Families are the forgotten victims in building industry pay disputes

Families are the forgotten victims in building industry pay disputes

Heidi DeVoy, the co-owner of Fyshwick's Cube Furniture, sent the patriarch of an Albury construction firm a picture of her family during a recent four year payment dispute.

"These are the people in the background," she wrote to Colin Joss of Joss Constructions.

Proprietor of Fyshwick-based, Cube furniture, Chris DeVoy, has had an extended legal battle with major builder Joss Constructions.

Proprietor of Fyshwick-based, Cube furniture, Chris DeVoy, has had an extended legal battle with major builder Joss Constructions.

Photo: Graham Tidy

The message was a plea for Cube to be paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for work it had done for Joss in 2012 under a $1.65 million furniture and joinery contract on the National Life Sciences Hub Project at Charles Sturt University in Wagga.

Chris DeVoy, Cube's director, contacted Fairfax following recent reports on the outcome of the Senate inquiry into insolvencies in the building industry.

He said while the Senate committee's investigation and recommendations were welcome, they did nothing to address the plight of smaller contractors engaged in David and Goliath court actions against players from the big end of town in what he said are battles of attrition.


"The hope is that you will either go bankrupt or just go away," Mr DeVoy said.

Joss, which has just completed the $32 million Coombs School in the ACT, is the Goliath in this instance. It has more than 1600 staff and individual projects worth up to $250 million on its books.

Cube, by contrast, is mum and dad owned and has eight employees.

"The [Charles Sturt] contract was the biggest we had ever had," Mr DeVoy said. "I remember saying to Heidi [in 2011] "this will either make us or break us."

He came dangerously close to being right. Mr DeVoy has undergone treatment for depression as a result of the payment dispute and said the pressure had dramatically affected all aspects of the family's life.

"I am not the man my wife married," he said. "It is going to take us all a long time to recover."

The couple have five children, aged four to 16.

"Our youngest has never known a time when mum and dad weren't stressed to the max. Life was good before this. We had just built our dream home and only had a small mortgage.

"Now we have a humungous mortgage [for legal fees]. There was no joy from the new home. Every day we lived with the fear it would be lost."

He did welcome a Senate recommendation that contractors in crisis because they had not been been paid be steered towards psychological support services.

"I welcome any counselling or health programs that could be introduced," he said. "The issue is similar to farmers with suicide and mental health problems and broken families."

Court documents state Joss terminated the contract with Cube on June 28, 2012, alleging delays in the completion of work, and then initiated arbitration against its former subcontractor for liquidated damages totalling $494,000.

Cube counter claimed, alleging Joss had caused many of the delays, and on November 4, 2014, was awarded $149,773.78 by the arbitrator.

Joss appealed the arbitrator's decision to the NSW Supreme Court. That appeal was dismissed on June 12 last year and Mr DeVoy said about $108,000 had been paid.

On June 26, 2015, Cube was awarded indemnity costs after the judge, J Hammerschlag, ruled "it ought to have been obvious to Joss that its challenge would not meet the threshold required and that it had no realistic prospect of success".

Cube, which Mr DeVoy said was out of pocket about $440,000 in legal fees, is currently having a full cost assessment carried out.

A Joss spokesman said the company accepted the court's decision but "was naturally disappointed by [it] and what it considers to be erroneous, inappropriate and unnecessary comments made by Justice Hammerschlag".

"Joss Construction has ultimately been made to pay, and has paid, Cube Furniture for work it did not carry out," he said. "Joss Construction will never accept that this outcome is fair."

The spokesman said Joss originally appealed the arbitrator's decision because of "errors in the award".

"There were a number of other aspects of the arbitration proceedings which Joss genuinely considered were highly objectionable."

Mr DeVoy hoped the costs claim would be settled by April.

"That would allow us to eliminate the debts and get on with life," he said. "I want to concentrate on the things that are important; the family and the business."

David Ellery

David Ellery is a reporter for The Canberra Times.

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