Time Bars In An International Context

Under most formal contracts it is necessary for the contractor to give notice of various matters before becoming entitled to extensions of time and loss and expense. As Jeremy Glover discusses, depending on its terms, such a provision may be treated as a condition precedent which if not followed could mean you lose your right to make a claim.

It is fair to say that, increasingly notices clauses are expressed as conditions precedent. In other words, a failure to comply with the requirements of the clause will result in a party being prevented from making what might otherwise be a perfectly valid claim.

The traditional view at common law

Generally, in the UK the courts will take the view that timescales in construction contracts are directory rather than mandatory,[1] unless that is, the contract clause in question clearly states that the party with a claim will lose the right to bring that claim if it fails to comply with the required timescale. In the case of Bremer Handelgesellschaft mbH v Vanden Avenne Izegem nv[2] the House of Lords held that a notice provision should be construed as a condition precedent, and so would be binding if:

(i) it states the precise time within which the notice is to be served; and

(ii) it makes plain by express language that unless the notice is served within that time the party making the claim will lose its rights under the clause.

Here, sub-clause 20.1 expressly makes it clear that:

"If the contractor fails to give notice of a claim within such period of 28 days, the Time for Completion shall not be extended, the contractor shall not be entitled to additional payment, and the employer shall be discharged from all liability in connection with the claim."

Further the English courts have confirmed their approval for conditions precedent, provided they fulfil the conditions laid out in the Bremer case. For example, in the case of Multiplex Construction v Honeywell Control Systems,[3] Mr Justice Jackson (as he then was) held that:

"Contractual terms requiring a contractor to give prompt notice of delay serve a valuable purpose; such notice enables matters to be investigated while they are still current. Furthermore, such notice sometimes gives the employer the opportunity to withdraw instructions when the financial consequences become apparent."

The civil law approach

The position of time bars in construction contracts in civil law countries is different. Unlike common law, where non-adherence to a time bar provision may render a contractor's claim invalid, many, but not all, civil codes may, take a more lenient approach.

Primarily, parties are to perform their obligations under the contract. To take the example of the UAE, Article 243 (2) of the UAE Civil Code states:

"With regard to the rights (obligations) arising out of the contract, each of the contracting parties must perform that which the contract obliges him to do."

Further Article 265 (1) of the UAE Civil Code deals with contract interpretation and states:

"If the wording of a contract is clear, it may not be departed from by way of interpretation to ascertain the intention of the parties."

From the above and in the absence of any other circumstances, the contractor may be required to conform with any time bars in the construction contract. However, in circumstances where it appears that the strict interpretation and imposition of the time bars would seriously prejudice the contractor, the contractor may rely on certain provisions of the UAE Civil Code to argue a more lenient approach be adopted. These include:

Good faith obligation

Article 246 (1) states, "The contract must be performed in accordance with its contents, and in a manner consistent with the requirements of good faith."

So for example, if an employer was made aware of the contractor's intention to claim in such manner, the employer could be seen as acting in bad faith if he later argues that the contractor did not meet the contractual timeframe. Alternatively, a time bar provision may not be relied upon by an employer in circumstances where he is in breach and was fully aware that his breach would cause delay to the project.

Unlawful exercise of rights

Article 106 provides that the exercise of a right shall be unlawful if it is disproportionate to the harm suffered by the other party. In particular, Article 106 (1) states:

"A person shall be held liable for an unlawful exercise of his rights."

Further Article 106 (2) (c) provides:

"The exercise of a right shall be unlawful: (c) if the interests desired are disproportionate to the harm that will be suffered by others."

In view of the above and subject to the circumstances of the particular case, it may be unlawful for the contractor's otherwise meritorious claim to be disallowed on the basis of a purely technical breach. Therefore, the employer's reliance on the technical breach may be seen as an unlawful exercise of his rights.

Unjust enrichment

Articles 318 and 319 provide that unjust enrichment is unlawful. Particularly, Article 318 of the UAE...

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