The Supreme Court of Canada’s recent decision in Moore v Sweet provided meaningful clarification on the Canadian law of unjust enrichment and, in particular, the juristic reason analysis.

As it made a finding of unjust enrichment, it was not necessary for the Court to consider the second issue before it, being whether, in the absence of unjust enrichment, a constructive trust could nevertheless be imposed in the circumstances on the basis of “good conscience”.

In 1997, the Supreme Court released its decision in Soulos v Korkontzilas.  That case considered situations that may give rise to a constructive trust remedy.  In referring to the categories in which a constructive trust may be appropriate, which were noted to historically include where it was otherwise required by good conscience, Justice McLachlin (as she then was) stated as follows:

I conclude that in Canada, under the broad umbrella of good conscience,  constructive trusts are recognized both for wrongful acts like fraud and breach of duty of loyalty, as well as to remedy unjust enrichment and corresponding deprivation…Within these two broad categories, there is room for the law of constructive trust to develop and for greater precision to be attained, as time and experience may dictate.

Since 1997, Soulos and the above excerpt have been interpreted inconsistently by scholars and courts of appeal throughout Canada.  Some consider Soulos to restrict the availability of constructive trust remedies to only situations where there has been a finding of unjust enrichment or wrongful conduct, while others favour a more liberal interpretation.

The appellant in Moore v Sweet sought, in the alternative to a remedy on the basis of unjust enrichment, a remedial constructive trust with respect to the proceeds of the life insurance policy on the basis of good conscience.  In choosing not to address this issue, Justice Côté (writing for the Majority) stated as follows:

This disposition of the appeal renders it unnecessary to determine whether this Court’s decision in Soulos should be interpreted as precluding the availability of a remedial constructive trust beyond cases involving unjust enrichment or wrongful acts like breach of fiduciary duty. Similarly, the extent to which this Court’s decision in Soulos may have incorporated the “traditional English institutional trusts” into the remedial constructive trust framework is beyond the scope of this appeal. While recognizing that these remain open questions, I am of the view that they are best left for another day.

It will be interesting to see if and when the Supreme Court ultimately chooses to determine “the open questions” regarding the availability of the remedial constructive trust.  Until then, it appears that some debate regarding the circumstances in which it may be imposed will remain.

Thank you for reading.

Nick Esterbauer