JCT Interviews…Paul Cowan

In this series we shed some light on some of the key people who are involved with or give their time to support JCT, to ensure that all areas of the construction industry are represented and can contribute to the development of our contracts. We will look at how our interviewees contribute to JCT specifically, and gain their views on JCT’s wider role within the industry.

Paul Cowan
Member of the JCT Council
Chair of the Construction
Dispute Resolution Group

Paul is a barrister and arbitrator at 4 New Square chambers. He has 20 years of experience advising and representing parties on major construction projects both nationally and internationally, including many years of detailed first-hand experience on new build nuclear power plants, as well as extensive specialist experience in delay and disruption disputes.

JCT: Paul, how did you first come to be involved with JCT? Why do you think it is important to be involved?

PC: Over 15 years ago, Ann Minogue at Cameron McKenna introduced me to working with the British Property Federation as secretary of its JCT liaison committee, which then developed into me attending the JCT Council as a BPF representative, as well as Drafting Sub-Committee. I particularly remember my first JCT Council meeting where it had been initially suggested that I should attend as an observer, but this was the subject of a procedural objection (from the Construction Confederation!) which had to be resolved before I was allowed in! I have always found it important to understand the perspectives of construction professionals and practitioners from all the different parts of the industry in the UK, and to be involved in shaping developments in construction procurement and contracts.

JCT: Can you tell us about any specific work you’re currently doing with JCT – through the Construction Dispute Resolution Group, for example?

PC: Following my suggestion and with the strong approval of the JCT Council, the CDRG has been working on adopting best practice from dispute resolution on international construction projects in using ‘dispute boards’. These are multi-member panels who have a standing role on major construction projects, and whose focus is to enable dispute avoidance, or at least early dispute resolution. The CDRG is presently at work developing the contractual provisions and adapted rules that will give users of JCT contracts the option of having Construction Act compliant procedures for standing ‘dispute boards’, which will be a first for UK-based standard form contracts.

JCT: Do you have any personal career highlights? What are you most proud of about the construction industry as a whole and where do you think it most needs to improve?

PC: Over the last few years, I have had the privilege of being lead counsel on one of the largest construction delay and disruption disputes in the world relating to a nuclear power plant, cross-examining the key witnesses on the key design and construction problems, and pleading the case in oral argument and written submissions. In order to do so, I have had to get to grips with the technical content and processes involved, as well as the use of novel analytical approaches such as ‘dynamic simulation’ and statistical sampling. It has been a hugely interesting experience in respect of the construction issues, and a great challenge as advocate. Alongside this, I recently succeeded in establishing new principles about how extensions of time should be administered in a multi-party main contractor/sub-contractor setting, following hearings in both the Technology & Construction Court and the Court of Appeal.

The construction industry has introduced me to incredibly talented people responsible for innovative design and construction methods all around the world, and has shown me that there are few things in life that are genuinely impossible – it is just a question of applying the time and effort needed to overcome the biggest challenges. In terms of areas for improvement, from my involvement in delay disputes, I still see parties committing to programmes and budgets that are not realistic, or which have not had the same level of scrutiny of risks and content that parties expend on negotiating the contractual conditions.

JCT: What do you see as the main challenges for the construction industry over the next five years?

PC: I know a number of commercial directors of major UK construction companies who are anticipating a slowdown in the construction market in the years ahead (notwithstanding the UK Government pushing ahead with major projects like HS2). If it happens, this slowdown will be happening alongside Brexit-induced economic pressures which have been driving up construction costs of materials and labour, and further increasing the pressures and problems in the market.

JCT: Does JCT have a wider role to play in the industry beyond producing contracts?

PC: With its long-established institutional experience from publishing the leading form of UK construction contracts over many decades, coupled with the talents of its members, the JCT has a great deal to offer in terms of cross-industry thought-leadership for how construction procurement should be undertaken, how parties should use its standard forms, and taking a lead in promoting best practice (such as we are seeing in the CDRG’s work on ‘dispute boards’).