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Canada Revenue Agency Provides Update on Strategic Direction and SR&ED

On February 6, 2013, at the Toronto-Centre Tax Professionals Breakfast Seminar, the Canada Revenue Agency discussed its current strategic activities and priorities and changes to the Scientific Research & Experimental Development (SR&ED) program.

Strategic Direction

Derrick Smith, Director of Policy Integration and Coordination Division of the Strategic Policy Directorate, Strategy and Integration Branch, presented on the CRA’s current strategic activities and priorities. A brief overview of the issues he discussed are as follows:

  • Intelligent compliance management: The CRA is increasing its use of business intelligence and advanced analytics to ensure more efficient and effective compliance intervention. This is inspired in part by Australia’s “industry campaign” approach and may include informing taxpayers of errors or other methods of encouraging compliance before a formal audit.
  • Integration of taxpayer experience: The CRA intends to create more online tools for taxpayers to minimize interaction with the CRA and simplify access to information and services. This is similar to the U.S. digital government strategy and the Australian Centrelink initiative.
  • Early certainty about tax issues: The CRA intends to facilitate advance decisions, update technical bulletins by soliciting the assistance of private practitioners with the oversight of the CRA, and develop the online Quick View interface for taxpayers to learn about the status of charities.
  • Influence compliance attitudes: The CRA will use advertising campaigns and social media to attempt to change moral attitudes towards tax compliance. The CRA cited the recent announcement by Starbucks that it will voluntarily pay tax in the United Kingdom after a public outcry over the corporation’s tax planning.
  • Increased reliance on third parties: The CRA will reach out to third parties to help achieve policy goals. This may take a variety of forms including engaging academics for discourse on policy, partnering with provinces and territories to address the underground economy, engaging in social media, and inviting tax practitioners to be involved in the production of CRA commentary.
  • Continued transition to electronic communications: The CRA continues its efforts to encourage Canadians to file electronically and engage the online tools available to them.
  • Improved use of collected data: The CRA has amassed substantial financial and tax data, but this data is not being efficiently stored or accessed in the CRA’s computer systems. The CRA intends to enhance the use and usability of the data available to it.
  • Optimized organization and workforce: The CRA intends to modernize its workforce and working environment.

SR&ED Formal Pre-Approval Process

Nancy Karigiannis, Research & Technology Policy Coordinator for the Technical Guidance Division of the Scientific Research & Experimental Development Directorate, Compliance Program Branch, discussed the CRA’s initiative to streamline the SR&ED program. In particular, Ms. Karigiannis discussed recent initiatives to enhance the online accessibility and self-assessment tools available to taxpayers and the newly developed Formal Pre-Approval Process (“FPAP”).

The FPAP is a response to the report submitted by the expert federal panel on R&D to the federal government in October 2011, called Innovation Canada: A Call to Action, which called for the simplification of the SR&ED program (among other initiatives). After conducting a feasibility study and consulting internal and external industry experts, the CRA is now ready to initiate an FPAP pilot program and is looking for a diverse selection of claimants who are willing to participate.

The CRA intends to provide enhanced predictability to SR&ED applicants by allowing the CRA to conduct eligibility determinations in “real time” (i.e., during the development process) instead of after the application has been filed. The CRA will provide feedback to participants on agency expectations, the type of supporting evidence necessary for compliance, and other advice regarding filing requirements. By the end of the service, the necessary materials should be complete and ready for filing minimizing year-end work for the taxpayer.

Taxpayers interested in taking part in the FPAP pilot program should consult the requirements for eligibility and be certain to contact the CRA before February 14, 2013.

Canada Revenue Agency Provides Update on Strategic Direction and SR&ED

Federal Court of Appeal dismisses taxpayer’s appeal in Morguard: Trial judge made no error in concluding that a “break fee” was income

The Federal Court of Appeal has dismissed the taxpayer’s appeal in Morguard Corporation v The Queen.

