Shapiro v Simpson, 2015 BCSC 1361 is a recent judicial statement on the proper interpretation of marriage contracts in BC courts. The case is quite complex and I have previously commented on it in the context of imputing support. This article focuses solely on the issue of interpreting a marriage contract.
Justice Butler cites two Court of Appeal cases. The first is Campbell v. Campbell, 2013 BCCA 109, which affirms these principles:
- General principles of contractual interpretation apply to the interpretation of marriage contracts;
- The court must construe the plain and ordinary language within the meaning of the contract as a whole; and
- The text may be considered in light of surrounding circumstances to ascertain the objective intentions of the parties, but not to contradict the plain meaning.
The second case cited is Athwal v. Black Top Cabs, LTD, 2012 BCCA 107. This case explains the use of extrinsic evidence in interpreting a contract:
- Extrinsic evidence is inadmissible to explain the meaning of unambiguous provisions; and
- Evidence of a party’s subjective intention or subjective understanding of the meaning of words is not admissible to vary, modify, add, or contradict the express words.
The obvious corollary of the final point is that extrinsic evidence may be enlisted as evidence of a party’s objective intention or understanding.
To apply these principles, Justice Butler appears to use this framework:
- Is it possible to interpret the contract by construing the plain and ordinary language within the meaning of the contract as a whole, in light of the surrounding circumstances?
- If there is no difficulty determining the objective intentions of the parties, there is no need to consider extrinsic evidence; and
- If there is difficulty determining the objective intentions of the parties, consider extrinsic evidence.
BC family lawyers should use this framework when faced with the task of interpreting a marriage contract.