HYDRO-QUÉBEC V. MATTA, 2020 SCC 37

Interpretation of servitudes signed in the past and power of the court to look into evidences.

The Régie de l’énergie du Québec contracted Hydro-Québec in order to construct an electrical transmission line between the Chamouchouane transformer substation in Saguenay-Lac-St-Jean and the Bout-de-l’Île transformer substation in Montréal. Such construction involved passing of the transmission lines through people’s property. Since, it would have been a difficult task to take permissions, the company thought it would be best suited if they put the transmission lines at a place where they already had servitudes which have been established in 1970s. The process involved two major steps one being authorization by the council and the latter being an agreement with the owners which would provide them with indemnities.

The first transmission line was constructed, but when in 2006 the company had to start with a new project and workers were sent to the destined sites they were denied the access, owners argued that the servitudes were only for the transmission line set up in 1970s. According to the company they were authorized to route up to three electrical transmission lines through the land of the agreed owners, while the same was disputed by the owners.

Under Quebec’s civil law rules, “servitude” is a kind of permission to use someone else’s property for a specific purpose. It’s like an “easement” in the common law rules found in other provinces. Both servitudes and easements are recorded in the land registration system. Servitudes that are gotten through expropriation can be changed by contract if everyone agrees.

The court had a number of questions to decide upon in the matter, first one being if the Quebec Court of Appeal had committed any error in reassessing the evidence. The court was of the view that the court gave decision without giving a reasonable opportunity to the parties to be heard. Also the court failed to take into the account the plans, which were very essential for this matter. The agreements between Hydro-Québec and the owners were the documents that should be relied on and the higher courts cannot change the decision of the lower court solely on the basis that they do not agree with it.

The other question relate to the servitudes, if they were favorable to the appellant or not. It was noted by the court that the servitudes on the respondents’ lots authorize the appellant to construct the Chamouchouane–Bout-de-l’Île line but they did not mention any restrictions regarding the origin or destination of the electricity. Therefore, the argument of the respondent for a restrictive interpretation failed and the contract was interpreted in its actual sense. The court upholding the decision of the trial judge, observed that the judge was right to say that the agreements reflected the permissions given by the servitudes in question and these permissions let Hydro Québec build its new transmission line on the owners’ land. This court also answered in negative the claim of abusive proceedings raised by the respondents.