(See our previous posts on the case here, here and here.)

Justice Sharlow wrote for the panel which also included Justice Evans and Justice Stratas.  She agreed with the reasoning of the trial judge that Ikea Ltd. v. Canada is indeed the leading case on the characterization of extraordinary or unusual receipts in the business context, and found that his application of the principles stated by the Supreme Court of Canada in Ikea was correct. The court noted that Ikea was not based on a particular factual finding, but “involved consideration of a number of factors, including the commercial purpose of the payment and its relationship to the business operations of the recipient.”

The Court of Appeal found that the trial judge made no error in concluding, on the facts of the case, that the break fee received by Morguard as the result of a failed takeover bid was income and not capital. The appeal was dismissed with costs.

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Federal Court of Appeal dismisses taxpayer’s appeal in Morguard: Trial judge made no error in concluding that a “break fee” was income

Federal Court of Appeal hears argument on whether “break fees” are income (Morguard)

Is a “break fee” received in return for withdrawing from a takeover bid a capital receipt or an income receipt?

That was the issue before a panel of the Federal Court of Appeal (“FCA”) on November 20, 2012 in Morguard Corporation v. The Queen on appeal from a decision of the Tax Court of Canada. The panel consisted of Justice Evans, Justice Sharlow and Justice Stratas. At the conclusion of the hearing, judgment was reserved.

For the facts of the case and our analysis of the trial decision, see here. For a brief review of the issues raised in the factum filed by each party in the FCA, see here.

Arguments of the Taxpayer

Counsel for the appellant argued the trial judge had made an “error of law” in determining that Acktion Corporation (“Acktion”) was “essentially in the business of doing acquisitions and takeovers” (Acktion was the name under which Morguard Corporation (“Morguard”) operated during the period at issue). Counsel argued that Acktion was a holding company and that it had sought the takeover to increase its capital holdings. The standard of review for an error of law is “correctness”.

The panel asked counsel whether there was any error of law. Justice Stratas asked whether the issue was really a factual one, for which the standard of review is much higher, namely, “palpable and overriding error”.

Counsel argued that it is settled law that a corporation cannot conduct a “business” of acquiring capital assets. Accordingly, counsel argued that the trial judge erred in concluding that Acktion had done so. In support of this proposition, counsel cited the 1978 FCA decision in Neonex International Ltd. v The Queen (78 DTC 6339). 

It was not clear whether the panel agreed with counsel on this point, as their other questions focused on whether the Supreme Court of Canada (“SCC”) decision in Ikea Ltd. v. Canada ([1998] 1 SCR 196) had displaced Neonex by instituting a “modern approach” that supports an organic assessment of the circumstances around the receipt.

Counsel argued the break fee was received in the pursuit of a capital acquisition and that, according to the modern approach, it should be characterised as a capital receipt. Counsel stressed that the expert evidence adduced at trial by both parties was that break fees are intended to support the acquisition of capital by deterring other bidders or to compensate for the various costs incurred in a failed takeover bid.

The panel sought clarification of the appellant’s position that there should be no tax liability arising from the receipt of the break fee. In its written submissions, the appellant argued that the break fee should not be taxed as a capital gain because there were no proceeds of disposition. Justice Sharlow noted that, according to this theory, the break fee could only be characterized either as income or a non-taxable capital gain.

Arguments of the Crown

Counsel for the Crown had to answer fewer questions from the panel. Counsel argued that the characterization of an “unusual receipt” such as a break fee requires a factual determination (relying on the SCC’s decision in Ikea on this point), which the Tax Court had made in this case.

Justice Evans asked about the distinction between conducting a real estate business that acquires companies as capital and being a real estate company in the business of acquisitions and takeovers. Counsel argued that, instead of acquiring real estate directly, Acktion’s business strategy was to acquire businesses that already owned real estate. Counsel further submitted that the corporate information distributed to its shareholders described the corporation as a real estate company and not as a holding company.

