Deed of Assignment or Deed of Novation: Key Differences and Legal Implications of Novation and Assignment Contracts

Novation and assignment stand out as pivotal processes for the transfer of contractual rights and obligations. These legal concepts allow a party to the contract to adapt to changing circumstances, ensuring that business arrangements remain relevant and effective. This article explores the nuances of novation and assignment, shedding light on their distinct legal implications, procedures, and practical applications. Whether you’re a business owner navigating the transfer of service contracts, or an individual looking to understand your rights and responsibilities in a contractual relationship, or a key stakeholder in a construction contract, this guide will equip you with the essential knowledge to navigate these complex legal processes.

Table of Contents

What is a Deed of Novation?

Novation is a legal process that allows a new party to a contract to take the place of an original party in a contract, thereby transferring both the responsibilities and benefits under the contract to a third party. In common law, transferring contractual obligations through novation requires the agreement of all original parties involved in the contract, as well as the new party. This is because novation effectively terminates the original contract and establishes a new one.

A novation clause typically specifies that a contract cannot be novated without the written consent of the current parties. The inclusion of such a clause aims to preclude the possibility of novation based on verbal consent or inferred from the actions of a continuing party. Nevertheless, courts will assess the actual events that transpired, and a novation clause may not always be enforceable. It’s possible for a novation clause to allow for future novation by one party acting alone to a party of their choosing. Courts will enforce a novation carried out in this manner if it is sanctioned by the correct interpretation of the original contract.

Novation is frequently encountered in business and contract law, offering a means for parties to transfer their contractual rights and duties to another, which can be useful if the original party cannot meet their obligations or wishes to transfer their contract rights. For novation to occur, there must be unanimous consent for the substitution of the new party for the original one, necessitating a three-way agreement among the original party, the new party, and the remaining contract party. Moreover, the novation agreement must be documented in writing and signed by all involved parties. Understanding novation is essential in the realms of contracts and business dealings, as it provides a way for parties to delegate their contractual rights and responsibilities while freeing themselves from the original agreement.

What is a Deed of Assignment?

A deed of assignment is a legal document that facilitates the transfer of a specific right or benefit from one party (the assignor) to another (the assignee). This process allows the assignee to step into the assignor’s position, taking over both the rights and obligations under the original contract. In construction, this might occur when a main contractor assigns rights under a subcontract to the employer, allowing the employer to enforce specific subcontractor duties directly if the contractor fails.

Key aspects of an assignment include:

  • Continuation of the Original Contract: The initial agreement remains valid and enforceable, despite the transfer of rights or benefits.
  • Assumption of Rights and Obligations: The assignee assumes the role of the assignor, adopting all associated rights and responsibilities as outlined in the original contract.
  • Requirement for Written Form: The assignment must be documented in writing, signed by the assignor, and officially communicated to the obligor (the party obligated under the contract).
  • Subject to Terms and Law: The ability to assign rights or benefits is governed by the specific terms of the contract and relevant legal statutes.

At common law, parties generally have the right to assign their contractual rights without needing consent from the other party involved in the contract. However, this does not apply if the rights are inherently personal or if the contract includes an assignment clause that restricts or modifies this general right. Many contracts contain a provision requiring the consent of the other party for an assignment to occur, ensuring that rights are not transferred without the other party’s knowledge.

Once an assignment of rights is made, the assignee gains the right to benefit from the contract and can initiate legal proceedings to enforce these rights. This enforcement can be done either independently or alongside the assignor, depending on whether the assignment is legal or equitable. It’s important to note that while rights under the contract can be assigned, the contractual obligations or burdens cannot be transferred in this manner. Therefore, the assignor remains liable for any obligations under the contract that are not yet fulfilled at the time of the assignment.

Key Differences Between Novation and Assignment Deeds

AspectNovationAssignment
Transfer of rights or obligationsTransfers both the benefit and the burden of a contract to a third party.Transfers only the benefit of a contract, not the burden.
Consent RequiredNovation requires the consent of all parties (original parties and incoming party).Consent from the original party is necessary; incoming party’s consent may not be required, depending on contract terms.
Nature of ContractCreates a new contractual relationship; effectively, a new contract is entered into with another party.Maintains the original contract, altering only the party to whom benefits flow.
FormalitiesTypically effected through a tripartite agreement due to the need for all parties’ consent.Can often be simpler; may not require a formal agreement, depending on the original contract’s terms.

