19 February 2011

Supreme Court of Canada Clarifies Unmarried Property Claims

Important Update: The Family Law Act was introduced on 14 November 2011 and contains a number of provisions which are critical to the comments made in this post. See my post "Family Law Act Introduced!" for more information.

The Supreme Court of Canada has just released an important decision updating the law on property claims brought by unmarried parties. The decision caps a recent trend to expand the meaning of "juristic reason" in the context of unjust enrichment claims and clarifies the calculation of compensation where unjust enrichment is found; along the way the court revokes the application of the resulting trust in resolving domestic property claims.

Kerr v. Baranow is a joint decision released on two appeals, the eponymous case from British Columbia and Vanasse v. Seguin out of Ontario. Before I can talk about the importance of the decision, I first need to explain the basic law about property claims flowing from unmarried relationships. Bear with me.

The Property Rights of Unmarried Couples

The domestic relations legislation of most provinces treats married couples differently than unmarried couples when it comes to property. In British Columbia, the Family Relations Act gives married couples a presumptive half interest in all of the assets when they split up. Unmarried couples are excluded from this part of the act, and as a result the only things both parties have a presumptive entitlement to are the assets that they own together. When an asset isn't jointly owned, the non-owning person usually has to jump through a bunch of hoops to establish a legal interest in the asset.

Non-owners usually establish a claim to property owned someone else through the law of trusts, by proving the existence of an express trust, a resulting trust or a constructive trust. An express trust happens when the parties agree that although one person will be the legal owner of a property, the other person will be the beneficial owner of the property. A resulting trust happens when the conduct of the parties gives rise to the assumption that they meant a trust relationship to exist.

A constructive trust is a bit different. A constructive trust is a trust relationship imposed by the court as a remedy for a party's unjust enrichment. Constructive trusts are the most common way unmarried persons obtain a legal interest in property owned by someone else.

Trust claims are often difficult to prove and the legal issues can be very complicated, especially when the claims of one person seem to be offset by the claims of the other person. Making things worse, the results of successful claims usually pale in comparison to what the result would have been had the couple been married.

Unjust Enrichment

To establish that a person was unjustly enriched, you must prove three things:
  1. that the person received a benefit,
  2. that the other person suffered a loss corresponding in some way to the benefit, and
  3. that there is no juristic reason for the benefit and the loss.
Say your partner owns a restaurant and one day the cook quits. Your partner phones you up in a panic, asking you to come down and help out. You've been in this relationship for quite awhile, so of course you agree, and you head on down to the restaurant. One day turns into two days, which turns into two weeks and then two months. Before you know it, you've been working at the restaurant for two years! Over all that time, you never asked to be paid for your work and your partner never offered to pay you; you are your partner's partner after all and the money from the restaurant did wind up paying for the mortgage, the car loan and the phone bill.

In this example, your partner received a benefit (your unpaid work as a cook for two years) and you suffered a loss which exactly corresponds to the benefit your partner received (the money you could have made if you had worked as a cook in someone else's restaurant for two years), and there was no juristic reason for the benefit and loss (you weren't under a contractual obligation or court order to do the work). Your partner has been unjustly enriched.

The Law since Pettkus v. Becker

The legal underpinnings of unjust enrichment and the constructive trust were first set out in another case from the Supreme Court of Canada, Pettkus v. Becker, decided in 1980. The law has evolved somewhat over the past 31 years.

The benefit received by a party must be tangible even though it may not be permanent. A benefit can be positive, in the sense of goods or services received, or negative, in the sense of an expense avoided. None of this is a significant change from Pettkus.

