Canada: Novation Or Assignment, That Is The Question

In the context of asset acquisition, and assuming that the target's contracts are assets being transferred to the purchaser, the transfer of contracts typically requires the parties to the transaction to go through either the novation process or assignment of the contract from the seller to the purchaser.

Novation is a trilateral agreement between the original parties to a contract and the purchaser seeking to replace the seller to the contract. Novation transfers not only the rights and benefits under the original contract to the purchaser, but also the obligations, thus releasing the seller from all obligations under the original contract. All parties to the original agreement need to consent to the new agreement.

Novation has been referred to as the "Hail Mary" defence for parties seeking to avoid contractual liability, however, the standard of establishing novation is quite high. The Supreme Court of Canada (the SCC) has established a three-factor test for establishing novation. The party asserting novation must prove:

  1. the purchaser assumes complete liability;
  2. the creditor (one of the existing party to the original contract) must accept the purchaser as principal debtor and not merely as an agent or guarantor of the seller; and
  3. the creditor (one of the existing party to the original contract) must accept the new contract in full satisfaction of, and as substitution for, the old contract. [1]

The SCC also stated that in the absence of an express new agreement, a court should not find novation unless the circumstances are especially compelling.[2]

Assignment and assumption, on the other hand, transfer the contractual rights and benefits held by the assignor/seller to the assignee/purchaser, but not the assignor/seller's obligations under the contract. The burden under the original contract remains with the assignor/seller, thus the assignor/seller can be held liable if the assignee/purchaser fails to perform under the contract. The assignor/seller can protect itself from potential liability by obtaining an indemnity from the assignee/purchaser.

Unlike novation, an assignment does not extinguish the original agreement and does not create a new and separate agreement. The original contract remains in force. Also, unlike novation, depending on the terms of the subject contract, an assignment of the contract may not require the consent of all parties to the agreement. Depending on the terms of the agreement, the assignor/seller usually only needs to provide a notice to the non-assigning party.

If the contract is silent as to its assignability, then the courts have held that the contract is generally assignable, except for personal services contract, where consent must be obtained.[3] The SCC has held that personal services contracts are contracts based on confidences, skills or special personal characteristics such as to implicitly limit the agreement to the original parties,[4] and the determination of whether a contract is personal services contract is often made by the courts.

Assignment and assumption may be more convenient for the seller than novation given that the seller may not need to ask for consent from a third party to assign its interest in an agreement to the purchaser, however, the seller needs to be aware of the potential liabilities if the purchaser fails to perform under the assigned contract. Although novation can protect the seller from such future liabilities, it is a more cumbersome process for all parties involved, and may not be feasible if the third party refuses to provide consent. Therefore, it is essential for parties to assess their relationship with the third party before proceeding with novation.


[1] National Trust Co. v Mead et al. [1990] 2 SCR 410 (SCC).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Canadian Encyclopedic Digest, 4th ed, (Thomson Reuters Canada, 2016) at Title 35, Contracts, XIII 1(d)(i).

[4] Rodaro v. Royal Bank of Canada, 2002 CanLII 41834 (ONCA).


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