Building surveyors and certifiers throughout Australia will have to act in the public interest, perform their duties with care, remain free from conflicts of interest, act honestly and treat people with respect under a proposed national model for a code of conduct for building surveyors and certifiers.

Responding to Recommendation 10 of the Building Confidence report prepared for the Building Ministers Forum by Professor Peter Shergold and lawyer Bronwyn Weir, the Australian Building Codes Board (ABCB) has released a discussion paper which outlines a proposed national model for a code of conduct which will define minimum expectations of behaviour for building certifiers and surveyors.

The code will serve as a national model and will guide states and territories toward incorporating such a code into their building regulations.

It will apply to both private and public certifiers and to work across all classes of building.

It will only apply, however, when surveyors are performing their statutory function of building certification.

Under the proposed model, building surveyors would have five main obligations and sixteen sub-obligations.

The main obligations would require surveyors to, when performing a statutory function:

  • Act in the public interest and comply with the law.
  • Exercise reasonable care and diligence
  • Take reasonable steps to avoid a conflict of interest
  • Act honestly and not engage in misleading or deceptive conduct; and
  • Be courteous and professional and not engage in discrimination.

On the public interest obligation, specific sub-obligations would require surveyors to notify government officials of suspected fraud or departure from approved documentation and to interpret the National Construction Code in a manner which is consistent with the public interest.

Next, under care and diligence, sub-obligations would require surveyors to act within the constraints of their license and professional competency, undertake continuing professional development, take reasonable steps to obtain relevant facts and information, assure themselves that documents or information prepared by others on which decisions are based adequately demonstrates compliance and is based on independent and reliable opinions, ensure that staff are trained and supervised, avoid disclosure of confidential information and adequately document reasons for decisions.

In terms of conflict of interest, sub-obligations specify that building surveyors must not perform functions where a reasonable person would conclude that they would be biased, should avoid using their role for obtaining preferential treatment or improper advantage and should avoid any statutory certification roles where they have been engaged to assist with building design.

On the fourth point regarding integrity, sub-obligations will require building surveyors to notify regulators in every state or territory where they: are under formal investigation for breach of the code in another jurisdiction; have been found to have breached legislation relating to planning, building or development in a jurisdiction; or had a claim accepted against their professional indemnity insurance policy.

Finally, sub-obligations in respect of courtesy and professionals will require certifiers to have a system for receiving and managing enquiries about either complaints or non-compliant work and to avoid imposing inappropriate impositions and demands on others.

In its paper, the ABCB asks for feedback on several matters.

These include the need or otherwise for mandatory minimum standards of conduct, the scope of the new code, reasons provided for specific obligations, the obligation/sub-obligation approach, wording of the obligations and whether there is a need for a code of conduct when several industry and occupational associations are developing a professional standards scheme (PSS) for building surveyors.

Regarding the code’s scope, the paper notes several suggestions. These include that the code should apply to any party performing any certification role, that the code should apply to all surveyor actions regardless of whether or not they are carrying out a statutory certification function, that local council surveyors should be exempt and that the code should not apply where class 1 (houses) or class 10 (non-habitable structures) are involved.

Regarding the professional standards scheme being developed, it notes suggestions that there would be no need for a code of conduct if the PSS is made given mandatory status.

Such schemes, this argument asserts, set standards of conduct which exceed minimum standards required by a code of conduct and therefore renders the requirements of the code to be unnecessary.

However, the paper also notes an alternative view that a code can complement a scheme where the code sets minimum standards of conduct and the scheme subsequently builds upon that to set higher standards.

Moreover, even where a PSS is mandatory, these are enforced by industry associations rather than regulators.

A code may therefore still be necessary notwithstanding any PSS to ensure that regulators have powers to investigate and sanction poor behaviour.

As mentioned above, the proposed model code is being developed in response to Recommendation 10 of the aforementioned Building Confidence report.

That recommendation argued that all states and territories should adopt a mandatory code of conduct against which regulators would be able to hold surveyors/certifiers to account for unacceptable practices.

The recommendation also suggested that agreement should be reached on the core content of the code in order to ensure that it was nationally consistent.

Feedback on the draft code is open until 24 April.