Why this decision matters
Commercial agreements frequently incorporate or make reference to separate documents that form part of the larger bargain. This practice is known as “incorporation by reference”, and in the construction industry often involves the incorporation of language from prime or “head” contracts into subcontracts. In Razar Contracting Services Ltd. v Evoqua Water (“Razar Contracting”), Razar Contracting Services Ltd. v Evoqua Water, 2021 MBQB 69. the Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench dealt with such language and refused to give effect to an arbitration clause located on the Defendant’s website, which the Defendant referenced in the purchase order it issued. Razar Contracting tells a cautionary tale about attempting to incorporate standard terms and conditions into a transaction merely by referencing where those terms can be found.
While the Court in Razar Contracting was more detailed in its dealing with the specific issues of jurisdiction to determine the existence of the alleged arbitration clause and the interpretation of same, the focus of this article is on the larger application of the Court’s findings regarding incorporation by reference.
In a world where contracts are increasingly negotiated, transmitted and executed electronically, businesses who rely on incorporating terms and conditions to their transactions without specifically including the terms themselves in the exchanges with the counterparty will want to consider what steps they can take to ensure that they can demonstrate their terms and conditions (i) have been brought to the other party’s attention; and (ii) were knowingly accepted.
Razar Contracting involved a dispute between a contractor, Evoqua Water Technologies Canada Ltd. (“Evoqua”), and a mechanical subcontractor, Razar Contracting Services Ltd. (“Razar”). The contractual relationship between the parties was formed after Razar responded to a bid package issued by Evoqua which included a form of subcontract with certain conditions. When Razar was awarded the contract, Evoqua simply issued a purchase order that stated that the terms and conditions of purchase that was located on its website applied to the purchase order unless otherwise agreed to in writing; Evoqua also provided a link to the website.Ibid, at para. 6.
Razar’s president attested that he attempted, without success, to access the website. He made no further attempts, believing the form of subcontract in the bid documents would be executed. However, that did not come to pass.Ibid, at para 7.
Razar commenced an Action at the Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench regarding unpaid invoices and claims for delay and impact costs. Evoqua brought an application to stay Razar’s Action, arguing that the terms and conditions on its website contained an arbitration clause which required all disputes between the parties to be resolved by an arbitral tribunal seated in Pittsburgh, PA, administered by JAMS.
The Court’s Analysis
The Application was formally brought pursuant to Article 8 of the Model Law On International Commercial Arbitration (“Model Law”),The Model Law is in force in Manitoba pursuant to the International Commercial Arbitration Act, C.C.S.M. c. C151 (“ICAA“). Interestingly, the Court noted that both parties’ written … Continue reading which provides that on an application by a party, the court “shall” refer the parties to arbitration “unless it finds that the agreement is null and void, inoperative or incapable of being performed”.
The Court was asked to consider two main issues, which for the purpose of this article are addressed in reverse: (1) whether there was a valid and binding arbitration agreement, and (2) whether the Court had jurisdiction to rule on the validity or effectiveness of the arbitration agreement.Ibid, at para. 13.
Issue 1 – Is There a Valid and Binding Arbitration Agreement?
Having taken jurisdiction of the matter for the reasons detailed further below, Kroft J. applied a balance of probabilities standard and found that no arbitration agreement was formed in the circumstances either for the purposes of the Model Law (which requires arbitration agreements to be in writing)Model Law Article 7(2). or at common law.
In assessing whether an arbitration agreement was formed for the purposes of the Model Law, Kroft J. noted that under Article 7(2) of the Model Law, an agreement in writing could be found, among other ways, in acknowledgements in pleadings, or in “an exchange” of telecommunications that provide a record of the agreement.Model Law Article 7(2). Kroft J. dismissed the argument that defining the purchase orders as the “Agreement” in the Statement of Claim signified Razar’s agreement to the terms and conditions on Evoqua’s website.
Examining the evidence concerning the formation of the agreement between the parties, Kroft J. noted that there was no “exchange” of communication between the parties where they both acknowledged and agreed to the arbitration clause, and held that such an exchange was required by the plain language of Article 7(2) of the Model Law to form an arbitration agreement.
