The right of withdrawal, also referred to as an “opting out” clause, is the right given contractually or by law to a party to withdraw from a transaction without justifi cation prior to it being actually entered into. Although the withdrawal clause may procure a high degree of freedom, one cannot invoke it in a cavalier manner. Indeed, a withdrawal clause cannot be used in a malicious or abusive manner, nor can it run against the requirements of good faith. Furthermore, to be valid and effective, a withdrawal clause must be enforceable and explicit.

The Court of Appeal of Québec recently reminded us of these principles in the case of London v. Kyriacou.1 In this case, the owners of a day-care centre (the “Sellers”) accepted from Mrs. Kyriacou and Mrs. Teologou (the “Purchasers”) an offer to purchase the daycare centre. The sale was initially scheduled to take place on September 29, 2006. This date was thereafter postponed several times and the terms of the offer were also amended on several occasions as the months went by. Among other things, the parties agreed to increase the sale price by $150,000.00 conditionally to the day-care centre being granted a government subsidy within 15 months from the date of the sale. As soon as autumn 2006, the Sellers introduced the Purchasers to the parents of the children attending the day-care centre as being the new owners of the facility from January 2007. In May 2007, the Purchasers began operating the day-care centre and acting like true owners, particularly by having repairs made at their own cost and establishing a new educational program. From May 2007, the parties exchanged several draft sale agreements and the transaction was to take place in August 2007. However, on August 10, 2007, following receipt of a letter from government authorities confi rming that the day-care centre would be subsidized beginning in March 2008, the Sellers notifi ed the Purchasers that they were withdrawing from the negotiations. They also changed the locks of the day-care centre and denied access thereof to the Purchasers.

The Purchasers brought a motion for the transfer of title before the Superior Court of Québec to force the Sellers to carry out the transaction. The Sellers opposed the motion, among other things alleging that the initial offer to purchase included an opting-out clause, which they were entitled to rely upon. The clause read as follows: “After due diligence is said and done and all conditions have been agreed upon, if one of the parties’ purchaser or vendor refuse to go ahead the other will be liable for professional fees occurred.”

In the first instance, the Superior Court refused to apply the clause because the Sellers had acted in bad faith all along the negotiation process, that further, the clause was not explicit and that had it been explicit, the Sellers, by their actions (particularly by encouraging the respondents to operate the day-care centre and the substance of the discussions on the sale agreement) waived its application. The Superior Court found from the evidence that all the conditions mentioned in the original offer had been satisfied and that there had been an agreement on all the new elements raised thereafter by the Sellers. In short, the terms of the transaction had been agreed upon by the parties and it only remained to make it offi cial by executing an agreement. The Superior Court therefore ordered the parties to sign the agreement and the Court of Appeal affirmed that decision.

Although including an opting-out clause in a contract or a letter of offer may constitute a very attractive strategy, the decision summarized in this bulletin articulates the importance of carefully drafting it and demonstrates that one is better to consult a professional before relying on it.