The loss must relate to the benefit. A loss will be irrelevant and incompensable if there is no corresponding benefit. This too doesn't represent much of a change

The law on the absence of juristic reason issue is where the action is. The courts have refused to confine juristic reason to a narrow definition. In the mid-80s, juristic reason was found to encompass moral issues and policy questions. In the early-90s, juristic reason included the parties' reasonable expectations. In 2004, in a case called Garland v. Consumers’ Gas Co., the court developed a two-stage test:
  1. the person claiming unjust enrichment must show that there is no established category of juristic reason to deny the claim, and
  2. the person opposing the claim may then argue that the parties' expectations were such that the claim should be denied or that the claim should be denied for public policy reasons.
Compensation for Unjust Enrichment

When unjust enrichment is proven, the court first tries to provide compensation through a cash award. When a cash award would be insufficient or can't be paid, the court will provide compensation by giving the non-owner an interest in the property.

Using the example above, the compensation due to you would be calculated as the amount a cook of equal skills would have been paid for working the same hours at a similar restaurant. If your partner could pay the compensation due to you, you'd get cash. If you partner couldn't pay the compensation, your partner would be considered to hold an interest in the restaurant for you in trust. A constructive trust is a potential remedy for a party's unjust enrichment.

Of course things are rarely as simple as this. First, in the context of a domestic relationship, benefit is rarely a one way street and both parties usually gain something from their relationship (the value of the work you provided as a cook is balanced to some degree by living for free in your partner's house). Second, it isn't always clear whether the compensation should be given based on the cost of the services rendered (a cook's wages multiplied by the hours worked), called quantum meruit, or by the net benefit of the services rendered (the improvement to the restaurant's value), called quantum valebant; some cases have interpreted a case called Peter v. Beblow as requiring the quantum meruit approach.

The Decision in Kerr v. Baranow

In this case, the court took the opportunity to clarify three issues which have become controversial:
  1. how should cash awards be calculated when unjust enrichment is proven,
  2. how to address mutual benefits, and
  3. how the parties' expectations should be considered when addressing juristic reason.
On the first issue, the court held that no calculation method should be preferred. A court should choose the method which best suits the circumstances and the claimant's loss:
"The unjust enrichment principle is inherently flexible and, in my view, the calculation of a monetary award for a successful unjust enrichment claim should be equally flexible. This is necessary to respond, to the extent money can, to the particular enrichment being addressed. To my way of thinking, Professor Fridman was right to say that 'where a claim for unjust enrichment has been made out by the plaintiff, the court may award whatever form of relief is most appropriate so as to ensure that the plaintiff obtains that to which he or she is entitled, regardless of whether the situation would have been governed by common law or equitable doctrines or whether the case would formerly have been considered one for a personal or a proprietary remedy'."
However, where the enrichment is based on one person keeping the fruit of the family's collective effort, a cash award should be calculated as the claimant's proportionate contribution to the family enterprise.

On the second issue, the court held that mutual benefits can be taken into account either as a juristic reason against a finding of unjust enrichment or as part of calculating the compensation due when unjust enrichment has been found. Mutual benefits should not be considered when arguing about whether there was a benefit and corresponding loss:
"I conclude that mutual benefits may be considered at the juristic reason stage, but only to the extent that they provide evidence relevant to the parties’ reasonable expectations. Otherwise, mutual benefit conferrals are to be considered at the defence and/or remedy stage."
On the third issue, the court held that the parties' reasonable expectations should be considered in the second stage of the juristic reason test, and that it is each party's expectations which must be considered not just those of the claimant:
"The parties’ reasonable or legitimate expectations have a role to play at the second step of the juristic reason analysis, that is, where the defendant bears the burden of establishing that there is a juristic reason for retaining the benefit which does not fall within the existing categories. It is the mutual or legitimate expectations of both parties that must be considered, and not simply the expectations of either the claimant or the defendant. The question is whether the parties’ expectations show that retention of the benefits is just."
Like Peter v. Beblow, and Pettkus v. Becker before it, this case will become one of the standard cases used to argue unjust enrichment claims.

Update: 24 March 2011

I've just come across a recent judgment of the British Columbia Supreme Court, Mr. Justice Willcock's decision in D.P.S. v. B.H.L. which provides a very helpful discussion of Kerr v. Baranow. The discussion of the law begins at paragraph 43.

