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SFA/99 reflects a decade obsessed with getting paid

Legal matters

In the film of H G Wells' The Time Machine, our hero's journey through the fourth dimension is initially plotted by the changing outfits on the mannequin in the shop window opposite. The riba archive holds a box which manages a similar trick. It contains copies of riba standard forms of appointment, dating back to 1861. Each provides a snapshot of the profession at that moment in time, the sequence of contracts focusing in turn on matters such as sanitation, war damage and mandatory fee scales.

The latest candidate for this box is the 1999 Standard Form of Agreement, or sfa/99. Also recently published were ce/99 and sw/99, forms of appointment for use in differing circumstances. What does sfa/99 say about the profession on the eve of the millennium?

The form includes some very onerous payment provisions. To summarise, when only part of the architect's works have been carried out he is entitled to be paid for all the work carried out to date, even if the job is curtailed because he has been sacked. The client cannot withhold sums unless either the architect agrees or the matter has been decided by adjudication, arbitration or litigation. Any sums remaining unpaid after 30 days attract interest at 8 per cent over base rate in line with the new Late Payment Act. If the client is slow in paying, the architect can suspend the licence allowing use of his drawings. Finally, if any dispute reaches proceedings and the client does not win, the client must indemnify the architect in respect of his legal costs and also pay a reasonable sum for the time the architect has spent on the proceedings.

One benefit of using standard forms is the reduction of one-off drafting costs. sfa/99 will, on that basis, be successful if it is widely used. There are two possible tests as to whether that will happen. First is its 'user friendliness'. Happily the new form is in a book format which will look familiar to users of the 1982 blue book. Second is whether the provisions are acceptable to both parties. There must be doubt as to whether clients will sign up to these payment provisions without making amendments.

The perceived strength of standard contracts, such as the jct forms, is that they are drafted in consultation with all the interested parties; the jct includes, for example, the riba, the rics, the British Property Federation and various contractors' groups. sfa/99 has been drafted by the riba. Contracts drafted only by one side inevitably tilt the playing field. The payment provisions in sfa/99 prove the point.

At whom is the form aimed? Large, corporate clients are unlikely to use it unamended. This is disappointing as architects arguably most need a well-drafted standard form when dealing with such clients, rather than having to resort to taking legal advice on their client's bespoke form or amendments. Small-works clients have their own form, sw/99, which has slightly less onerous payment provisions. So it seems the full force of the sfa/99 payment provisions will fall on 'medium size' clients. Presumably it is this type of client against whom the riba considers the profession needs protection.

So the profession of the 1990s is preoccupied with payment. It also has a penchant for tinkering with its own standard terms. sfa/99 is the fourth standard form of appointment since 1992 (black, white, yellow and now blue). If we add in ce/99 and sw/99 (white and blue respectively) that is six contracts in seven years. Unless the riba can settle on a workable form with the potential longevity of the 1982 Blue Book, its lack of confidence in its own contract will become inescapably apparent.

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