At what point does a settlement become final? Is it when the parties agree on all of the terms of the settlement and sign a written agreement, such as minutes of settlement? Or at an earlier time?
In the recent decision of Cox v Baker, 2019 ONSC 2859, the court was asked to make a determination as to whether a binding settlement had been reached. The litigation involved an inter vivos trust (the “Trust”) settled by a mother for the benefit of her two daughters and subsequent generations. After the death of Donna (the second to die of the two daughters), the three living beneficiaries were Donna’s sons, Brett and Brent, and her niece, Marnie. Brett was the sole trustee after Donna’s death.
Prior to her death, Donna was living at a house that was owned by the Trust (the “Property”), with her husband, John. About a year after Donna’s death, in March 2018, John brought an application against Brett, as trustee of the Trust, and against all three of the beneficiaries, personally, seeking, among other things, an interest in the Property by way of resulting and/or constructive trust.
In May 2018, John and Brett ran into each other at Donna’s gravesite. They discussed John’s application, John advised Brett that he would call his lawyer and withdraw his application, and the two shook hands. Thereafter, a number of emails were exchanged between counsel for John, and counsel for Brett, Brent, and Marnie. It appeared that the parties had reached an agreement that John would withdraw his application, without costs, provided that all parties sign a mutual release. However, John subsequently took the position that there was never a binding settlement agreement, as the parties had not agreed on the specific terms of the mutual release. Brett, Brent, and Marnie brought an application to enforce the settlement.
Ultimately, the court concluded that a binding settlement had been reached. Some of the key factors were, in the court’s finding, that there had been a mutual intention between the parties to create a legally binding contract, and that all essential/material terms had been agreed upon. The court also noted that the agreement had been reduced to writing by way of the email exchanges between counsel.
The court specifically considered whether the fact that the parties had not yet agreed on the specific wording of the mutual release was necessary to create a binding settlement. After reviewing the case law, the court concluded that, unless there is some indication that the settlement was conditional on the parties also agreeing on the language for a release, it is not required that the parties agree on the specific terms of such a release before there will be said to be a binding settlement agreement.
The court also commented on the importance of the principle of finality, which demands that settlements entered into with the assistance of legal counsel be upheld, as it is a matter of good public policy to encourage settlement. Settlements of this kind should be upheld other than in exceptional cases, which the present case was not.
This decision is an important reminder that, if the parties have reached an agreement on all essential terms, even if the more minor details have not been agreed upon, and the minutes of settlement and/or release have not been finalized and executed, a binding settlement may still exist. Parties should be aware that once a binding settlement has been reached (which could happen prior to signing minutes of settlement), they cannot simply change their minds. It is important to keep this in mind at all stages of a negotiation, and to be alert as to when it could be said that all essential terms have been agreed upon.
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