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Can you bind non-signatories to a settlement?

Estate litigation can be costly both financially and emotionally. As a result, there is often a strong incentive for parties to try to reach a negotiated settlement. Although entering into a settlement which resolves the estate litigation may appear straightforward from the outside, it may become more complicated if all potential financially interested parties are not signatories to the settlement. It is not uncommon in estate litigation for all beneficiaries of the estate to not actively participate in the litigation, leaving it to people such as the Estate Trustee or the other beneficiaries to defend a claim. As a settlement is in effect a contract between parties, if a settlement is reached which affects the interests of a non-signatory to the settlement can such a settlement bind the interests of the non-signatory?

I have previously blogged about section 48(2) of the Trustee Act, and an Estate Trustee’s ability to settle claims on behalf of the estate which can bind the interests of the beneficiaries. While section 48(2) would allow the Estate Trustee to bind the interests of all beneficiaries to the settlement, the Estate Trustee does so at their own potential liability, as it is possible that one or more of the beneficiaries may later challenge the decision of the Estate Trustee to enter into the settlement, potentially seeking damages against the Estate Trustee if they are of the position that the settlement was not reasonable or in the best interest of the estate. As a result of such a risk, it is not uncommon for an Estate Trustee to be hesitant to enter into a settlement on behalf of the estate in contentious situations, not wanting to potentially expose themselves to personal liability if one or more of the beneficiaries should later object to the terms of the settlement. If an Estate Trustee is hesitant to enter into a settlement on behalf of all beneficiaries, but all actively participating parties are otherwise in agreement with the settlement, is there a way to bind the interests of non-participating parties to the settlement?

The Rules of Civil Procedure provide the court with the ability to “approve” a settlement on behalf of parties who are not signatories under certain limited circumstances. This is done in accordance with rule 7.08 of the Rules of Civil Procedure, which allows the court to approve a settlement on behalf of a party who themselves cannot consent to the settlement on account of being under a legal disability (i.e. a minor). Perhaps importantly however, the court only has the authority under rule 7.08 to “approve” a settlement on behalf of a party under a legal disability, and rule 7.08 is not available in circumstances where the non-signatory is fully capable.

The Rules of Civil Procedure do not otherwise appear to provide any mechanism by which a settlement can be approved on behalf of a party who is not under a legal disability. As a result, if the non-signatory who you are you attempting to bind to the settlement is not under a legal disability, the court likely does not have the authority to “approve” the settlement on their behalf under the Rules of Civil Procedure.

Although the court likely does not have the ability to “approve” a settlement on behalf of an individual who is not under a legal disability in accordance with the Rules of Civil Procedure, this does not necessarily mean that there are no other ways to potentially bind the individual to a settlement. One potential solution may be to seek an Order “in accordance” with the terms of the settlement on notice to all interested parties. Should the court issue such an Order, which in effect repeats the terms of the settlement but as an Order of the court, the non-signatories would arguably then be bound to the terms of the settlement as it would now be in the form of an Order of the court.

Thank you for reading.

Stuart Clark