Supreme Court of Canada rules there is a new general duty of "honest contractual performance."
In Bhasin v Hrynew:
"C markets education savings plans to investors through retail dealers, known as enrollment directors, such as B. An enrollment director’s agreement that took effect in 1998 governed the relationship between C and B. The term of the contract was three years. The applicable provision provided that the contract would automatically renew at the end of the three year term unless one of the parties gave six months’ written notice to the contrary.
H was another enrollment director and was a competitor of B. H wanted to capture B’s lucrative niche market and previously approached B to propose a merger of their agencies on numerous occasions. He also actively encouraged C to force the merger. B had refused to participate in such a merger. C appointed H as the provincial trading officer (“PTO”) to review its enrollment directors for compliance with securities laws after the Alberta Securities Commission raised concerns about compliance issues among C’s enrollment directors. The role required H to conduct audits of C’s enrollment directors. B objected to having H, a competitor, review his confidential business records.
During C’s discussions with the Commission about compliance, it was clear that C was considering a restructuring of its agencies in Alberta that involved B. In June 2000, C outlined its plans to the Commission and they included B working for H’s agency. None of this was known by B. C repeatedly misled B by telling him that H, as PTO, was under an obligation to treat the information confidentially. It also responded equivocally when B asked in August 2000 whether the merger was a “done deal”. When B continued to refuse to allow H to audit his records, C threatened to terminate the 1998 Agreement and in May 2001 gave notice of non‑renewal under the Agreement. At the expiry of the contract term, B lost the value in his business in his assembled workforce. The majority of his sales agents were successfully solicited by H’s agency.
B sued C and H. The trial judge found C was in breach of the implied term of good faith, H had intentionally induced breach of contract, and both C and H were liable for civil conspiracy. The Court of Appeal allowed the appeal and dismissed B’s lawsuit."
The S.C.C. held (7:0) that the appeal with respect to C is allowed; the appeal with respect to H is dismissed; and the trial judge’s assessment of damages varied to $87,000 plus interest.
Justice Cromwell wrote as follows (at paras. 1, 92-93):
"The key issues on this appeal come down to two, straightforward questions: Does Canadian common law impose a duty on parties to perform their contractual obligations honestly? And, if so, did either of the respondents breach that duty? I would answer both questions in the affirmative. Finding that there is a duty to perform contracts honestly will make the law more certain, more just and more in tune with reasonable commercial expectations. It will also bring a measure of justice to the appellant, Mr. Bhasin, who was misled and lost the value of his business as a result.
…at this point in the development of Canadian common law, adding a general duty of honest contractual performance is an appropriate incremental step, recognizing that the implications of the broader, organizing principle of good faith must be allowed to evolve according to the same incremental judicial approach.
A summary of the principles …
(1) There is a general organizing principle of good faith that underlies many facets of contract law.
(2) In general, the particular implications of the broad principle for particular cases are determined by resorting to the body of doctrine that has developed which gives effect to aspects of that principle in particular types of situations and relationships.
(3) It is appropriate to recognize a new common law duty that applies to all contracts as a manifestation of the general organizing principle of good faith: a duty of honest performance, which requires the parties to be honest with each other in relation to the performance of their contractual obligations."
Note: This summary is drawn from Eugene Meehan’s SupremeAdvocacy Weekly Updates for the Law Community.