14 February 2011

Access Pro Bono Launches Court Form Service

Access Pro Bono, the organization created by the merger of Pro Bono Law British Columbia and the Access Justice Society, has announced a new Paralegal Program under which paralegals supervised by a lawyer will give low-income Supreme Court litigants help drafting court documents. The program, sadly, is only for non-family law civil matters; less extensive help for family law cases can still be had from the self-help centre.

This is how the new service works:
  • Each paralegal program will engage the volunteer services of two to four paralegals and one supervising lawyer
  • The Law Courts Center will recruit, monitor and train the volunteer paralegals as needed and Access Pro Bono will recruit supervising lawyers as needed
  • The supervising lawyer will directly supervise each client file at the Vancouver Justice Access Centre
  • The supervising lawyer will be responsible for the legal advice and assistance provided by the paralegals
  • Volunteer paralegals will each see a maximum of two clients per clinic and the program will serve a maximum of eight clients per day
If you are interested in this service, call 604-660-2084, or go in person to the Vancouver Justice Access Centre at 290-800 Hornby Street in Vancouver and ask to be booked into the Paralegal Program.

11 February 2011

Child Abduction Cases and the Courts

I've spent much of the past week at a legal conference in Calgary (not the one featuring the Chief Justice, that was in Toronto). One of the sessions dealt with interprovincial and international child abduction and offered a lot of information I think might be of interest to a broader audience.

International Abduction

The website of the Hague Conference on Private International Law can be found at www.hcch.net. This is where you'll find a complete listing of the international Hague agreements on domestic relations, covering legal issues ranging from adoption to support obligations, as well as the Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. The Conference's child abduction case law database can be found at www.incadat.com.

Certain signatories to the convention on child abduction have offered up a member of their judiciaries to the International Hague Network of Judges, formed to support the convention by easing communication between the courts of signatory countries. The list of participating judges as of December 2010 can be found here (PDF); the Canadian judges are:
  • Civil Law: L'hon. Juge Chamberland, la Cour d'appel du Québec
  • Common Law: Hon. Madam Justice Diamond, Manitoba Court of Queen's Bench
The Central Authority for the convention in British Columbia is Ms. Penelope Lipsack of the Attorney General's office.

Interprovincial Abduction

The primary federal legislation on custody and access rights is the Divorce Act, RSC 1985, c. 3 (2nd Supp.). Although the Divorce Act contains no enforcement provisions, s. 20 provides that Divorce Act orders have effect throughout Canada and may be registered in the court of any province and be enforced as an order of that court. Another federal law, the Family Orders and Agreements Enforcement Act, RSC 1985, c. 4 (2nd Supp.) provides for the release of government information about a person for the purposes of enforcing orders about custody and access.

The current provincial and territorial legislation on the enforcement of custody and access rights is:
(Interestingly, the Nova Scotia enforcement legislation only applies in respect of those provinces which have reciprocal agreements with Nova Scotia, and not all do.)