Justice Sharlow questioned the Crown’s reliance on the commercial description of Acktion’s business, noting that the technical distinction between income and capital is a legal distinction that would not generally be expected to appear in a commercial context. In response, counsel argued that Acktion treated the takeover bid as part of its regular business. After losing its takeover bid, Acktion negotiated a higher price for its remaining “toehold” in the company, then took the break fee and the proceeds of disposition of its shares and immediately sought to purchase another business. Counsel argued this course of conduct shows that Acktion considered the negotiation of break fees to be part of its real estate business.

In response to the appellant’s position that the break fee was a non-taxable capital gain, counsel submitted that the trial judge was correct in applying the factors set out by the FCA in Canada v. Cranswick ([1982] CTC 69) to determine whether a payment was a windfall. In this respect, the break fee was the product of an enforceable claim negotiated by the Appellant according to common practices in takeover bids and, thus, could not be characterised as a windfall.

*  *  *

The panel reserved judgment. We will report on the judgment when it is released.

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Federal Court of Appeal hears argument on whether “break fees” are income (Morguard)

Federal Court of Appeal to hear argument tomorrow in “break fee” case (Morguard)

Tomorrow morning (November 20, 2012), the Federal Court of Appeal is scheduled to hear an appeal by Morguard Corporation (“Morguard”, formerly operating as Acktion Corporation), regarding the taxation of a “break fee” received as a result of a failed takeover bid.

Break fees are an agreed-upon fee to be paid by or on behalf of a target corporation to a prospective purchaser on the rejection of that prospective purchaser’s bid and the acceptance of another offer. Break fees are intended to reflect, more or less, the monetary and non-monetary costs incurred by the prospective purchaser in making a bid, and are common in sophisticated takeover transactions.

The Morguard case concerns a $7.7 million break fee received by Morguard on withdrawal from a bidding war. In its return, Morguard treated the payment as a capital gain but was reassessed by the Minister of National Revenue on the basis that the amount was an income receipt. On appeal to the Tax Court of Canada, the trial judge agreed with the Minister’s position that, on the facts of the case, the break fee represented income and should be taxed accordingly. For our analysis of the Tax Court decision, see our earlier blog post.

The taxpayer has appealed the trial judge’s decision to the Federal Court of Appeal on the basis that the lower court erred in law and in fact. The Appellant has described the issues raised in the appeal as follows:

(a) Whether the trial judge erred in law by concluding that the taxpayer received the break fee on income account rather than capital account.

(b) If received on capital account, whether the break fee was received in circumstances that gave rise to a capital gain.

(c) Whether the trial judge made palpable and overriding errors in finding that the taxpayer was in the business of doing acquisitions and takeovers, and received the break fee in the ordinary course of its business similar to the receipt of dividends, rents, or management fees.

(d) Whether the trial judge made a palpable and overriding error in finding that the break fee was not linked to a capital purpose of the taxpayer.

(e) Whether the trial judge erred in law in his interpretation and application of the Supreme Court of Canada decision in Ikea Ltd. v. Canada [1998] 1 S.C.R. 196.

(f) Whether the trial judge erred in law by applying the legal test developed by the Federal Court of Appeal in The Queen v. Cranswick (82 DTC 6073) to break fees.

The Crown, on the other hand, has framed the issues as follows:

(a) Whether the trial judge committed a palpable and overriding error in finding that the negotiation and receipt of the break fee by the appellant was part of the ordinary course of its regular real estate business.

(b) Whether the trial judge was correct in concluding that the break fee should be included in the computation of the appellant’s income because it was received in the ordinary course of its business.

(c) Whether the trial judge correctly applied the jurisprudence to conclude that the break fee was not a windfall.

The Appellant’s factum is here. The Crown’s factum is here.

We intend to report again after the hearing in the Federal Court of Appeal.

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Federal Court of Appeal to hear argument tomorrow in “break fee” case (Morguard)

From the intrusive to the abusive – what happens when the CRA goes too far?

