Clinician Guide for Consumer Transactions (11:IX)
|This information applies to British Columbia, Canada. Last reviewed for legal accuracy by the Law Students' Legal Advice Program on August 8, 2021.|
A. Determine the Client’s Position and Desired Outcome
- Ask to see the contract. Reading the terms as they are written is the first step in analysing the contract and determining its meaning.
- What did the client and the other party agree to do, and how did that party agree? Clients tend to focus on the personal consequences of a transaction. That a contract or its execution is inconvenient to the client is not helpful unless the client has a legal remedy. Determine the subject matter of the contract and the understandings surrounding it. It should be ascertained as early as possible what other terms or representations were made surrounding this contract as what is written on paper may not accurately communicate the parties' agreement.
- What were the written and oral understandings? Under traditional common law, a contract had to be either all written or all verbal. The SGA permits a contract to be partly in writing and partly by word of mouth, or implied by the conduct of the parties (s 8). The BPCPA states that parole (verbal) or extrinsic evidence can be admissible evidence toward understanding what agreements the parties made (s 187). Further, there is extensive case law supporting the position that one cannot induce another party to enter a contract with verbal representations and then refuse to act on those representations because they are not in the written contract.
- Did the client receive all of the statutorily required information when entering the contract? The BPCPA sets up significant notice and information requirements that, if unmet, may invalidate the contract.
- What outcome is the client looking for? Does the client want damages? Or to get out of a contract? Or some other remedy? The client may need assistance in resolving these questions. Frequently, a client will feel wronged but have no clear idea what their rights are or what solutions they would find acceptable.
- When the client arranged the transaction, did they do so primarily for personal, household, or family purposes, or for business purposes? In many situations, the BPCPA will not apply to non-consumer transactions. The SGA, on the whole, protects all buyers, although some rights may be weaker if the buyer is a business rather than a consumer.
- Was the client cheated, misled, or bullied in the transaction? If the answer is yes, the BPCPA or common law rules against misrepresentation or unconscionable conduct may apply.
- Has the client in any way acquiesced to the actions of the other party, or waived their rights? According to s 3 of the BPCPA: “Any waiver or release by a person of the person’s rights, benefits or protections under this Act is void except to the extent that the waiver or release is expressly permitted by this Act”. Furthermore, the SGA allows some of the rights or duties under a contract of sale to be set aside (ss 20 and 69). At common law, if a party waives rights, they may be estopped from later insisting on them.
- Has the other party already performed all or part of the obligations? The SGA provides that if the buyer has accepted part of the goods, and the contract is not severable, the buyer can no longer treat the contract as terminated for breach without an express or implied term in the contract allowing so (s 15(4)). However, they may be entitled to damages for breach of contract in that situation. This position is subject to qualification. For instance, under s 23 of the BPCPA, concerning future performance contracts, the buyer is entitled to cancel the contract for up to a year when the supplier has not made the appropriate disclosures required by the Act.
- Has the client expressed their concerns to the other party? The other party may not know there is a problem. Where the other party has not been put on notice that there is a problem, issues of estoppel and acquiescence may enter into play. The Law and Equity Act, RSBC 1996, c 253 provides that a party to a contract may, instead of refusing to perform a disputed obligation, perform the obligation under protest if they give reasonable notice to the other party that the performance is under protest, and then perhaps receive compensation for that obligation if it is beyond what was required in the contract (s 62). Letting the other party know may be the simplest and cost-effective way to resolve any problems arising from a consumer transaction.
- Is either party unable to perform the obligations due to circumstances beyond that party’s control? If so, the common law around frustration of contracts and the Frustrated Contract Act, RSBC 1996, c 166 may apply to the transaction.
