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Contracts: The critical difference between Assignment and Novation

Law-Now
08.04.2010

Introduction

An assignment of rights under a contract is normally restricted to the benefit of the contract. Where a party wishes to transfer both the benefit and burden of the contract this generally needs to be done by way of a novation. The distinction between assignment and novation was addressed recently in the case of Davies v Jones (2009), whereby the court considered whether a deed of assignment of the rights under a contract could also transfer a positive contractual obligation, which in this instance included the obligation to pay.

Background

Mr Jones (the first defendant) contracted to sell Lidl (the second defendant) a freehold property (the “Lidl Contract”). At that time, the freehold was vested in the claimants as trustees of a retired benefit scheme. Mr Jones contracted to buy the land from the claimants (the “ Trustee Contract”) and assigned his right, title and interest to the Trustee Contract to Lidl by way of a deed of assignment.

Clause 18 of the Trustee Contract permitted Mr Jones, as purchaser, to retain £100,000 from the purchase monies payable to the claimants until the outstanding works (ground clearance and site preparation) had been completed. Following completion of the works Mr Jones was entitled to retain one half of the proper costs from the retention and release the balance to the claimants. There was a similar clause in the Lidl Contract, which allowed Lidl to retain the proper costs from the retention. Importantly, although similar, under the Lidl Contract Lidl was entitled to retain the whole cost of carrying out the works as against only half in the Trustee Contract.

Lidl retained the sum of £100,000 from the money due by Mr Jones to the claimants on completion of the contract. Once the works were completed Mr Jones failed to pay the claimant the retention monies claiming that the proper cost of the works was over £200,000.

The issue

The claimants argued that the benefits granted by way of the assignment were conditional on Lidl performing Mr Jones’ obligations under the Trustee Contract. Therefore, the question considered by the court was whether Lidl was bound to observe the terms of the Trustee Contract and in particular clause 18, given that benefit of the contract had been assigned to them.

Findings

The court held that the benefit which passed to Lidl by way of the deed of assignment did not require Lidl to perform the obligations of Mr Jones under the Trustee Contract. The assignment did not impose any burden on Lidl.  The only person who clause 18 of the Trustee Contract was binding on was Mr Jones. The transfer to Lidl could not impose on Lidl the obligation to perform Mr Jones’ obligations and these therefore remained with Mr Jones. This reaffirms the principle that when you take an assignment of a contract, you don’t take on the burden (except in limited circumstances where enjoyment of the benefit is conditional on complying with some formality). Therefore, if an owner assigns a building contract to a purchaser of land and the building is still under construction, the obligation to pay the contractor remains with the original owner and does not pass to the new owner. 

Assignment and novation in the Construction Industry

Both assignment and novation are common within the construction industry and careful consideration is required as to which mechanism is suitable. Assignments are frequently used in relation to collateral warranties, whereby the benefit of a contract is transferred to a third party. Likewise, an assignment of rights to a third party with an interest in a project may be suitable when the Employer still needs to fulfil certain obligations under the contract, for example, where works are still in progress. A novation is appropriate where the original contracting party wants the obligations under the contract to rest with a third party. This is commonly seen in a design and build scenario whereby the Employer novates the consultants’ contracts to the Contractor, so that the benefit and burden of the appointments are transferred, and the Employer benefits from a single point of responsibility in the form of the Contractor.

Conclusion

If the intention is that the assignee is to accept both the benefit and burden of a contract, it is not normally sufficient to rely on a deed of assignment, as the burden of the contract remains with the assignor. In these instances a novation would be a preferable method of transferring obligations, and this allows for both the benefit and burden to be transferred to the new party and leaves no residual liability with the transferor.

Reference: Davies v Jones [2009] EWCA Civ 1164.
For further information, please contact:
Sarah-Jane Archdale Sarah-Jane Archdale
London
+44 (0) 20 7367 2880

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