Assignment, novation and construction contracts - What is your objective?
Consider a not too hypothetical situation where the parties to a construction project (employer, contractor and sub-contractor) enter into a Deed of Assignment intending that the employer, having lost confidence in the contractor, would directly engage the sub-contractor to complete the sub-contract works. But what if no assignment has taken place? What are the terms of the contract under which the sub-contractor carries out the works for the employer?
Potential risks with assignment
In construction projects, main contractors often assign the benefit of their key sub-contracts to the employer in the event of contractor default and consequent termination of the main contract. The employer can then enforce the rights in the sub-contract against the sub-contractor, including rectification of the works and the performance of particular obligations.
However, there are potential risks associated with assignment in these situations as the Technology and Construction Court’s decision in Energy Works (Hull) Ltd v MW High Tech Projects UK Ltd demonstrated. We discussed this decision in Assigning a sub-contract on termination: which rights is the contractor giving up? In this case, the nature of the assignment meant that the main contractor could not pursue claims made by the employer against its sub-contractor under the sub-contract. This limited the main contractor’s ability to ‘pass on’ any liability it had under the main contract to the sub-contractor.
But what if the Deed of Assignment does not take effect as an assignment?
Assignment v novation
Both assignment and novation are forms of transferring an interest under a contract from one party to another. However, they are very different and in their effect. An assignment transfers the benefit of a contract from one party to another, but only the benefit, not the burden. In contrast, a novation will transfer both the benefit and the burden of a contract from one party to another. A novation creates a new contractual relationship - a ‘new’ contract is entered into.
Another key difference with novation is that the consent of all parties concerned must be obtained, which is why novation is almost always effected through a tripartite agreement. In the case of an assignment, it is not always necessary to obtain consent, subject to what the specific terms of the contract provide.
When deciding whether to assign or novate, parties should consider (i) whether there is in fact a burden to novate, (ii) whether the novatee will be willing to take on the burden, (iii) whether all parties will consent to the novation and indeed enter into the agreement. If there is no burden under the contract to transfer, then an assignment is likely to be the most appropriate way to transfer the interests.
Is the Deed for an assignment or a novation?
Although a document may be labelled a Deed of Assignment, if it has references to the transfer of ‘responsibilities and obligations’ and is a tripartite agreement these are characteristic of a novation as opposed to an assignment.
A key issue in such circumstances is to ascertain whether making use of the words ‘assigning’ and ‘assignment’ actually affects the characteristics of the document.
There has been some consideration of this characterisation issue by the courts. In the case of Burdana v Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust  EWCA Civ 1980, by majority the Court of Appeal decided that on the facts of the case, although the Deed of Assignment in question referred to an ‘assignment’ of the benefit and burden, on proper analysis there was indeed a novation.
Furthermore, in the case of Langston Group Corporation v Cardiff City FC  EWHC 535, Briggs J made it evident that even though the variation agreement in question did not use the word ‘novation’ and did not describe itself as such, the circumstances and effect of the agreement was indeed a novation and a new contract had been created.
It may be the case that even if a document does not describe itself as a novation, yet has the key characteristics of one, then as a matter of interpretation the courts would accept that the document takes effect as a novation.
Key characteristics of a novation
If entering into a document that purports to be a Deed of Assignment, tread carefully as it may well take effect as a novation, particularly if the following characteristics are present:
- It is a tripartite agreement;
- All the parties give their consent;
- The novator has been released from its obligations;
- There has been an acceptance of the terms of the novation on the part of the novatee and the substituted party; and
- There is a vesting of remedies.
What is your objective?
Although a document may well be labelled as an assignment, it may have the characteristics of and take effect as novation. Parties need to be cautious and consider what they want to achieve when assessing whether to assign rights or to novate them along with obligations.