Sub-contracting and Assignment : Resolving the Legal Conundrum

The performance of a contract may require third party involvement towards the fulfilment of obligations under a contract. In certain specific circumstances, the contracting parties may decide to “sub-contract” or “assign” their rights and obligations to a third party depending upon the nature of the contract. 

In common parlance, sub-contracting and assignment are used interchangeably, however, a  significant difference lies between the two when one examines the terms from a legal stand point. This post aims to discuss the concept of Sub-Contracting and Assignment and explains the key difference between the two concepts. 

Sub-contracting

Sub-contracting refers to the delegation of certain duties and obligations by contracting parties to a third party, i.e. a sub-contractor who aids in the performance of the contract. According to the Black’s Law Dictionary, a sub-contract is“where a person has contracted for the performance of certain work and he, in turn, engages a third party to perform the whole or part of that which is included in the original contract, his agreement with such third person is called a subcontract and such person is called a subcontractor.”[1] A subcontractor could be a company, self-employed professionals or an agency undertaking to fulfil obligations under a contract.

Sub-contracting is generally undertaken in complex projects where the contract has a prolonged life cycle or multiple components for completion of a project, for instance, infrastructure contracts, construction contracts, renewable energy contracts or certain information technology-related contracts. However, the rights and duties of the sub-contractor under the sub-contracting agreement are relatively similar to that of the principal contractor in the main agreement.  

Furthermore, while drafting a contract, one must ensure to incorporate a clause on sub-contracting which clearly spells out that parties to the contract shall sub-contract the rights and obligations only after seeking prior written consent from the other party. The sub-contracting arrangement maybe two-fold, depending upon the nature of the main contract: 

Primarily, the basic idea behind delegation of the obligations to a sub-contractor is to ensure greater flexibility in the performance of the contract. However, it is imperative to enter into a sub-contractor’s agreement that specifies all the details of the work to be performed by the subcontractor, including optimum time required to accomplish the task, payment of charges to the subcontractor, termination of the agreement, etc.

While subcontracting is time-saving and cost efficient, it may result into legal issues between the contracting parties. For instance, issues may arise with respect to the payment conditions where the payment to sub-contractor is contingent upon or linked to the principal contractor receiving its payment from the employer. Further, the courts in India have always upheld the principle of privity of contract between employer and the principal contractor on the one hand and between the principal contractor and sub-contractor(s) on the other. The Supreme Court of India in the case of Zonal General Manager, Ircon International Ltd. v. Vinay Heavy Equipments [2]upheld that in the absence of a back-to-back covenant in the main contract, “the distinct and sole liability of the middle-contractor is presumed and that the rules in relation to privity of contract will mean that the jural relationship between the employer and the main contractor on the one hand and between the sub-contractor and the main contractor on the other will be quite distinct and separate”. Therefore, in order to avoid ambiguities and future legal squabbles, careful consideration must be given while drafting specific terms and obligation that will pass down the contractual chain. 

Assignment

Assignment of contract refers to an act of transferring contractual rights and liabilities under the contract to a third party with other party’s concurrence. Section 37 of the India Contract Act, 1872 (“Contract Act”) enables the contracting parties to dispense with the performance of a contract by way of an assignment. While the principle of assignment is well recognized under Indian law, it derives its origin from the English law.

Assignment of rights is a “complete transfer of rights to receive benefits” accruing to one party under a contract. Performance of a contract may be assigned as long as the contracting parties provide their consent towards the assignment. However, the act of assignment needs to be looked at from the perspective of the contracting parties. Essentially, there are three parties involved, namely, the assignor, assignee and obligor.

An important principle affecting assignments is that the burden or liability under a contract cannot be assigned. Essentially, the moot question that often arises is with respect to assignment of “rights” vis à vis assignment of “obligations”. The Supreme Court in the case of Khardah Company Ltd. v. Raymon & Co. (India) Private Limited[3]categorically distinguished between assignment of “rights” and “obligations”. The court upheld that, “an assignment of a contract might result by transfer either of the rights or of the obligations thereunder. But there is a well-recognised distinction between these two classes of assignments. As a rule, obligations under a contract cannot be assigned except with the consent of the promisee, and when such consent is given, it is really a novation resulting in substitution of liabilities. On the other hand rights under a contract are assignable unless the contract is personal in its nature (or) the rights are incapable of assignment either under the law or under an agreement between the parties”. Primarily, the court clarified that obtaining prior consent to assign “obligations” under a contract would be considered as novation as it will result into substitution of liabilities and obligations to the assignee. Moreover, introduction of a new party into an existing contract will result into novation of a contract i.e. creation of a new contract between original party and new party. As the courts have interpreted that transfer of obligations can be undertaken through novation, the assignment clause in a contract must clearly deal with novation, if the intention is to transfer obligations.

Furthermore, the Supreme Court, in the case of Gopalbhai Manusudhan[4], reaffirmed that whenever there is a case of assignment or even the transfer of the obligations, it must be acclaimed that there is the presence of the consent of the parties. Without the consent of the parties, the assignment will be not considered valid. In addition to upholding the legal point, this ruling also indicates that before establishing a commercial contract, the parties must consider the different complications of contracts, such as the objective of the contract and the presence of an assignability clause in the agreement. 

Therefore, the judicial trend in India has time and again reiterated and laid down that rights under contract can be assigned unless (a) the contract is personal in nature i.e. requires personal engagement of a specific person or (b) the rights are incapable of assignment either under law or under an agreement between the parties. In the case of Robinson v. Davison[5]the defendant’s wife pledged to perform piano at a concert on a specific date. Due to “her illness”, she was unable to fulfil her obligation, which was to play the piano at an event. The contract in this instance was ruled to be solely dependent on the defendant’s wife’s good health and personal talent, and the defendant’s wife’s illness led the contract to be void. Further, the court ruled that the defendant could not be held liable for damages as a result of the contract’s non-performance. The wife could not  assign her right/obligation to a third party because the contract was founded on the “promisor’s expertise” in the aforesaid case.

While assignment is a boiler plate clause, it requires careful consideration on a case-to-case basis. For instance, in real estate transactions, a buyer would insist on retaining the right to assign the “agreement to sell” in favour of a nominee (a company, affiliate or any other third party), in order to facilitate final conveyance in favour of the intended buyer. Similarly, in lending transactions, a borrower will be prohibited from assigning rights under the contract, however, the lender will retain absolute and free right to assign/sell loan portfolios to other lenders or securitisation company. 

The apex court has time and again reiterated that the best policy is to unequivocally state the intent with respect to assignment in the agreement to avoid litigation in the future. The contracting parties must expressly specify the rights and obligations stemming from assignment under a contract. Any agreed limitation on such an assignment must be expressly laid down in the contract to avoid adverse consequences. 

In Sum

For a person drafting a contract, it is important to understand these subtle differences, between sub-contracting and assignment. While “sub-contracting” is delegating or outsourcing the liabilities and obligations, “assignment” is literally transferring the obligations. It will be not fallacious to say that an “assignment” transfers the entire legal obligation to perform to the party assigned the obligation whereas, subcontracting leaves the primary responsibility to perform the obligation with the contracting party. 

­Archana Balasubramanian (Partner), Vaishnavi Vyas (Associate)


[1]Black’s Law Dictionary  4th ed. (St. Paul: West, 1951).

[2] 2006 SCC OnLine Mad 1107

[3] MANU/SC/0428/1962

[4] Kapilaben & Ors. v Ashok Kumar Jayantilal Seth through POA Gopalbhai Manusudhan 2019 (10) SCJ 269

[5] (1871) LR 6 Ex 269

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