Arguably the inventor of the claims consultant, James R Knowles had a knack for communication second to none

Those of us who are long in the tooth and have made a full-time career in building construction disputes will remember James R Knowles (Roger, to you and me). He died on 27 March (1933-2022). Roger was very well liked within the industry, especially the subcontracting and main contracting end of our game. His career and dispute management firm ran for 50 years. He sold it to Hill International in 2006.

Tony bingham 2017 bw web

One could argue that it was Roger who invented the claims consultant; he called it a “one-stop shop for construction dispute resolution”. Here was a quantity surveyor who knew his JCT contract documents inside and out and had actually built things. He could sit at a final account meeting between QS and QS and be one of them. Some solicitors got cross: hitherto they had looked after the dispute business. Roger was well ahead because building was his game. Moreover, he got himself through the Bar exams and became a barrister in the late 1970s.

I first met him on 9 December 1980. He had been engaged by the Interiors Association to lecture about things like loss and expense, extensions of time and value of variations. We heard that morning that John Lennon had been shot dead in New York. That event and Roger have always been one of those picture memories stuck in my mind.

Roger was damn good at communicating or rather converting the terrible bumf on contract documents into understandable language. The documents all made sense once explained by him. It was the highfalutin legal language that tended to flummox the everyday plasterer.

Mind you, not many lawyers were any bottle at plastering. That was Roger’s trick. He was one of the boys. His business model thrived. By the mid‑1980s he had opened offices across the UK and internationally. He had 400 colleagues working at James R Knowles.

The downside of the disputes business in the UK was the awful prospect of going to litigation. Arbitration then was no better. It was utterly prohibitive in costs to take even a good case to court or arbitration. The costs would drain the coffers well before the case was tried.

In 1995 the Master of the Rolls, Sir Thomas Bingham, described the expense as “a cancer eating at the heart of justice”. That 1995 report, Access to Justice, remarked that “litigation delay is of more benefit to legal advisers than to the parties”. Parliament took a hand. It appointed Sir Michael Latham to investigate the highly disputatious construction industry. Among those from whom he took evidence was Roger Knowles. I strongly suspect that Sir Michael was quoting Roger when the report said: “Our industry is a mighty machine which requires oil in its engine to drive it, but has grit instead.” Roger Knowles wanted a forum for deciding disputes that was fast, furious and suited to getting money moving. He got it from Latham.

In 2004 he formed Quantity Surveyors International, or QSI. He felt the need for an organisation devoted to QS folk rather than several different type of surveyors. His book, Someone Up There Likes Us, is his memoir. Not that he retired to write it: his career continued as an adjudicator and arbitrator full pelt. Well done, Roger Knowles, somewhere up there.

Can I mention two other departed friends? Ray Turner (1928-2021) became a busy arbitrator, also from a QS background. Dr Turner, as he became, took a practical approach to practising as an arbitrator. By that I mean he used arbitration as an industry device rather than high-flying complex analysis costing a fortune.

My second mention is for John Sims (1929-2020). My introduction to him was in the lecture theatre at the headquarters of what was known as the NFBTE (later the Building Employers Confederation). I was a baby QS; Sims was a guru, a teacher, even a spiritual guide, whom we could and did trust. He too knew his forms of contract. He wrote here in Building for 25 years. His lecturing style was rather unexciting but thorough and so well researched; he was a warm character, quiet and private. He became an adjudicator well before adjudication as we now know it was invented. The old blue form of subcontract had a device that required an appointee (it was often John) to decide whether the money would be pro-tem kept by the main contractor or paid over to the subcontractor or paid into a stakeholder account. John tended to opt for the last option.

His arbitration career was big stuff. I vividly remember a decision of his being appealed all the way up to the House of Lords; called McAlpine vs Panatown, it concerned an office block in Cambridge. His decision was upheld.

John was very much against the Latham idea of newfangled 28-day adjudication. He contributed to a heavyweight publication called A Plea for Sanity, which tried to put the idea down but failed. Once adjudication got under way, John could see the force of it. He was a generous man who joined in. His bête noire was the party representative in a dispute who was a bully. You could never tell that John got upset about the bullying, but, oh, he did: he told me so when he retired. John Sims: a really good man and an example to all us dispute folk.

Tony Bingham is a barrister and arbitrator at 3 Paper Buildings, Temple