A recent decision of the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench highlights the importance of carefully reviewing settlement agreements prior to their execution.
In Anderson Estate (Re), 2020 ABQB 428, the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench revisited a settlement that had been negotiated during a judicial mediation.
Mr. Anderson had left a Last Will and Testament executed roughly one month prior to his death that directed that the residue of his estate be distributed to his three children, who were the parties to the litigation. The Will addressed certain advances made to his children during his lifetime, the disposition of real property, and declared the testator’s intent that the parties be treated equally.
One son, who later brought the motion with respect to the interpretation of the agreement, had previously disclaimed real property gifted to him under the Will because the value assigned to the property in the Will itself was significantly higher than the appraised value of the property (with a discrepancy of $2 million), such that he would take a correspondingly lower distribution from the residue of the estate to reflect his acceptance of the gifted property. The judicial mediation process had been initiated with the intention of resolving interpretation issues in respect of the Will arising from the son’s disclaimer of the property. The terms of the Will and the settlement agreement were not straightforward, but the settlement provided in part that the son would receive at a value of $4 million a different property than that bequeathed to him under the Will that he had disclaimed.
Pursuant to the terms of the settlement agreement, the matter returned to the case management judge for the determination of its proper interpretation. The son sought an interpretation of the agreement that provided that he had substituted his receipt of one property for the other at a notional cost corresponding to advances tied to the first property.
Justice Jones reviewed the law in general relating to ambiguities appearing in contracts, such as the settlement agreement that the parties had executed (at paragraphs 35 through 40, briefly summarized below):
- true legal ambiguity arises where a phrase is reasonably susceptible on its face to more than one meaning;
- courts can consider surrounding circumstances that include everything that affected the language of the document from the perspective of a reasonable person;
- extrinsic evidence, however, is intended to serve “as an objective interpretative aid to determine the meaning of the words the parties used”, with limitations set out by the Alberta Court of Appeal in Hole v Hole, 2016 ABCA 34;
- the goal of the courts is to give effect to the objective intentions of the parties, rather than to “second-guess the contract”;
- even in the absence of ambiguity, a judge is to consider relevant surrounding circumstances in interpreting the contract.
The judge found that the settlement agreement was not susceptible to more than one meaning, stating as follows (at para 84):
A retrospective determination that one entered into an agreement on terms less commercially favourable that one now thinks should have prevailed does not evidence ambiguity.
This decision may serve as a reminder to take care in ensuring that the meaning of a settlement agreement is properly understood by all parties and clearly set out without room for ambiguity. Remaining silent on certain points that should properly be addressed during the dispute resolution process may limit the rights of the parties to pursue them, even where the settlement agreement will otherwise lead to the distribution of an estate that may be perceived as unfair.
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The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way the legal profession works at least on a temporary basis. In Ontario, lawyers are required to embrace technology to facilitate dispute resolution and to move files along. Mediations, discoveries, and Court hearings are being conducted virtually via videoconference. Today I will consider some of the benefits of remote mediation and then tips on how to master it.
- Cost – cost will inevitably be lower as it will be organized on an online platform.
- Convenience – The mediation can be arranged on short notice, as all parties can participate from their location of choice. Travel and the associated costs are no longer an issue. Participation of parties that might not have otherwise be available to participate in mediation may now be accessible.
Tips for Successful Remote Mediation:
- Ensure your client is set up with the proper technology: a computer equipped with webcam, microphone, and speakers. Lawyers cannot assume that every client has access to a computer and quick internet connection.
- Consider using a 3rd party provider such as Neesons Court Reporting & Mediation, to host the mediation. This provider can facilitate the movement of parties in and out of plenary and breakout rooms, summon the mediator, arrange a counsel-to-counsel meeting, and assist with technical issues. This will ultimately save the parties time and expense.
- Ensure your clients are aware of privacy and confidentiality within meeting rooms. Client comfort is essential for a successful mediation.
- A lack of personal interaction means that your client may not be able to warm up to a mediator, which often times is necessary for a successful mediation. An effective mediator will structure a meditation in a way to facilitate adequate confidential one-on-one communication with the parties to assist with resolving the limitations of working with a
mediator through a video link rather than in person.
- Take lots of breaks as attending virtual mediation is more tiring than in person.
