This guide was last updated in August 2011.
Assignment involves the transfer of an interest or benefit from one person to another. However the 'burden', or obligations, under a contract cannot be transferred.
Assignment in construction contracts
As noted above only the benefits of a contract can be assigned - not the burden. In the context of a building contract:
- the employer may assign its right to have the works constructed, and its right to sue the contractor in the event that the works are defective – but not its obligation to pay for the works;
- the contractor may assign its right to payment of the contract sum - but not its obligation to construct the works in accordance with the building contract or its obligation to meet any valid claims, for example for defects.
After assignment, the assignee is entitled to the benefit of the contract and to bring proceedings against the other contracting party to enforce its rights. The assignor still owes obligations to the other contracting party, and will remain liable to perform any part of the contract that still has to be fulfilled since the burden cannot be assigned. In practice, what usually happens is that the assignee takes over the performance of the contract with effect from assignment and the assignor will generally ask to be indemnified against any breach or failure to perform by the assignee. The assignor will remain liable for any past liabilities incurred before the assignment.
In construction contracts, the issue of assignment often arises in looking at whether collateral warranties granted to parties outside of the main construction contract can be assigned.
Funders may require the developer to assign contractual rights against the contractor and the design team as security to the funder, as well as the benefit of performance bonds and parent company guarantees. The developer may assign such rights to the purchaser either during or after completion of the construction phase.
Contractual assignment provisions
Many contracts exclude or qualify the right to assignment, and the courts have confirmed that a clause which provides that a party to a contract may not assign the benefit of that contract without the consent of the other party is legally effective and will extend to all rights and benefits arising under the contract, including the right to any remedies. Other common qualifications on the right to assign include:
- a restriction on assignment without the consent of the other party, whether or not such consent is not to be unreasonably withheld or delayed;
- only one of the parties may assign;
- only certain rights may be assigned – for example, warranties and indemnities may be excluded;
- a limit on the number of assignments - as is almost always the case in respect of collateral warranties;
- a right to assign only to a named assignee or class of assignee.
Note that in some agreements where there is a prohibition on assignment, it is sometimes possible to find the reservation of specific rights to create a trust or establish security over the subject matter of the agreement instead.
Legal and equitable assignment
The Law of Property Act creates the ability to legally assign a debt or any other chose in action where the debtor, trustee or other relevant person is notified in writing. If the assignment complied with the formalities in the Act it is a legal assignment, otherwise it will be an equitable assignment.
Some transfers can only take effect as an equitable assignment, for example:
- an oral assignment;
- an assignment by way of charge;
- an assignment of only part of the chosen in action;
- an assignment of which notice has not been given to the debtor;
- an agreement to assign.
If the assignment is equitable rather than legal, the assignor cannot enforce the assigned property in its own name and to do so must join the assignee in any action. This is designed to protect the debtor from later proceedings brought by the assignor or another assignee from enforcing the action without notice of the earlier assignment.
Using assignment as a way of taking security requires special care, as follows:
- if the assignment is by way of charge, the assignor retains the right to sue for any loss it suffers caused by a breach of the other contract party;
- if there is an outright assignment coupled with an entitlement to a re-assignment back once the secured obligation has been performed, it is an assignment by way of legal mortgage.
Please see our separate Out-Law guide for more information on types of security.
Restrictions on assignment
There are restrictions on the assignment of certain types of interest on public policy grounds, as follows:
- certain personal contracts – for example, a contract for the employment of a personal servant or for the benefit of a motor insurance policy cannot be assigned;
- a bare cause of action or 'right to sue' where the assignee has no commercial interest in the subject matter of the underlying transaction cannot be assigned;
- certain rights conferred by statute – for example, a liquidator's powers to bring wrongful trading proceedings against a director – cannot be assigned;
- an assignment of a contract may not necessarily transfer the benefit of an arbitration agreement contained in the contract;
- the assignment of certain rights is regulated – for example, the assignment of company shares or copyright.
If you want to transfer the burden of a contract as well as the benefits under it, you have to novate. Like assignment, novation transfers the benefits under a contract but unlike assignment, novation transfers the burden under a contract as well.
In a novation the original contract is extinguished and is replaced by a new one in which a third party takes up rights and obligations which duplicate those of one of the original parties to the contract. Novation does not cancel past rights and obligations under the original contract, although the parties can agree to novate these as well.
Novation is only possible with the consent of the original contracting parties as well as the new party. Consideration (the 'price' paid, whether financial or otherwise, by the new party in return for the contract being novated to it) must be provided for this new contract unless the novation is documented in a deed signed by all three parties.