- Was the client’s attention drawn to any onerous provisions in the contract? Tilden Rent-A-Car Co v Clendenning (1978), 18 OR (2d) 601, 83 DLR (3d) 400 (Ont CA) states that a party seeking to rely on onerous terms in a standard form contract should take reasonable measures to ensure that the other party is aware of those provisions. In Karroll v Silver Star Mountain Resorts (1988), 33 BCLR (2d) 160, 47 CCLT 269 (BCSC), however, the Court found that there is no general requirement to bring onerous terms to the attention of a signing party; only circumstances in which a reasonable person would have known that the party signing was not consenting to those onerous terms create an obligation on the party tendering a document for signature.
B. Check the Form and Terms of the Agreement
- The terms of a contract should refer to such things as quality, terms of payment, and the time at which title is transferred.
- The terms may be construed either as conditions, warranties, or innominate terms. The rights and remedies of the buyer will depend on how the terms of the contract are classified. This is discussed at length in 11:III Contracts for the Sale of Goods.
- The form of the agreement(s) can be legally important. If there is a contract in writing, what is said about the subject matter of the contract may be characterized as representations or as terms of the agreement. Under s 8(1) of the SGA, it states (with qualifications) that a contract may be partly in writing and partly by word of mouth or may be implied by the parties’ conduct.
- Some contracts are statutorily required to be in writing, and moreover, some require that the writing conform to a strict format that is laid out either in an Act or by Regulation. The BPCPA is very strict on the form required for some contracts, as explained in detail in that section.
C. Determine Whether the Contract Complies with the Statutory Requirements
If the contract does not comply with the statutory requirements, inform the client of any available defences against legal actions by the other party, possible legal actions by the client, available statutory remedies, and the appropriate action for the client.
D. Determine Whether Any Common Law Remedies are Available
Where the statutes do not apply, there may still be a common-law defence available.
1. No Obligation
In order to enforce the terms of a contract, there must be a contract and the particular terms must be enforceable under that contract.
Misrepresentation occurs when a party is induced to enter a contract based on a false statement. The remedies available depend on the nature of the misrepresentation. See 11:IV G. False or Misleading Advertising for more information on misrepresentation.
If performance of the contract is impossible due to circumstances that arise after the contract was signed and that were outside of either party’s control then the contract can be found to have been frustrated, and ongoing obligations under the contract will cease to apply. Once frustration is found to have occurred at common law, the Frustrated Contract Act will apply to adjust the rights and liabilities of each party and to appropriate restitution.
Mistake is defined at common law as a fundamental misunderstanding between the parties to a contract. There are three categories of mistake: common, mutual, and unilateral.
- A common mistake exists when both parties make the same mistake. For example, the subject matter of the contract may not exist or was destroyed prior to the agreement.
- A mutual mistake exists when the parties make a different mistake, e.g. a purchaser wanted type A widgets and the vendor thought they ordered type B widgets, so there is disagreement as to a term of the contract. This is usually an offer and acceptance issue, for both parties have to come to agreement for there to be a contract in the first place.
- A unilateral mistake exists when one party is mistaken about the obligations that they have assumed. This is a difficult defence because a court is unlikely to excuse the party from obligations on account of their unilateral mistake unless the other party was aware of the mistake.
5. Laches or Acquiescence, Waiver, and Estoppel
If a party knowingly allows the other party in a contract to proceed according to a mistaken assumption that is to the other party’s own detriment, then the initial party may have acquiesced to the mistaken assumption by inaction, and it may be enforceable against them.
The doctrine of laches becomes relevant if one party unreasonably delays pursuing a claim, and the other party is thereby prejudiced.
Promissory estoppel occurs when one party promises not to enforce their rights under the contract. In such a case, and where the other party has relied on the promise, it may be inequitable to allow the first party to later enforce the right. For an example of how promissory estoppel can be raised, see Central London Property v High Trees House,  1 KB 130,  1 All ER 256.
In some circumstances, a party to a contract can waive rights within the contract. It may be possible to retract the waiver with reasonable notice.