Choosing Between Assignment and Novation in a Construction Contract

Choosing between a deed of novation and an assignment agreement depends on the specific circumstances and objectives of the parties involved in a contract. Both options serve to transfer rights and obligations but in fundamentally different ways, each with its own legal implications, risks, and benefits. Understanding these differences and considering various factors can help in making an informed decision that aligns with your goals.

Need a Deed of Novation or Assignment? Key Factors to Consider

The choice between assignment and novation in a construction project scenario, where, for instance, an employer wishes to engage a subcontractor directly due to loss of confidence in the main contractor, hinges on several factors. These are:

  • Nature of the Contract: The type of contract you’re dealing with (e.g., service, sales) can influence which option is more suitable. For instance, novation might be preferred for service contracts where obligations are personal and specific to the original parties.
  • Parties Involved: Consent is a key factor. Novation requires the agreement of all original and new parties, making it a viable option only when such consent is attainable. Assignment might be more feasible if obtaining consent from all parties poses a challenge.
  • Complexity of the Transaction: For transactions involving multiple parties and obligations, novation could be more appropriate as it ensures a clean transfer of all rights and obligations. Assignment might leave the original party with ongoing responsibilities.
  • Time and Cost: Consider the practical aspects, such as the time and financial cost associated with each option. Novation typically involves more complex legal processes and might be more time-consuming and costly than an assignment.

If the intention is merely to transfer the rights of the subcontractor’s work to the employer without altering the subcontractor’s obligations under a contract, an assignment might suffice. However, if the goal is to completely transfer the main contractor’s contractual role and obligations to the employer or another entity, novation would be necessary, ensuring that all parties consent to this new arrangement and the original contractor is released from their obligations.

The legal interpretations and court decisions highlight the importance of the document’s substance over its label. Even if a document is titled a “Deed of Assignment,” it could function as a novation if it transfers obligations and responsibilities and involves the consent of all parties. The key is to clearly understand and define the objective behind changing the contractual relationships and to use a deed — assignment or novation — that best achieves the desired legal and practical outcomes, ensuring the continuity and successful completion of the construction project.

Selecting the Right Assignment Clause for Your Contract – Helping You Make the Right Choice

Understanding the distinction between assignment deeds and novation deeds is crucial for anyone involved in contractual agreements. Novation offers a clean slate by transferring both rights and obligations to a new party, requiring the consent of all involved. Assignment, conversely, allows for the transfer of contractual benefits without altering the original contract’s obligations. Each method serves different strategic purposes, from simplifying transitions to preserving original contractual duties.
The choice between novation and assignment hinges on specific legal, financial, and practical considerations unique to each situation. At PBL Law Group, we specialise in providing comprehensive legal advice and support in contract law. Our team is dedicated to helping clients understand their options and make informed decisions that align with their legal and business objectives. Let’s discuss!

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Authored by

Raea Khan

Director Lawyer

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Raea Khan Circle
Director Lawyer
Raea Khan

Raea is Managing Director and Principal Lawyer for PBl Law Group. Raea assists clients with major projects, property developments, construction and strata law.

He has worked in Western Australia and Queensland assisting with expansion projects in the energy and resource sector and now predominately advises clients in Strata and Community Association matters.

He is a member of the Australian College of Strata Lawyers where majority of his work is advising developers and owners corporations with dispute related minor and major defects, strata governance and common property litigation. He is proficient at leading negotiations and meetings.

Raea has a particular interest in the commercial aspect of any dispute and always tries to weigh up the risk, reward and benefit of legal proceedings at each different stage.

Raea enjoys all forms of competitive sport, including Crossfit and actively participates in Triathlons, representing Australia as an age group athlete. He was a member of Red Head Surf Lifesaving club.

  • Strata Law
  • Construction & Major Projects
  • Commercial and Business Law
  • Planning & Environment Law