The Judicial Response

The Canadian Judicial Council has established a network of superior court contact judges to address interprovincial and international abduction cases and facilitate communication between the courts of different provinces and between Canadian courts and foreign courts. The current members of the Canadian Network of Contact Judges for Interjurisdictional Cases of Child Protection are:
  • Chair: Hon. Madam Justice Diamond, Manitoba Court of Queen's Bench
  • Alberta: Hon. Madam Justice Moen, Court of Queen's Bench
  • British Columbia: Hon. Mr. Justice Butler, Supreme Court
  • Manitoba: Hon. Madam Justice MacPhail, Court of Queen's Bench
  • New Brunswick: L'hon. Juge Robichaud, la Cour du Banc de la Reine
  • Newfoundland & Labrador: Hon. Mr. Justice Cook, Supreme Court Trial Division
  • Northwest Territories: Hon. Madam Justice Schuler, Supreme Court
  • Nova Scotia: Hon. Mr. Justice Dellapinna, Supreme Court Family Division
  • Nunavut: Hon. Mr. Justice Johnson, Court of Justice
  • Ontario: Hon. Mr. Justice Harper, Superior Court of Justice
  • PEI: Chief Justice Matheson, Supreme Court
  • Quebec: L'hon. Juge Gaudreau, la Cour supérieure
  • Saskatchewan: Hon. Madam Justice Ryan-Froslie, Court of Queen's Bench
  • Yukon: Hon. Mr. Justice Gower, Supreme Court
A similar network has been established between the provincial courts. The current contact judges are:
  • Alberta: Hon. Judge O'Gorman, Provincial Court
  • British Columbia: Hon. Judge Wingham, Provincial Court
  • Manitoba: Associate Chief Judge Thompson, Provincial Court
  • Newfoundland & Labrador: Hon. Judge Howe, Provincial Family Court
  • Northwest Territories: Hon. Judge Gorin, Territorial Court
  • Nova Scotia: Chief Judge Comeau, Provincial Family Court
  • Ontario, Toronto: Hon. Justices Weagant and Scully, Ontario Court of Justice
  • Ontario, Central West: Hon. Justice Maresca, Ontario Court of Justice (Brampton)
  • Ontario, West: Hon. Justice Glenn, Ontario Court of Justice (Chatham)
  • Ontario, East: Hon. Justice Malcolm, Ontario Court of Justice (Belleville)
  • Ontario, Northwest: Hon. Justice McKay, Ontario Court of Justice (Fort Frances)
  • Ontario, Northeast: Hon. Justice Kukurin, Ontario Court of Justice (Sault Ste. Marie)
  • Quebec: Juge en chef adjointe Gaumond, la Cour du Québec

Canada's Chief Justice Comments on Access to Justice

Chief Justice Beverly McLachlin, a former luminary of the British Columbia bench and Canada's top judge since 2000, has made some important remarks about the accessibility of the justice system at a University of Toronto legal conference which have been loudly reported by the Globe and Mail and CBC.

Her Ladyship's comments were focused on the high cost of legal services, the inadequacy of legal aid services, and the monopoly lawyers have over the practice law. To quote from Kirk Makin's excellent article in the Globe:
“Do we have adequate access to justice?” she asked a University of Toronto conference on the problem. “It seems to me that the answer is no. We have wonderful justice for corporations and for the wealthy. But the middle class and the poor may not be able to access our justice system.”
These problems are particularly acute for middle- and low-income earners involved in family law proceedings in British Columbia. Middle-income families often wind up sacrificing the family home on lawyer's fees if a settlement cannot be reached in relatively short order. Low-income families often don't have the luxury of hiring counsel at all, and given the state of the cutbacks to legal aid imposed by Gordon Campbell's government in 2002, legal aid for family law problems is available only in emergency circumstances and for a limited retainer.

I agree with the Chief Justice's comments, but I'm not sure what can be done to correct the problem.

For low-income families, it seems imperative that full funding be restored to the Legal Services Society, but that's only a starting point and requires a very significant, if not prohibitive, budgetary commitment on the part of the provincial government.

For low- and middle-income families, I think we need to focus on two things. First, we need to have the basics of family law and family responsibilities taught in high school so that people enter the legal process from an informed position at least vaguely aware of their rights and duties as parents, spouses and litigants. Second, we need to move from the presumption enshrined in the Divorce Act and the Family Relations Act that court is the default setting for dispute resolution. Negotiation, mediation and collaborative law are generally faster and cheaper means of resolving family law disputes, and are arguably more effective in the long run; they should be where we turn first to find a resolution, and court should be reserved for emergencies, irresolvable disputes, cases involving abduction and threats, and cases involving domestic violence.

It goes without saying that more lawyers need to spend more time on pro bono clients. This however is a matter of individual choice and availability, and not an adequate reply to a problem which is fundamentally systemic.