Additionally, Kroft J. applied common law contractual formation principles and held that there was no meeting of the minds regarding the agreement to arbitrate. In so doing, Kroft J. took a high level view of the facts and circumstances surrounding the formation of the contractual relationship. Kroft J. noted that Evoqua was seeking to impose the terms outlined on its website, despite the fact that the bid documents had in fact contemplated an attached subcontract agreement with its own special conditions.Ibid. Further, Kroft J. was persuaded that at the time of bidding, the president of Razar had not seen the terms and conditions that Evoqua sought to enforce, nor did the Court find evidence that Evoqua had taken adequate steps to draw those terms and conditions to Razar’s specific attention.Ibid.
Having found no binding arbitration agreement, Evoqua’s application for a stay of the action in favour of arbitration was denied.
Issue 2 – Does the Court Have Jurisdiction in the First Instance?
Citing the seminal Supreme Court of Canada decision of Dell Computer Corp. v. Union des consommateursDell Computer Corp. v. Union des consommateurs, 2007 SCC 34. [“Dell”], Evoqua had argued that the Manitoba Court did not have the jurisdiction to rule on the existence or validity of the arbitration agreement, as that jurisdiction lay with the arbitral tribunal in the first instance. Dell confirmed the applicability of the competence-competence principle in Canada (the arbitrator has the competence to rule on its own competence)Stated differently, the jurisdiction to determine the scope of its own jurisdiction. and further established the “general rule” that challenges to an arbitrator’s jurisdiction “must be resolved first by the arbitrator”, subject to questions of law or questions of mixed fact and law that require only superficial consideration of the evidence.Dell Computer Corp. v. Union des consommateurs, 2007 SCC 34 at paras 84-86.
Razar sought to distinguish Dell, relying on a 2009 British Columbia Supreme Court case, H & H Marine Engine Service Ltd. v. Volvo Penta of the Americas, Inc.H & H Marine Engine Service Ltd. v. Volvo Penta of the Americas, Inc., 2009 BCSC 1389. [“H & H Marine”], which suggested that Dell was limited in application to arbitration issues arising under the Civil Code of Québec, and that the applicant needs to tender an evidentiary or statutory basis for the application of the competence-competence principle.
Justice Kroft relied on H & H Marine, and found that Evoqua had failed to tender evidence pertaining to the JAMS arbitration rules to establish the competence-competence principle would apply to the arbitral tribunal in Pittsburgh, PA. Justice Kroft also noted that in the event Dell applied, this case fell within the exceptions articulated in Dell, as the facts were not in dispute and the question before the Court required a legal conclusion, not material findings of fact. As such, Kroft J. found that the Court had the jurisdiction to consider whether there was an arbitration agreement and that the Court ought to exercise that jurisdiction.
Regarding the interpretation of the contract generally, the Court’s consideration of whether the terms incorporated by reference actually formed part of the agreement stands as an interesting 21st century twist on the so-called “battle of the forms”.See Butler Machine Tool Co Ltd. v Ex-Cell-O Corp (England) Ltd.  EWCA Civ 9. What is consistent with this long line of authority is the underlying question of whether the terms and conditions have been specifically drawn to the attention of the seller.
