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The $50 billion question: Why are construction disputes so common and so costly?

4th December 2020

Previously published on the RICS World Built Environment Forum Website

HKA’s CRUX Insights report has laid bare the staggering cost of conflict and delays in the global construction sector. The world is looking to the industry to help kickstart the global economic recovery in 2021, but is the industry equipped to deliver? Here’s a look back at what we learned during last week’s webinar.

The COVID-19 legacy reaches all corners of the industry, but it’s only one among numerous risks facing the sector in 2021.

In construction markets already operating on thin net margins, turning any significant profit is a challenge in itself. The added pressure of price increases borne of new border tariffs may require contractors to seek deals with new suppliers domestically. But time constraints set out in existing contractual commitments may limit the ability to get such arrangements in place, thereby further complicating matters.

This, according to Jones, will test preparedness protocols across the sector: “From the 1st of January, there will be new customs and border controls. The EU plans to implement these immediately; are construction firms ready for that?”

The $50 billion question: Why are construction disputes so common and so costly?

Businesses will need to think differently about risk allocation through the supply chain…


“We are entering unknown territory,” warns Lisa Molloy, Commercial Director at Southbay Civil Engineering Ltd. “There’s going to be a squeeze on capital expenditure; we’re facing a skills shortage. The funds that we were going to draw upon to streamline and modernise the industry are going to be diverted into dealing with COVID-19. So, we are going to have to get clever. When we transfer risk, we have to make sure we are transferring it to parties that can manage and mitigate it. If we fail to do that, the problems will filter down the supply chain, cause cashflow issues and, ultimately, lead to more spurious claims.”

“We are entering unknown territory. The funds that we were going to draw upon to streamline and modernise the industry are going to be diverted into dealing with COVID-19. So, we are going to have to get clever.”

Lisa Molloy
Commercial Director, Southbay Civil Engineering Ltd

This will require a change in mindset across the industry. Stephen Blakey, Commercial Projects Director with Network Rail, one of the UK’s largest construction clients, believes this must be driven from the top down.

“So much of this revolves around culture. We have actively pursued a culture that maintains and sustains the viability of our supply chain. We insulated suppliers against performance indicators that became undeliverable on account of the pandemic and have taken a benign position on extensions of time. We opted not to pass the risk on to our supply chain.”

This has created what Blakey terms a “stable environment”, in which disputes have been kept to a minimum through an otherwise tumultuous year.

…and contractual clauses relating to disputes and delays should reflect the “new normal”

“Contracts weren’t previously drafted with pandemics in mind,” notes Helen Stuart, Senior Associate, Trowers & Hamlins. “Now we’re all aware of the risk, it’s sensible to amend standard form and bespoke contracts to cater for it. To touch on Stephen’s point: what does this new risk factor mean commercially, in terms of both time and money? In the UK, I’ve worked with the Construction Leadership Council on amendments to standard form clauses that should help the industry. Dispute escalation provisions in contracts can also be very useful.”

Preferred routes to conflict resolution seem to be changing; the past year may have helped focus minds on the need for collaboration

HKA’s CRUX Insights report shows in stark terms the extent to which the industry is still hamstrung by fractious and counterproductive practices. However, there are signs that the pattern of disputes is shifting.

Helen Stuart believes that the precedents established by a growing body of case law will allow parties to predict the likely outcome of pursuing litigation in COVID-19 related disputes. Armed with this knowledge, they may opt for different routes to resolution.

Dr Alex Opoku, Associate Professor in Project Management & Quantity Surveying at UCL Bartlett School of Construction and Project Management, agrees. “We have seen a move away from the more adversarial resolution options. Litigation is costly and time consuming. Some parties still prefer the certainty that it provides because the outcomes are enforceable, but in general we are seeing a shift towards mediation and negotiation options,” says Dr Opoku.

Litigation is costly and time consuming. Some parties still prefer the certainty that it provides because the outcomes are enforceable, but in general we are seeing a shift towards mediation and negotiation.

Dr Alex Opoku
Associate Professor, UCL Bartlett School of Construction and Project Management

And Dr Opoku notes that cost isn’t the only determining factor in this apparent shift: “Another cause may be the local situation. If you take the example of Africa, there is more appetite to negotiate and settle disputes, because there is an issue with the culture of the court system. Cases in Africa and the Middle East can take God knows how long!”

HKA’s John Jones notes an uptick in independent facilitation. This approach, he says, is expeditious, binding and more affordable. It has also been shown to help maintain positive working relationships between parties.

It’s been commonly stated during our discussions this year that the COVID-19 crisis could serve to accelerate already prevailing trends in the built and natural environment. Martin Burns, Head of Alternative Dispute Resolution Research and Development at RICS, believes the evidence suggests a renewed determination across the industry to breakdown silos. The challenge will be to ensure that, as and when the recovery takes root, there is no return to business as usual.

“We are seeing greater collaboration,” he says. “That needs to be underpinned by mechanisms that aid the early resolution of problems. More organisations are establishing dispute avoidance panels, which are very much about identifying potential issues early and addressing them before they become full blown disputes. RICS is on the steering group of the Conflict Avoidance Coalition; we’ve produced a Conflict Avoidance Pledge, which commits signatories to exploring and using non-adversarial methods of managing conflict. What we’ve seen since COVID-19 pandemic began is a 100% increase in signatories.”

“There is great value in identifying problems whilst they are still only glowing embers in the dry grass,” adds Stephen Blakey. “The alternative is letting them flare up into fires that need to be extinguished.”

Litigation is costly and time consuming. Some parties still prefer the certainty that it provides because the outcomes are enforceable, but in general we are seeing a shift towards mediation and negotiation.”
Dr Alex Opoku Associate Professor, UCL Bartlett School of Construction and Project Management
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