‘Negligent or incompetent’: Darwin engineer found guilty of professional misconduct by building board

by | Oct 8, 2020 | Business, News | 2 comments

A structural engineer who certified non-compliant concrete for residential multi-storey buildings in Darwin and Palmerston, raising serious safety concerns, has been found guilty of professional misconduct by the Building Practitioners Board.

But an inquiry into the matter also found the NT Government’s director of building control was aware of credible allegations of professional misconduct against John Scott of JWS Consultants in 2014, and delayed referring the matter for years.

Revelations in April 2019 that nine multi-storey residential buildings had structural deficiencies due to improper concrete “transfer slabs” sent shockwaves through the city and forced more than 200 unit owners to rectify their properties amid fears of unsafe homes.

John Scott was referred to the Building Practitioners Board (BPB) in May 2019 which determined this week that he engaged in professional misconduct and failed to carry out building work in accordance with the National Construction Code (NCC) and was either “negligent or incompetent” and had posed “a safety risk for both construction workers and members of the public” on at least one project.

However, a loophole in the inquiry process meant that the building board could only inquire into two of eleven properties alleged to have been non-compliant, due to Mr Scott’s registration as a structural engineer being suspended in July 2019 after his indemnity insurance was cancelled.

According to the NT Building Regulations Act, the board can only investigate the work of an engineer dating back three years before their registration was cancelled.

The board found in one unidentified building case, Mr Scott had certified a residential building as being to code and then later admitted after a third-party assessment that the building had structural issues due to an “under design” of a concrete transfer slab.

He claimed that was outside of the board’s inquiry because it happend more than three years after his registration was suspended.

In another unidentified residential building, a transfer slab Mr Scott signed off on had begun to fall, but was discovered before construction was completed.

“The consequences of [Mr Scott’s] professional misconduct resulted in a catastrophic failure of the building and the requirement to close the construction site whilst remedial work was undertaken,” the report stated.

“It was a matter of good fortune that no-one was injured due to the practitioner’s professional misconduct and that the defects in the engineering design came to light prior to the building being occupied.

“The conduct of the building practitioner is properly described as negligent or incompetent and, when taken together, demonstrates that the practitioner is guilty of a pattern of negligent or incompetent conduct over a period of time while engaging in building work.

“The practitioner is therefore guilty of serious professional misconduct.”

He was also found not to have kept proper building permit records or certificates of compliance. In some cases, he had not properly documented the number of storeys of a building and in others, the location code of the building was incorrect, the class of building was not declared, and the type of construction was not listed on the building permit.

Director of building control failed to refer serious allegations in 2014

The actions of the department’s then-director of building control Armando Padovan were also called into question after he received a complaint on December 29, 2014 relating to the “under design of a strip footing” at a Darwin CBD building.

“Investigation of that complaint on behalf of the director identified alleged professional misconduct by the practitioner [Mr Scott],” the report stated.

“That complaint was not dismissed by the director however the matter was not referred to the Building Practitioners Board pursuant to section 34(1)(b) at the conclusion of the investigation.”

It wasn’t until May 2017, that an audit was conducted into Mr Scott’s conduct, the report stated, following another complaint which ultimately led to the director referring 10 properties to the BPB for review.

A 2019 ABC investigation found that the Department of Infrastructure, Planning and Logistics had received a “final assessment report” in January 2018 into allegations of misconduct that concluded that nine buildings were “non-compliant with the NCC”, but inexplicably waited 15 months before publicly disclosing the serious public safety issue.

DIPL has repeatedly refused to disclose the addresses of all the suspect buildings, citing the possibility of reduced value of the properties and its effect on the NT economy.

The building board’s report stated that the current director of building control Mark Meldrum had determined that none of the residents affected by the unsafe buildings needed to vacate their homes and that he instead opted to notify them of the structural issues by way of written notice because he decided that was “the more appropriate way to proceed”.

John Scott refused to defend himself in inquiry citing “impecuniosity” and procedural unfairness 

Mr Scott refused to participate in the board’s inquiry, suggesting it was a “witch hunt” and that his “current state of impecuniosity” – lack of money – prevented him from engaging with the inquiry.

The inquiry heard Mr Scott had delayed handing over crucial documents and certificates to investigators for months citing “family issues, travel overseas, business commitments and illness”, as well as tech problems receiving emails.

In a letter to the BPB, Mr Scott said he would not participate in the inquiry last December because, among other reasons, he was not granted an adjournment.

“This is grossly unfair and I am advised is in breach of the rules of procedural fairness,” he wrote. “I no longer have any faith in the impartiality of the board and will take no further part in the proceeding today.”

His reasons for failing to attend were discounted by the board, that stated he had been given every opportunity to state his case and that his claimed lack of money “is not relevant to the inquiry”.

The board ruled that Mr Scott’s registration as a structural engineer be revoked and he was ordered to pay the maximum fine of $6320.

Due to his registration already having been suspended, the building board determined that he would not have his registration renewed should he somehow obtain indemnity insurance again.

Mr Scott and Mr Meldrum, as director of building control, have 30 days as of October 5 to appeal the decision in the local court.

Editor’s note:This story has been updated. An earlier version incorrectly identified the previous director of building control.

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