In order to administer and enforce the self-reporting system of tax assessment in Canada, the Income Tax Act (ITA) and Excise Tax Act (ETA) provide the CRA with the power to demand certain information from taxpayers. Generally, this information is collected for the purposes of auditing a taxpayer, but may also be obtained where no audit is conducted. For example, the CRA may access such information for the purpose of evaluating whether record-keeping requirements have been complied with. Higher statutory thresholds are imposed on the CRA – such as requiring a search warrant issued by a judge – where the information sought would not normally be required for an audit.

Despite the broad statutory powers conferred on the CRA to ensure compliance, the courts are wary of the potential for abuse and have been careful to circumscribe their application. In James Richardson & Sons v. M.N.R., the Supreme Court of Canada clarified that when requiring the production of documentation there must be a “genuine and serious inquiry” into the tax liability of a specific taxpayer (or taxpayers). Richardson was decided in the context of what is now section 231.2 of the ITA, which requires taxpayers to provide documents or information to the CRA for the enforcement or administration of the Act. In its recent decision in R. v. He, the British Columbia Court of Appeal confirmed that the same principle should be applied to section 231.1 of the ITA (and the corresponding section 288 of the ETA) when inspecting records at the taxpayer’s place of business.

R. v. He concerned a CRA program called the Electronic Records Evaluation Pilot Project (“ERE”) that targeted specific businesses for research purposes – including restaurants, convenience stores and small supermarkets – to evaluate their record-keeping compliance. One business chosen for the program was the restaurant, Sushi Man, run by the He family in Vancouver. Although the initial contact by the CRA indicated that its review would not be an audit, certain inconsistencies were found that led to an audit, investigation and, ultimately, criminal charges. Apparently, CRA thought that Sushi Man had been using some form of sales suppression software (known as a “zapper”) to erase the record of certain transactions and thereby evade taxes. The taxpayer alleged that the CRA’s real purpose was to conduct a criminal investigation into establishments using the zapper software and, therefore, it had strayed outside the scope of section 231 of the ITA (and 288 of the ETA) thereby violating his right against unreasonable search and seizure under section 8 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The issue before the courts was whether, under the circumstances, the CRA was entitled to seize information from Sushi Man under section 231.1 of the ITA and 288 of the ETA. The Provincial Court Judge found that there had been no “genuine and serious” inquiry into that taxpayer’s tax liability and concluded that the seizure of information by the CRA was unlawful, implying that the ERE program had been used improperly for an undercover investigation into restaurants using zappers. On appeal, both the Supreme Court of British Columbia and the British Columbia Court of Appeal agreed with the Provincial Court that the rule established in Richardson should be applied to section 231.1 of the ITA (and by extension to section 288 of the ETA).

Writing for the Court of Appeal, Justice Hinkson remarked as follows:

[54] In my opinion, s. 231.1 of the ITA, if interpreted too broadly, is open to that same possibility of abuse. It and its parallel section in the ETA permit the same broad authority to the CRA as does  s. 231.2 and its parallel section in the ETA. Further, as discussed by the appeal judge, s. 231.1 allows for a more intrusive power than that permitted under s. 231.2. It is my opinion that the correct interpretation of s. 231.1 requires that the reasoning in Richardson must therefore be applied to that section.

With respect to the conduct of the CRA investigation, Justice Hinkson deferred to the Provincial Court Judge’s conclusion that the ERE’s true purpose was not to review books and records nor to audit the individual businesses selected. Therefore, the seizure of information was not permissible under section 231.1 of the ITA (or section 288 of the ETA).

While it is not yet certain whether the Crown will seek leave to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada (no leave application has been filed at the time of this post), it seems clear that unless it has secured prior judicial authorization, the CRA cannot obtain information from a taxpayer in the absence of a “genuine and serious” inquiry into the taxpayer’s tax liability.

From the intrusive to the abusive – what happens when the CRA goes too far?