In the Absence of Force Majeure Clauses, Frustration Pays Off

Last week we examined force majeure clauses within contracts that may relieve a party’s contractual obligations during unforeseen emergencies, often referred to as “Acts of God”. In this article, we will discuss what happens when a force majeure clause is not expressly provided in the contract.

Canadian courts have not implied a force majeure provision in the absence of one, despite the occurrence of a force majeure event. In such circumstances, the doctrine of frustration also known as the doctrine of discharge, may be relied upon to vacate a contract altogether. This equitable remedy accounts for unforeseen events which have irreparably altered the basis of the contract. The doctrine of frustration can be applied broadly to all types of contracts including commercial or employment disputes. The standard to prove frustration is higher than force majeure, and the implications are also different: a force majeure clause will freeze the contractual obligation as it relates to the unforeseen event, whereas, a finding of frustration will effectively end the contract.

Doctrine of Frustration

The Supreme Court of Canada in Naylor Group Inc. v Ellis-Don Construction Ltd., 2001 SCC 58, describes the appropriate use of frustration where: “a situation has arisen for which the parties made no provision in the contract and the performance of the contract becomes ‘a thing radically different from that which was undertaken by the contract.’

To establish frustration, the relying party must prove that an unforeseen event has radically changed or interrupted the performance of the agreement, making it impossible, or impractical to execute the contract as originally intended. The new event must have been beyond the reasonable contemplation of the parties when they were contracting, and therefore it would be unjust to hold the parties to the agreement under these altered circumstances.

Considerations when applying the doctrine of frustration

  • Is there a Force Majeure clause in the contract?
    The doctrine of frustration operates as a last resort, only to be utilized in the absence of a force majeure clause. In other words, parties cannot double dip to rely on both a force majeure clause and the doctrine of frustration, it must be one or the other.
  • Was there a supervening event that occurred?
    The event must not have been foreseeable or within the contemplation of either party when the contract was executed. There may also be cases where the non-performance of an integral party to the contract, frustrates the entirety of the agreement.
  • Did the event cause a radically different performance of the contract?
    The event must have rendered the performance of the contract substantially different than what the parties initially anticipated. Courts will consider events: that have rendered the performance of the contract impossible; where performance is possible but the purpose of the contract has been undermined; or, where the temporary impossibility has frustrated the contract itself. The courts have established a threshold of a minimum level of radical difference, for example, a task that has simply become more onerous or expensive since it was originally contemplated will not activate the doctrine of frustration.

Successfully establishing frustration terminates the contract from the date of the supervening event. Additionally, Ontario’s Frustrated Contracts Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. F.34 provides for other recourses such as the recovery of past benefits conferred after a contract has been frustrated. The doctrine of frustration is particularly topical in these days of uncertainty when clients are confronting situations that were beyond their contemplation when finalizing their contracts. At this time, it is incumbent on lawyers to be well versed in these contractual defences so damages are well mitigated.