Razar Contracting stands as an example of the difficulty a party may have establishing that such attention has been ensured when the terms and conditions are located outside of the main agreement and indeed may not have even been reduced to paper. While not explicitly referenced in Kroft J.’s decision, Razar Contracting is in keeping with the general trend that an arbitration clause in one contract is only incorporated into another contract if that clause is clearly and specifically referenced. In this way, some courts appear to have applied a more stringent level of scrutiny where the proposed term is an arbitration clause in particular. For example, in Dynatec Mining Ltd. v. PCL Civil Constructors (Canada) Inc.,Dynatec Mining Ltd. v. PCL Civil Constructors (Canada) Inc., (1996), 25 C.L.R. (2d) 259, 1996 CarswellOnt 16 (Ont. Gen. Div.) Chapnik J. held that “[i]ncorporation of an arbitration clause can only be accomplished by distinct and specific words …”,Dynatec Mining Ltd. v. PCL Civil Constructors (Canada) Inc. (1996), 25 C.L.R. (2d) 259, 1996 CarswellOnt 16 (Ont. Gen. Div.) at para. 11 [emphasis added].ultimately finding that “the manifest intention of the parties, as reflected on the face of the subcontract document, was not to include the arbitration clause therein; in the alternative, the matter was overlooked and cannot now be imposed upon the parties in the absence of agreement between them.”Dynatec Mining Ltd. v. PCL Civil Constructors (Canada) Inc. (1996), 25 C.L.R. (2d) 259, 1996 CarswellOnt 16 (Ont. Gen. Div.) at para. 15. Similarly, in Sunny Corner Enterprises Inc. v. Dustex Corp.,Sunny Corner Enterprises Inc. v. Dustex Corp., 2011 NSSC 172. Kennedy C.J.S.C. held that a “general incorporation of the prime contract into the subcontract will not normally include the arbitration clause.”Sunny Corner Enterprises Inc. v. Dustex Corp., 2011 NSSC 172 at para. 39 [emphasis added]. See also Heintzman, West and Goldsmith on Canadian Building Contracts, 5th Edition at § 4:23. Incorporation … Continue reading While Kroft J. perhaps does not go as far, he nonetheless held “that the reference in Evoqua’s purchase order to a website showing multiple categories of terms and conditions with no real guidance does not amount to a written arbitration agreement […]”.Razar Contracting Services Ltd. v Evoqua Water, 2021 MBQB 69 at para. 33.
More broadly, the British Columbia Supreme Court provided a valuable summary of the notice and accessibility considerations regarding the incorporation of terms and conditions through an external website in its decision in Kobelt Manufacturing Co. v. Pacific Rim Engineered Products (1987) Ltd.:Kobelt Manufacturing Co. v. Pacific Rim Engineered Products (1987) Ltd., 2011 BCSC 224.
In an appropriate case it might be that parties, especially sophisticated commercial actors, would be taken to know that terms and conditions are found on a website. It is now commonplace for companies to have internet websites which allow for electronic transactions. However, in order for terms and conditions on an internet website to be within the common understanding of the parties and part of their contract, there should be some evidence that those parties had interacted through the use of their websites, not just by email, or at least had notice of the terms and conditions on the other’s website at the time of entry into contract. There must also be evidence that those terms and conditions were posted on the website at the requisite time. It would be inappropriate to simply imply notice of terms absent any evidence that the website had been used before or that reasonable steps were taken to bring the existence of that website, and specifically the terms and conditions contained therein, to the attention of the other party prior to the contract.Kobelt Manufacturing Co. v. Pacific Rim Engineered Products (1987) Ltd., 2011 BCSC 224 at para. 124. See also Centre intégré universitaire de santé et de services sociaux du … Continue reading
Finally, with respect to the alleged arbitration process, the Court’s conclusion that the general rule of systemic referral to arbitration articulated in Dell need not apply in the circumstances is surprising, both legally and on the facts of the case. Dell has been followed by courts across common law Canada numerous times, including in Manitoba.See for instance, Uber Technologies Inc. v Heller, 2020 SCC 16 where the Supreme Court of Canada confirmed that the framework from Dell Computer Corp. applies in Ontario based on the “similarities … Continue reading Also surprising is the Court’s decision not to address Article 16 of the Model law in the decision, as this provides for the application of the competence-competence principle for a tribunal subject to the Model Law.On account of conflicts of laws principles, foreign law is to be assumed to be the same as the law of the forum unless specifically pled and proven otherwise: Old North State Brewing Co v Newlands … Continue reading Instead, the Court opted to recognize its discretionary jurisdiction afforded by Dell.
