This month, our experts clarify just exactly who is responsible for complying with safety regulations, define what is a 'reasonable' time for completion and break some bad news to a steelwork firm facing a hefty bill …
Devolving responsibility
I am a building control surveyor working in local government. Frequently I have been informed by builders or skilled tradespeople that they are acting on their client's instructions and complying with the Building Regulations is not their responsibility. I am sure this is incorrect but would like to know what the legal background.

The relevant law is contained in the Building Act 1984, which is the enabling act under which the Building Regulations 2000 have been made. The regulations function to protect the health and safety of people in and around buildings.

The regulations require "a person who intends to carry out building work" to either give the local authority a building notice, or deposit full plans with the local authority.

The regulations further require that the building work shall be carried out with adequate and proper materials and in a workmanlike manner.

The act provides that any person contravening a provision contained in the regulations, is liable on summary conviction to a fine.

In any case, most standard form building contracts incorporate a term requiring a builder to comply with all statutory requirements. If such a clause exists in a contract, then the builder will find that failure to comply with the regulations results in a breach of contract. Even in the absence of an express term, a contravention of the regulations is strong evidence that the builder was in breach of express or implied obligations to carry out the works using good workmanship.

Accordingly, it would appear that a builder, together with the owner of the premises, is required to comply with the regulations and as such may be liable to pay a fine on contravention of the regulations. It is also in a builder's interest to ensure compliance in order to avoid a possible breach of contract.

The time factor
What are the implications if a standard form of contract does not expressly mention time?

Most standard form contracts contain provisions governing time and there would commonly be a reference to the time for completion and provisions for extensions of time. Where the contact does not expressly govern these matters, a "reasonable" time for performance of the obligation to complete will normally be implied.

What is a reasonable time is a question of fact, and will depend on the ordinary circumstances that existed at the time when the contractual services were performed (excluding circumstances under the control of the performing party). In order to determine what amounts to "ordinary circumstance" it is necessary to consider such things as whether the parties contracted with the resources and capacity of the particular builder in mind. Often, expert evidence is required to demonstrate the length of time it was reasonable for the works to have taken.

Additionally, reasonable time allows for an element of delay by the contractor where this is attributable to causes beyond its control, such as unexpected strikes. It would seem unlikely that this would include delays by subcontractors as, although they are out of the direct control of the main contractor, the contractor should have a remedy against the subcontractor separately.

In need of some support

As a steelwork firm, we have been engaged to design and install the metal cladding system to an existing structure. It was designed as per tender information (drawings), and the new cladding system is to be supported by the existing steel members. At the final structural approval stage, the local authority said the existing structural members were not adequate. Due to this we have designed some reinforced members. The quantity surveyor refuses our claim for extra work under the contract terms of “contractor is responsible for design the system” and “ensuring the structural system for cladding can be approved by the local authority”.

The issue as to whether you are entitled to payment for the extra work carried out to improve the adequacy of the existing structural members will turn on the particular terms of your contract.

It has long been held in English law that an employer does not imply to a contractor that a design is capable of construction. Therefore, in the absence of an express warranty to the contrary, a contractor who undertakes work to an employer’s design, does imply his ability to build it and will be responsible for any additional cost required to complete the job, should the employer’s design be inadequate. It would appear that your employer has expressly excluded any warranty as to the accuracy of the drawings you have relied upon in carrying out the works. Your contract also appears to make you responsible for the approval of both the cladding and existing steel members. Unless you have in some way qualified your ability to carry out the work, or the contract allocates responsibility for the design of the existing steel members to your employer, or the contract gives you a right to claim for the costs of such additional work, it is likely that you will have to bear the additional costs you have incurred.