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With the enactment of Rule 75.1 of the Rules of Civil Procedure, those involved in disputes relating to an estate, trust or substitute decision-making matter in Toronto, Ottawa or the County of Essex are referred to mediation unless there is a court order exempting it under Rule 75.1.04.
As lawyers, “mediation” is a term we are familiar with. However it may not be as familiar to clients. Many of them may have never heard of “mediation” before. As such, if you or a client have an upcoming mediation, it is important to prepare early to avoid being caught off guard during the mediation.
What is Mediation?
Mediation is a form of alternative dispute resolution where people can settle their disputes outside of court. It is a voluntary process in which the parties meet with a neutral third-party (referred to as the “mediator”) who provides them with assistance in negotiating a settlement. The mediator does not impose a judgment as the process is led by the parties.
Mediation vs. Litigation
The big “pull factor” to mediation is that it vastly differs from litigation. The major differences include:
- Decision-Making: With mediation, the parties decide the outcome but with litigation, a judge imposes his or her decision upon the parties
- Private vs. Public Process: Mediation is a private and confidential process, whereas litigation is a public process
- Costs: The costs of mediation are typically lower than that of litigation
- Time: The mediation process tends to be faster than litigation
- Adversarial vs. Non-Adversarial: Mediation is viewed as a non-adversarial process, whereas litigation is viewed as an adversarial process
Preparation for Mediation
Preparation for mediation should start well in advance of the mediation date.
Preparing the Client
Start by explaining to the client what mediation is and how the process works. Assure the client that the mediator will be a neutral facilitator and that abusive behaviour by the other party will not be tolerated.
As part of discussing the mediation process with the client, let the client know about the time commitment that mediation entails. The mediation could last the entire day or even multiple days.
Determine the client’s interests and goals for the mediation. Are they looking to settle the case at mediation or are they prepared to go to trial? What types of offers would they be willing to accept?
Preparation for the Lawyer
Know the mediator’s background and approach beforehand. Is the mediator someone who has a background in estates law? Are they a lawyer? Are they a former judge? Knowing the answers to these questions can help the lawyer determine what approach would be the most beneficial to employ during mediation.
Prepare a comprehensive mediation brief and send it to the opposing counsel and mediator well in advance of the hearing date. A comprehensive mediation brief can maximize a lawyer’s presentation at the mediation. It is helpful to include copies of all relevant documents, such as the wills in question, within the brief. Additionally, it might be helpful to include a chronology of events as a schedule to the mediation brief.
If the mediation results in a settlement, ensure that the terms of the settlement are formally documented and that each client has signed the document. In some cases, however, a “cooling-off period” of one or two days from the proposed settlement might be necessary.
At the end of the day, the best approach a lawyer can take in preparing for mediation is to know the mediator, prepare their documents ahead of time and provide the client with as much information about the mediation process as possible. The more prepared the lawyer and the client are, the smoother the mediation will go.
For more information on preparing your client for an estate mediation, visit this link.
Thanks for reading,
Ian Hull & Celine Dookie
As lawyers, whether we are dealing with opposing parties, clients, or colleagues, we are often faced with having to say no at some point. Viewed as a negative response, the effect of saying no often leads to damaged or strained relationships.
Below is a brief overview of the rules that Mr. Latz espouses:
Rule #1 – Information is Key – at the outset it is important to determine your goals and then develop an information bargaining strategy. Ways to get and share information should be considered. Obtaining information is key before providing any response.
Rule #2 – Understand the Meaning of No – before saying no, Mr. Latz suggests that you consider the best alternative to a negotiated agreement. Referred to as ‘BATNA’, this is widely used in negotiation theory to think about what your plan B is. Mr. Latz further suggests that, at this time, steps should be taken to strengthen this plan.
Rule #3 – Explain your No with Fair Objective Criteria – if you are going to say no, explain why. This should be based on fair and objective criteria such as market-value, precedent, professional standards, or tradition.
Rule #4 – Combine your No with a ‘Yesable’ Offer – Mr. Latz suggest that you design an offer-concession strategy. Considerations should be had to the timing of making such an offer.
Rule #5 – Control the Setting – if you are going to say no, consider the importance of the setting on the relationship. For instance, there may be value in having a face to face discussion as opposed to over the telephone.
Of course, this is just an overview of the issues Mr. Latz discussed. I encourage you to visit Mr. Latz’s website at www.negotiationinstitute.com for more information.
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