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To infinity and beyond – Perpetual contracts under Québec law

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When negotiating contracts, parties typically focus on the key commercial terms of their agreement. The clauses that govern the term of the agreement (i.e., the duration, or how long the contract remains in force), the renewal of the term, and how the agreement can be terminated, however, merit careful consideration.

Under Québec law, contracts typically have terms that are either fixed (e.g., 5 years, 10 years etc.), or are for an indeterminate period of time (i.e., no specific term is provided for). Contracts with fixed terms may also contain automatic renewal clauses. In the case of an indeterminate term contract, a party to the contract can generally, absent specific terms or a notice provision to the contrary in the contract, terminate it, without cause, by providing reasonable notice of termination (what constitutes “reasonable notice” depends on a number of factors and is decided on the facts of each case). A third category of contracts are contracts with a potentially perpetual term. An example of a potentially perpetual contract is a contract that contains a renewal clause that is entirely under the control of only one of the parties who can, effectively, unilaterally decide whether the contract will go on indefinitely. In such a contract, the other contracting party does not have a right to terminate the contract by providing reasonable notice of termination. The validity of perpetual term contracts was precisely the issue before the Supreme Court of Canada in its July 28, 2017 decision in Uniprix inc. v. Gestion Gosselin et Bérubé inc. https://scc-csc.lexum.com/scc-csc/scc-csc/en/item/16746/index.do (“Uniprix“).

In Uniprix, the pharmacy chain entered into an affiliation agreement with various members of a pharmacists’ group pursuant to which said members operated a pharmacy under the Uniprix banner. The term of the contract was for a fixed term of 5 years and the renewal clause allowed members to provide a notice within a certain period of time, failing which the contract would automatically be renewed for an additional 5 years:

Regardless of any written or verbal provisions to the contrary, this agreement shall commence on the day of its signing and shall remain in effect for a period of sixty (60) months, or for a period equal to the term of the lease for the premises where the pharmacy is located. [The member pharmacist] shall, six (6) months before the expiration of the agreement, notify [Uniprix] of its intention to leave [Uniprix] or to renew the agreement; 

Should [the member pharmacist] fail to send the prescribed notice by registered mail, the agreement shall be deemed to have been renewed in accordance with the terms and conditions then in effect, as prescribed by the board of directors, except with regard to the fee.[Translation]

The Uniprix agreement did not provide any say to Uniprix in connection with its renewal and there were no limits on the number of times that the members could renew the agreement. As such, the contract could remain in force perpetually based entirely on the members’ decision. After the contract had been renewed twice, Uniprix sent the members a notice of non-renewal and purported to terminate the agreement. The members contested Uniprix’s decision based on the fact that under the affiliation agreement, the renewal clause could only be exercised by the members and, unless the members gave notice to the contrary, the contract was automatically renewed. Uniprix argued that the effect of the members’ position, which would bind the parties in perpetuity, was contrary to public order (i.e., it violated a fundamental societal value) and unlawful and, as such, the term of the agreement should be considered to be for an indeterminate period, which would allow either party to terminate it on reasonable notice.

In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court of Canada held (in upholding the decisions of the majority of the Québec Court of Appeal and of the Superior Court of Québec) that there was nothing under Québec law that prohibited a contract of affiliation from having a perpetual term and that this did not, in and of itself and in the context of corporate and commercial agreements, offend any fundamental societal values. The Court’s holding would equally apply to many other types of contracts such as, for example, franchise agreements and licensing agreements. The Court held, accordingly, that the affiliation agreement was not for an indeterminate term and, therefore, could be not be terminated by Uniprix by providing reasonable notice.

With respect to the holding in Uniprix , the following points should be kept in mind:

  1. The Supreme Court of Canada expressly noted that in certain circumstances, such as where an individual’sperson and freedom are affected (e.g., a contract of employment), a perpetual obligation could offend public order.
  2. In certain specific cases set out in the Civil Code of Québec, the legislator has provided maximum terms for certain types of contracts (e.g., a commercial lease cannot exceed 100 years, the duration of payment of an annuity is 100 years).
  3. In the case of a contract of adhesion (which is generally defined as a contract where one of the parties was unable to negotiate its terms), the adhering or vulnerable party can argue that a perpetual term is abusive and, therefore, null.
  4. The Court’s decision in Uniprixapplied to Uniprix’s ability to terminate the contract without cause. A party always retains the right to terminate a contract for cause. What constitutes “cause” is decided on a case by case basis and may also be governed by the terms of the contract.

When drafting contracts, parties are generally, subject to limitations imposed by the legislator or public order, permitted to structure their relationship as they see fit. Parties should carefully consider whether they truly intend the duration of their agreement to be entirely under the control of one of the parties to the agreement for an indefinite period of time because, as is made clear in Uniprix, perpetual commercial contracts are enforceable under Québec law.

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