The “pay when paid” issue has troubled the construction industry for many years. It refers to payment terms contained in a sub-contract, which typically provide that the main contractor shall pay the sub-contractor a certain period of time after the main contractor has received payment from the employer. The controversy is whether the phrase should be construed as creating a condition precedent to the main contractor's liability to the sub-contractor. Sub-contractors will argue that “pay when paid” is different from “pay if paid” and that only the latter will create a condition precedent i.e. a “pay when paid” term only specifies the timing (not liability) for payment, so that even if the main contractor has not received payment from the employer after the lapse of reasonable time, the sub-contractor is entitled to be paid after completion of its sub-contract works.
Before Wo Hing Engineering Ltd v Pekko Engineers Ltd (1998) (we acted for Wo Hing in that case), the Hong Kong courts had no opportunity to decide on the true meaning of “pay when paid”, after a full trial. All cases which had touched upon the issue were only in the context of applications for summary judgment and the courts in those cases did not give a final ruling on the issue. In the Wo Hing case, having considered various authorities from the US, Australia and New Zealand, the judge accepted that a typical “pay when paid” term does not create a condition precedent for payment to the sub-contractor.
Arguments on the true meaning of “pay when paid” have continued after the Wo Hing case. Some main contractors still try to distinguish Wo Hing by arguing that the payment term in that case was nothing like that in the standard nominated sub-contract commonly used in Hong Kong (“the Green Form”). They also argue that Wo Hing is a case involving domestic sub-contract payment terms and that it is not fair for the main contractor to undertake the risk of non-payment by the employer when the sub-contractor is nominated by the employer itself.
A recent Court of First Instance decision has touched on the “pay when paid” issue. In Kim Hung Construction & Engineering Co Limited v Standard Refrigeration & Engineering Co. Limited (HCCT 37/2012, judgment handed down on 21 June 2013), the sub-contractor claimed against the main contractor in an arbitration for delay in completion of a project, where the main contractor had not been paid by the employer. The arbitrator ruled that the main contractor was liable to pay the sub-contractor despite the fact that the main contractor had not been paid by the employer. The main contractor sought leave in the High Court to appeal against the arbitrator's ruling, under the old Arbitration Ordinance (Cap.341).
The deputy judge was asked to construe the payment terms in the Hong Kong Construction Association's Standard Form of Domestic Sub-Contract, 1994 Edition, which contains elaborate provisions governing the time for payment, together with a number of provisions in the letter of acceptance. Construing those provisions as a whole, the judge found that the payment for the delay claim had not yet become due under the sub-contract.
Whilst there is nothing unusual about the judge disagreeing with the arbitrator's finding, the following is of interest:-