|↑1||Razar Contracting Services Ltd. v Evoqua Water, 2021 MBQB 69.|
|↑2||Ibid, at para. 6.|
|↑3||Ibid, at para 7.|
|↑4||The Model Law is in force in Manitoba pursuant to the International Commercial Arbitration Act, C.C.S.M. c. C151 (“ICAA“). Interestingly, the Court noted that both parties’ written submissions were premised on the domestic Arbitration Act, CCSM c A120, applying. The application of the ICAA was only addressed in oral argument where both parties acknowledged that the ICAA applied.|
|↑5||Ibid, at para. 13.|
|↑6||Model Law Article 7(2).|
|↑7||Model Law Article 7(2).|
|↑10||Dell Computer Corp. v. Union des consommateurs, 2007 SCC 34.|
|↑11||Stated differently, the jurisdiction to determine the scope of its own jurisdiction.|
|↑12||Dell Computer Corp. v. Union des consommateurs, 2007 SCC 34 at paras 84-86.|
|↑13||H & H Marine Engine Service Ltd. v. Volvo Penta of the Americas, Inc., 2009 BCSC 1389.|
|↑14||See Butler Machine Tool Co Ltd. v Ex-Cell-O Corp (England) Ltd.  EWCA Civ 9.|
|↑15||Dynatec Mining Ltd. v. PCL Civil Constructors (Canada) Inc., (1996), 25 C.L.R. (2d) 259, 1996 CarswellOnt 16 (Ont. Gen. Div.)|
|↑16||Dynatec Mining Ltd. v. PCL Civil Constructors (Canada) Inc. (1996), 25 C.L.R. (2d) 259, 1996 CarswellOnt 16 (Ont. Gen. Div.) at para. 11 [emphasis added].|
|↑17||Dynatec Mining Ltd. v. PCL Civil Constructors (Canada) Inc. (1996), 25 C.L.R. (2d) 259, 1996 CarswellOnt 16 (Ont. Gen. Div.) at para. 15.|
|↑18||Sunny Corner Enterprises Inc. v. Dustex Corp., 2011 NSSC 172.|
|↑19||Sunny Corner Enterprises Inc. v. Dustex Corp., 2011 NSSC 172 at para. 39 [emphasis added]. See also Heintzman, West and Goldsmith on Canadian Building Contracts, 5th Edition at § 4:23. Incorporation by Reference, which notes that in the United Kingdom, this rule is sometimes referred to as the “rule in Aughton” after the decision in Aughton Ltd. (formerly Aughton Group Ltd.) v. M.F. Kent Services Ltd. (1991), 57 B.L.R. 1, 31 Con. L.R. 60 (Eng. C.A.).|
|↑20||Razar Contracting Services Ltd. v Evoqua Water, 2021 MBQB 69 at para. 33.|
|↑21||Kobelt Manufacturing Co. v. Pacific Rim Engineered Products (1987) Ltd., 2011 BCSC 224.|
|↑22||Kobelt Manufacturing Co. v. Pacific Rim Engineered Products (1987) Ltd., 2011 BCSC 224 at para. 124. See also Centre intégré universitaire de santé et de services sociaux du Centre-Sud-de-l’Île-de-Montréal c. Oracle Canada, 2017 QCCS 6377 at para. 75, where Peacock J.S.C. commented on specific notice and accessibility issues and held: “Here, the Plaintiff could not find the external document by simply visiting www.oracle.com/contracts. The title of the document on the website was not the same as the one provided in the purchase order, a series of steps were required to reach the document, and the French version was only accessible if the English title happened to be found.”|
|↑23||See for instance, Uber Technologies Inc. v Heller, 2020 SCC 16 where the Supreme Court of Canada confirmed that the framework from Dell Computer Corp. applies in Ontario based on the “similarities between the arbitration regimes in Ontario, British Columbia and Quebec.” (at para 35). See also Wardrop v Ericsson Canada Inc., 2021 MBQB 183, and Buffalo Point Development Corp. Ltd. v. Alexander et al, 2012 MBQB 341.|
|↑24||On account of conflicts of laws principles, foreign law is to be assumed to be the same as the law of the forum unless specifically pled and proven otherwise: Old North State Brewing Co v Newlands Services Inc. (1998) 58 BCLR (3d) 144 at 154.|