Ontario: reviewing laches and acquiescence

The Superior Court decision in Tsui-Wong v. Xiao contains a good summary of the principles of laches and acquiescence:

The Test for the Doctrine of Laches

[222]      I adopt the comments of Penny, J. in Indcondo v. Sloan, 2014 ONSC 4018 (CanLII), 121 O.R. (3d) 160, at paras. 157-159 as a succinct and current formulation for the defence of laches:

Laches is an equitable doctrine, akin to estoppel, founded on the principle that one is obliged to assert legal rights in a timely way or risk losing them. Laches is a form of equitable limitation period. Two factors dominate the consideration of this doctrine:

(1)     delay and its circumstances; and

(2)     prejudice resulting from that delay.

In Lindsay Petroleum Co. v. Hurd (1874), L.R. 5 P.C. 221 (Ontario P.C.), at 239 -240 the principle was stated as follows:

…[it] is not an arbitrary or technical doctrine… Two circumstances, always important in such cases, are, the length of the delay and the nature of the acts done during the interval, which might affect either party and cause a balance of justice or injustice in taking the one course or the other, so far as relates to the remedy.

[223]      The Supreme Court of Canada discussed these critical factors in M. (K.) v. M. (H.)1992 CanLII 31 (SCC), [1992] 3 S.C.R. 6 (S.C.C.), at pp. 77-78:

What is immediately obvious from all of the authorities is that mere delay is insufficient to trigger laches… Rather, the doctrine considers whether the delay of the plaintiff constitutes acquiescence or results in circumstances that make the prosecution of the action unreasonable. Ultimately, laches must be resolved as a matter of justice as between the parties, as is the case with any equitable doctrine.

[224]      The doctrine of laches can be used to defend a claim under the Fraudulent Conveyances Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. F. 29.[5]

[225]      As confirmed in M.(K.), laches must be resolved as a matter of justice between the parties, as in any equitable doctrine.


[226]      The Defendants argue first, that the Plaintiff has acquiesced to the claim being dismissed.

[227]      There is a lengthy consideration by Spence, J. in 392278 Ont. Ltd. v. Miletich Estate (2001), 38 R.P.R. (3d) 239, at para. 71, as to the meaning of laches, and acquiescence). The case law confirms that acquiescence must be equivalent of waiver, and is more than simply the passage of time: in that case 43 years.

[228]      Spence, J. cited with approval a decision of the British Columbia Court of Appeal in Irvine v. Irvine, [1977] 3 W.W.R. 37 (B.C.C.A), at para. 13,adopting Halsbury’s formulation :

The nature of laches. The legislature, in enacting a statute of limitation, specifies fixed periods after which claims are barred; equity does not fix a specific limit, but considers the circumstances of each case: Smith v. Clay (1767), 3 Bro. C.C. 639, 27 E.R. 419. In determining whether there has been such delay as to amount to laches the chief points to be considered are (1) acquiescence on the plaintiff’s part, and (2) any change of position that has occurred on the defendant’s part. Acquiescence in this sense does not mean standing by while the violation of a right is in progress, but assent after the violation has been completed and the plaintiff has become aware of it. It is unjust to give the plaintiff a remedy where he has by his conduct done that which might fairly be regarded as equivalent to a waiver of it; or where by his conduct and neglect he has, though not waiving the remedy, put the other party in a position in which it would not be reasonable to place him if the remedy were afterwards to be asserted. In such cases lapse of time and delay are most material. Upon these conditions rests the doctrine of laches: Lindsay Petroleum Co. v. Hurd (1874), L.R. 5 P.C. 221 at 239, per Lord Selborne.

[229]      The Court in 392278 Ont. Ltd. concluded that the defendant remained in residence throughout the 43-year period. There was no evidence that she passed up opportunities or changed her position over the years. The delay was long, but did not constitute acquiescence. There was no evidence that the plaintiff had waived her rights.

[230]      The trial judge’s findings were upheld by the Court of Appeal in 392278 Ont. Ltd. v. Miletich Estate[2002] O.J. No. 3795.

[231]      I find that the Defendants cannot rely upon the Plaintiff’s acquiescence. Admittedly, there is a significant delay of nine years of inactivity. Had the Plaintiff searched in 2005, she would have found out that June was residing in Ontario. Even after locating the Defendants, and in particular June, the Plaintiff did not commence the second Fraudulent Conveyance Action for almost two years after she located June.

[232]      The Plaintiff testified that she was always hopeful that Daniel would surface, and that she could pursue her judgment against him. The Plaintiff was litigation weary and for a period of time was ill and preoccupied by her children pursuing their studies. I accept that the Plaintiff always intended to pursue the Defendants once she was able to locate them, and once she determined that there may be assets to realize upon.

Ontario: Laches can’t trump the Limitations Act

In Intact Insurance Company v. Lombard General Insurance, the Court of Appeal held that laches can’t defeat an otherwise timely claim.

The court reviewed the legislative history of the Limitations Act and concluded that the removal of the laches-saving provision was intentional, and the absence of this provision overrules any suggestion that laches might bar the commencement of a proceeding to pursue an unexpired legal claim.  The court’s review of the legislative history is the most thorough since its decision in York Condominium Corporation No. 382 v. Jay-M Holdings Limited, and will be helpful whenever a consideration of the act’s legislative history is appropriate.

The comprehensiveness of the limitations scheme also informed the court’s decision:

[54]      As I note above, the old Limitations Act applied only to a closed list of enumerated causes of action and not to civil actions in general. Equitable causes of action, with few exceptions, were outside of its scope. The Limitations Act, 2002 “represents a revised, comprehensive approach to the limitation of actions”: Joseph v. Paramount Canada’s Wonderland, 2008 ONCA 469 (CanLII), 90 O.R. (3d) 401, at para. 8. In Joseph, this court concluded that the common law doctrine of special circumstances had no application under the new, comprehensive Limitations Act, 2002. That doctrine had allowed a court to add or substitute a party or to add a cause of action after the expiry of a limitation period where special circumstances existed, unless the change would cause prejudice that could not be compensated for with either costs or an adjournment. Permitting a defendant to invoke the equitable doctrine of laches because a legal claim has an “equitable flavour” would be inconsistent with the comprehensive approach to the limitation of actions represented by the Limitations Act, 2002.

[55]      Permitting a defendant to rely on the defence of laches where the claim is a legal claim and subject to and within the basic limitation period prescribed under the Limitations Act, 2002 would also be counter to the purpose of that Act of promoting certainty and clarity in the law of limitation periods: msi Spergel Inc. v. I.F. Propco Holdings (Ontario) 36 Ltd., 2013 ONCA 550, 117 O.R. (3d) 81, at para. 61.

The court was explicit in limiting the scope of its decision:

[57]      I wish to make clear that this decision does not address the availability of equitable defences (such as waiver, estoppel and acquiescence) to the extent not founded solely on a plaintiff’s delay in initiating its claim. Nor do I suggest that delay in seeking equitable relief such as an injunction could not be a relevant factor in deciding whether such equitable relief should be granted. This decision considers whether a defendant seeking legal relief within the basic limitation period prescribed under the Limitations Act, 2002 can rely on the delay-based defence of laches.

This isn’t an especially surprising decision given the trend toward emphasising the comprehensive nature of the limitations regime.  The alternative would have been a reversion to a classification of actions approach to limitation periods, where ascertaining the applicable limitation period would require first classifying the claim as equitable or legal, and then determining whether the limitation period in equity is shorter than in law.

I also note the decision’s helpful summary of laches jurisprudence at paragraphs eight through twelve.