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“The purpose of using subcontracting arrangements is usually to distance parties from each other rather than to bring them into a direct legal relationship” [Laurence McIntosh Ltd v Balfour Beatty Group Ltd [2006] CSOH 197]

7 August 2017

It is a generally accepted principle that a main contractor is fully liable to an employer, for the works and cannot rely upon the default of his/her subcontractor to excuse poor workmanship or delay. [Loots Construction Law and Related Issues Juta & Co Ltd 1995, page 511] This is often re-stated in standard form contracts, such as the GCC 2010, which provides at Clause 4.4.2 that “[t]he Contractor shall be liable for the acts, defaults and negligence of any subcontractor, his agents or employees as fully as if they were the acts, defaults or negligence of the Contractor”.

This principle is applicable to all subcontractors, whether they are domestic, selected or nominated. A distinction must, however, be drawn between delays in nominating or re-nominating a subcontractor and delays caused by a subcontractor’s poor performance.

“It would be a clear breach of contract by the employers if their failure to nominate a subcontractor impeded the contractor in the execution of its work” [Reilly (RM) Ltd v Belfast Corporation [1970] NI 68] and while an employer does not warrant that a nominated subcontractor will not default in the execution of the subcontract, s/he will be liable for a delay in nominating a further subcontractor [Peak Construction (Liverpool) Ltd v McKinney Foundations Ltd 69 LGR 1, (1976) 1 BLR 114 CA].

Delays caused by a subcontractor’s poor performance are subject to the general principle stated above. There are, however, in certain circumstances, arguments available to assist the main contractor, which may be extracted from the English cases.

Firstly, there is the matter of Holland Hannen and Cubitts (Northern) Ltd v Welsh Health Technical Services Organisation & Others (1981) 18 BLR 80, where it was held that the failure of the employer’s agent to issue a variation order, when they discovered that works designed by the nominated subcontractor were defective, breached the employer’s implied duty to ensure that he and his architect do all things necessary to enable the contractor to carry out the works and refrain from hindering or preventing the contractor from carrying out and completing the works.

Secondly, it has been proposed by Loots (at pages 513 and 514) that it may be implied, in exceptional cases, that an employer has entered into a direct contract with a subcontractor. Such exceptional circumstances could arise, as in Wallis v Robinson (1862) 130 RR 841, where the employer’s agent, with the express approval of the employer, requested the subcontractor to perform certain work for which he would be paid extra. It was held that this created a direct contract between the employer and the subcontractor.

As pointed out by Loots (at page 514), a contractor will be entitled to an extension of time for delays caused by another direct contractor employed by the employer.