The role of project manager is vital in ensuring the client gets the building it bargained for. But there is a curious lack of agreement about what they are actually supposed to do, and how much risk they bear.
A leading construction law textbook (which I will not name) makes the following points under the general heading "project managers":

  • the project manager may enter into contracts with all the other contractors or suppliers for a project. In such cases, the book concludes, it is "no more than a turnkey or design-and-build main or prime contractor"

  • it may entail an arrangement whereby a package of services is offered. The textbook say this differs "in no very important respect from … a conventional architect/engineer's contract of employment"

  • in other cases, what is offered is simply "an additional tier of advice and administration" interposed between the team and the client.

Sometimes, it notes, a guarantee is offered that the total cost of the project will not exceed a stipulated sum; it warns of the dangers of "secret commissions or discounts and other undesirable practices"; and, finally, it concludes that owners should "appreciate that in most cases such arrangements will be essentially a 'one off', with substantial legal and pricing dangers".

Confusion abounds in these definitions, and the conclusions seem over-hasty.

It is true that the label of "project management" is attached to in-house teams as well as external consultants. However, in both cases, it connotes individuals with expert knowledge of the design and construction industries employed or engaged by the client to provide services in connection with the management of the project.

I do not think anyone involved in the industry would suggest that project managers routinely engage consultants or contractors themselves. It is inherent in the service they provide that they stand apart from the design team and the contractor. If it were otherwise, and they assumed risks of delays, cost overruns or defects by the consultants and the contractor, they would have a conflict of interest.

So, how should the service be characterised? There are those, particularly in design teams, who see project managers as paper-shuffling parasites interfering in the proper relationship between designer and client. Project managers who see their role as allocating criticism and blame and denigrating the design team behind their backs do exist. They never take a decision. They always make sure their backsides are covered.

There are those, particularly in design teams, who see project managers as paper-shuffling parasites interfering in the relationship between designer and client

But this is only one side of the coin. A good project manager (whether an individual or a named individual in a firm) must surely be essential for a client approaching the construction industry for the first time, particularly on a large project. Such a project manager understands the client and identifies with its interests. He recognises his responsibility for making the project a success and "translates" rather than obstructs the design team's aspirations to the client. He listens and assists in decision-making.

Because he is involved in every aspect of the project, he needs an understanding of all of them – planning issues, party wall issues, design issues, insurance, the financial elements of the project and so on. A 20th-century Leonardo.

And, because he is involved in all aspects of the project, he potentially picks up a share of the blame when anything goes wrong. One only has to read the allegations made in the case of Chesham Properties Ltd vs Bucknall Austin Project Management Services Ltd and Others (1996) to realise what can be thrown against a project manager: negligently prepared progress reports and financial statements, failure to advise of the possibility of starting arbitration proceedings before expiry of limitation periods, failure to react with due care and skill to unmeritorious claims and a duty to report on deficiencies in performance by other members of the team.

It is difficult to know what view the courts will ultimately take of the standard of skill and care to be expected of project managers. It seems probable, though, that the courts will not let them escape liability by arguing that they are jacks of all trades but masters of none. If they hold themselves up as competent to act on design matters, they will be expected to show a level of competence not far short of a designer's.

In most cases, of course, even if negligence is proven, the project manager may only bear a small share of the overall liability; the bulk of the loss will be borne by the negligent designer/contractor – if they are solvent. If not, the project manager may pick up the full amount of the client's loss.

Sometimes it may be difficult to show a loss: negligence by a project manager in financial reporting, for example, may not in itself give rise to a loss, although there will be exceptions. On the other hand, negligent administration of construction contracts, negligent intervention in design issues, poor advice on claims and so on may well do so.

As always, the legal precedents have yet to catch up with the commercial reality, and there will surely be some interesting developments over the next few years.