6. Unconscionability, Undue Influence, and Duress
Unconscionability, undue influence, and duress can all make a contract voidable. There are two requirements for unconscionability: an imbalance in the relationship of the parties, and an imbalance in the contract. Unconscionability is also dealt with in the BPCPA, ss 8 – 10. See Morrison v Coast Finance Ltd (1965), 54 WWR 257, 55 DLR (2d) 710 (BCCA) and Harry v Kreutziger (1978), 95 DLR (3d) 231 (BCCA) for examples of unconscionability.
Undue influence is the abuse of a relationship of trust and confidence to strongly influence another to make a contract. See Geffen v Goodman Estate,  2 SCR 353,  5 WWR 389 for an example of undue influence.
Duress is the coercion of the will to the point where it vitiates consent. There must be a contractual promise that is extracted from pressure (such as a demand or threat), where there was no practical alternative but to agree to the demand, and the victim demonstrated they contested to the pressure (such as protesting). See NAV Canada v Greater Fredericton Airport Authority Inc., 2008 NBCA 28 for an example of duress, specifically economic duress.
In the past, Canadian courts would not enforce those contracts created for an illegal purpose.
A leading case in this area is International Paper Industries Ltd v Top Line Industries Inc,  7 WWR 179, 135 DLR (4th) 423 (BCCA) in which a lease for a portion of land was declared invalid, preventing the tenant from exercising the option to renew, because the land was subdivided contrary to the Land Title Act, RSBC 1996, c 250.
Today, courts may enforce contracts made for an illegal purpose if inequity would otherwise result, or if the purpose of the governing statute is not undermined. See Still v Canada (Minister of National Revenue),  FCJ No 1622,  1 FC 549 (CA). The Court will consider the purpose and object of a statutory prohibition when deciding whether the contract is enforceable or not. Continental Bank Leasing Corp v Canada,  2 SCR 298 at para 67, in particular, offers a good summary of the law of illegality.
8. Duty of Honest Performance
The Supreme Court of Canada has recently recognized that there is a general organizing principle of good faith and duty of honest performance in the context of Canadian contract law (Bhasin v Hrynew, 2014 SCC 71 at para 33). The duty of honest performance requires contracting parties to act honestly in the performance of contractual obligations. Note that this is not a fiduciary duty and parties remain free to act in their own self-interest, as long as they do not lie or mislead the other party. Since the duty of honest performance applies generally, to all contracts, it would also apply to consumer transactions where one party has been dishonest or misled the other party.
E. Determine the Limitation Period for Making a Claim
The Limitation Act, SBC 2012, c 13 sets out a general time limit of 2 years on starting any claim from the time that the claim is discovered (s 6(1)). Generally, a claim is discovered on the first day that a person knew or ought to have known that the injury, loss, or damaged had occurred and was caused (or contributed to) by an act or omission of the person against whom the claim is (or may be) made and that the court would be the appropriate means to seek a remedy (s 8). Usually, this will be at the time of the act, but not always. If the person was (or is) a minor or was (or is) otherwise incapable of managing their affairs due to a disability, special discovery rules apply (ss 18 – 19). There are also special discovery rules in the case of fraud, trust property, and securities amongst others (ss 12 – 17).
In addition, certain acts provide exceptions to the general limitation period set out in the Limitation Act. For example, the Local Government Act, RSBC 2015, c 1 sets out that an action against a municipality must be commenced within 6 months after the cause of action first arises (s 735). Because of this, you must carefully check through the acts associated with your cause of action to ensure that you will not miss a limitation date.
If the claim was discovered before June 1, 2013, the former Limitation Act applies. At this point, the claim would be outside the limitation period unless there is an exception in the act for the type of claim brought. Under the former act, if the claim is for breach of contract, s 3(5) of the Limitation Act, RSBC 1996, c 266 states that the limitation period for breach of contract is 6 years. However, under s 3(2)(a), where damages claimed arise from physical damage to persons or property, the limitation period is 2 years, even where the claim is based on contract. In addition, if the claim is for negligence as well, the limitation period is 2 years.
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