Holdbacks (10%) and limits of liability of Owners to Contractors and Contractors to subcontractors, subcontractors to sub-subcontractors, pursuant to Construction Act of Ontario

Contractors and Contractors to subcontractors

The Construction Act of Ontario, initially known as the Construction Lien Act, has undergone significant amendments to address and improve the fairness and efficiency of the construction payment system and to enhance dispute resolution procedures. Among its key provisions are those related to holdbacks and limits of liability, which play a crucial role in managing financial risks and responsibilities throughout the construction project hierarchy—from owners to contractors, contractors to subcontractors, and further down to sub-subcontractors. Understanding these elements is crucial for all parties involved in the construction industry in Ontario.

Holdbacks: An Overview

The concept of a holdback is a fundamental aspect of the Construction Act of Ontario. A holdback is a portion of the payment that is retained to ensure that all subcontractors and workers are paid. This mechanism serves as a financial protection against liens by ensuring that funds are available to satisfy any potential lien claims. The standard holdback amount is 10% of the value of the work provided, and it is retained by the party responsible for payment until the lien period expires, which is typically 60 days after the work is completed or abandoned.

Application and Release of Holdbacks

The Act mandates the release of holdbacks once the lien period has expired, assuming no liens have been registered against the property and no claims are made against the holdback. This release process encourages cash flow to downstream parties and minimizes financial risks associated with non-payment. The amendments introduced prompt payment rules and a clear framework for an adjudication process to settle many disputes related to subcontractors’ invoices and claims for payment, further emphasizing the timely payment and release of holdbacks.

Limits of Liability: Owners, Contractors, and Subcontractors

The Construction Act does not explicitly set limits of liability between owners, contractors, and subcontractors. However, these limits are often defined within the contractual agreements between the parties. It’s common for contracts to include clauses that limit a party’s liability to certain amounts or for specific types of damages. These clauses must be carefully crafted to ensure they are enforceable and compliant with the Act and other applicable laws.

For example, a contract might limit the liability of a contractor for delays or defects to a certain percentage of the contract value. Similarly, subcontract agreements might limit the subcontractor’s liability to the contractor, often relating to the quality of work, timelines, and adherence to specifications.

Subcontractors to Sub-subcontractors

The same principles of holdback and liability limits apply down the chain, from subcontractors to sub-subcontractors. The subcontractor, acting as the “owner” for the sub-subcontractor, is required to retain a 10% holdback from payments, ensuring that the protections afforded by the Construction Act cascade down through the levels of the construction project, providing for security for at least part payment to the parties down the chain, from subcontractors to sub-subcontractors. Liability limits in these relationships are also typically governed by the terms of the subcontract agreements.

Implications and Considerations

The Construction Act’s provisions on holdbacks and liability limits are designed to balance the financial risks involved in construction projects. For owners, these mechanisms ensure that funds are available to address potential lien claims. For contractors and subcontractors, they provide a degree of payment security and clarity on liability exposure.

However, it’s important for all parties to carefully review and understand the terms of their contracts, especially regarding liability limits. These terms can significantly impact the financial and legal responsibilities of each party in the event of disputes, delays, or defects in the construction process.


The Construction Act of Ontario provides a comprehensive framework for managing financial transactions and liabilities in the construction sector. By understanding and effectively navigating the provisions related to holdbacks and limits of liability, parties involved in construction projects can mitigate risks and foster a more transparent, fair, and efficient construction process. As always, consulting with legal professionals experienced in construction law is advisable to ensure compliance and protect your interests under the Act.


Please note these materials have been prepared for general information purposes only and do not constitute legal advice. Readers are advised to seek legal advice by contacting Frank Feldman* regarding any specific legal issues.

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