-paying builder, two primary legal pathways exist:

  1. Building and Construction Security of Payment Act 2002 (SOPA):
    SOPA offers a reasonably fast-tracked payment security mechanism specifically designed for the construction industry. It allows subcontractors and suppliers to claim payment directly from the head contractor or principal (the builder) for progress payments and for completed work.
  2. Standard debt recovery processes:
    alternatively, you may pursue payment through traditional legal avenues, such as issuing a demand letter, making a statutory demand, commencing legal action in courts, and/or resolving the dispute by alternative dispute resolution.

Adjudication of Construction Payment Disputes

One advantage that securing payment using the SOPA scheme is the availability of adjudication, an accelerated route to resolving payment disputes which may assist in getting subcontractors paid and keeps a project moving. Where litigation can be lengthy, costly and uncertain, adjudication is specifically designed for resolving construction payment disputes and stands out for its efficiency and its construction specific knowledge and focus.

Adjudication boasts a significantly faster resolution time compared to court proceedings, typically concluding within around 30 business days. This swiftness is aimed to minimises disruptions to cash flow, helps projects stay on track and alleviates financial burdens. Furthermore, adjudication fees, while present, are generally much lower than court costs, making it a more budget-friendly option for both parties.

Another key advantage lies in the expertise of adjudicators. These construction industry professionals typically possess a deep understanding of the technical and legal nuances of the field, ensuring a thorough assessment of your claim and a well-informed outcome. Their familiarity with industry practices and standards allows them to quickly grasp the complexities of your dispute, leading to a more efficient and accurate resolution.

The process itself is streamlined and accessible compared to formal court proceedings. Following a claim initiation detailing the amount owed and the basis for your claim, the contractor has a limited timeframe to respond. If the claim is disputed, you can formally request an adjudication determination (within specific timeframes), leading to a focused hearing where both parties present their arguments and evidence. The adjudicator then issues a binding determination on the disputed amount, to which the parties must adhere. If necessary, this determination can then be enforced through various methods, ensuring you receive your due compensation, and the dispute is definitively settled.

For sophisticated clients in the construction industry, adjudication offers several additional benefits. Its less adversarial nature compared to litigation can help maintain valuable business relationships within the community, while the swift resolution protects cash flow and prevents project delays.

However, navigating the intricacies of adjudication requires careful consideration of key points. Ensure your claim meets the relevant thresholds outlined in SOPA, such as contract value and timeframes. Adhere to the strict timeframes for filing claims and applications, as the deadlines contained in the SOPA legislation are set in stone and no extensions can be granted, even if the parties mutually agree to. Understanding the nuances of adjudication and utilising it properly allows you to leverage its strengths and effectively resolve construction payment disputes.

Key Differences between SOPA and Standard Debt Recovery:

  1. Applicability:
    • SOPA: applies broadly to most commercial construction contracts, and some residential building work. It assists to secures payment due to subcontractors and suppliers providing goods or services directly related to the project and building works.
    • Standard Debt Recovery: Applies to all types of debts, regardless of the industry or contract value.
  2. Time Limits:
    • SOPA: Strict timeframes apply for issuing payment claims and making adjudication applications.
    • Standard Debt Recovery: time limits will vary depending on the chosen debt recovery pathway, and the reasons that money is owed. The timelines for commencing traditional recovery action are much longer for standard debt recovery (years, as opposed to days or months as in SOPA).
  3. Costs:
    • SOPA: adjudication fees are typically paid at the conclusion of the adjudication by the unsuccessful party, which may be either the applicant or the respondent (builder/ principal or subcontractor). In some instances where there is a split outcome, the adjudicator may seek that the fees are paid by both parties and will allocate an amount each is responsible for.
    • Standard Debt Recovery: costs can vary significantly depending on the chosen legal pathway. Court action can be expensive, and while you may receive a costs order if you are ultimately successful in litigation, you will likely only receive a percentage of those costs in an order.
  4. Speed of Resolution:
    • SOPA: Aims to resolve disputes quickly and efficiently. Adjudications can be completed within around 30 business days, offering a faster alternative to court proceedings.
    • Standard Debt Recovery: Depending on the chosen pathway, resolution times can vary significantly. Court proceedings can be lengthy and complex, while alternative dispute resolution can occur at any time.
  5. Enforcement:
    • SOPA: Adjudication determinations are legally binding and enforceable, whilst it is not often the case that an adjudication award is not paid, the successful party can also have it converted to a judgement debt in the relevant Court.
    • Standard Debt Recovery: Enforcement methods vary depending on the chosen pathway. Court judgments can be enforced through various means, such as writs of execution, garnishee orders, or bankruptcy proceedings.

When is SOPA the Right Choice?

If you're owed money by a builder for construction work, SOPA offers several advantages:

  • fast-track resolution: avoid lengthy court proceedings and obtain a quick decision on your claim.
  • cost-effective: adjudication fees are significantly lower than court costs.
  • expert decision-makers: adjudications are conducted by construction industry experts, ensuring a fair and informed outcome.
  • strong enforcement mechanisms: adjudication determinations are legally binding and enforceable.

When are Standard Debt Recovery Processes More Suitable?

In some situations, SOPA may not be the best option. Standard debt recovery may be more appropriate where:

  • there are debts owed by the builder outside the scope of the contract.
  • claims for amounts which cannot be included in a SOPA payment claim (i.e. costs or damages).
  • complex legal issues requiring court determination.
  • when seeking additional remedies beyond payment, such as damages or injunctive relief.

Navigating the right path to get paid sooner.

Choosing the right path to recover your unpaid debts requires careful consideration of your specific circumstances. Consulting with a qualified construction lawyer who specialises in SOPA and debt recovery in the building industry can provide invaluable guidance.

Our team at PCL Lawyers can assess the merits of your claim, advise you on the most effective course of action, and represent you throughout the legal process. If you are in the building and construction industry it is essential business knowledge that can help you recover unpaid debts in the most cost-effective manner.

Getting industry relevant professional legal advice and representation from our team will also lead to the fastest and most cost-effective resolution to your matter.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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