The Tax Court has in recent years demonstrated a willingness to use cost awards to control the parties’ conduct. This includes awarding lump-sum amounts, which may depart markedly from the “tariff” amounts described in Tariff B of Schedule II of the Tax Court’s General Procedure Rules. Further, the Court has wrestled with the weight – if any – that the parties’ conduct prior to an appeal should carry in respect of a cost award.
In Martin v. The Queen (2013 TCC 38), the taxpayer successfully challenged a section 160 assessment in respect of certain amounts paid to her by her spouse. There was evidence the auditor had deliberately misled the taxpayer during an audit, and the taxpayer had spent considerable time and money enduring the audit and objection process before her ultimate success in the Tax Court.
On the issue of costs, the taxpayer asked for (i) solicitor-client costs, or (ii) a fixed amount under Rule 147, or (iii) the tariff costs. The Crown argued that only tariff costs should be awarded. Describing the case as “very unusual, difficult, and hopefully exceptional, case”, the Tax Court considered the pre-appeal conduct of the CRA (among other factors) and awarded the taxpayer a lump sum amount of $10,635 (2014 TCC 50).
The Tax Court repeated its view that costs may be awarded against the Crown where it pursues a meritless case in the Tax Court:
 … There are perhaps some arguments and some cases that the Canada Revenue Agency just should not pursue. The Crown is not a private party. By reassessing a taxpayer and failing to resolve its objection, the Crown is forcing its citizen/taxpayers to take it to Court. If the Crown’s position does not have a reasonable degree of sustainability, and is in fact entirely rejected, it is entirely appropriate that the Crown should be aware it is proceeding subject to the risk of a possibly increased award of costs against it if it is unsuccessful.
The Crown appealed and the taxpayer cross-appealed.
The Federal Court of Appeal noted that a discretionary cost award should only be set aside if the judge made an error in principle or if the award is plainly wrong (see Hamilton v. Open Window Bakery (2004 SCC 9) and Sun Indalex Finance LLC v. United Steelworkers (2013 SCC 6)).
In the Court of Appeal, the Crown alleged that the Tax Court judge had made an error of fact (i.e., the finding that the CRA auditor had been deceitful in providing incorrect information), and an error of law (i.e., relying on the auditor’s deceitful conduct as a basis for awarding increased costs).
On the first issue, the Court held there was no error of law because the Crown admitted the auditor had engaged in deceitful behavior. On the second issue, the Court noted that conduct that occurs prior to a proceeding may be taken into account if such conduct unduly and unnecessarily prolongs the proceeding (see Merchant v. Canada (2001 FCA 19) and Canada v. Landry (2010 FCA 135)). However, the Court stated that the audit and objection stages are not a “proceeding”, which is defined in section 2 of the Rules as an appeal or reference. Accordingly, the Court stated, “the Judge erred in principle in allowing an amount incurred in respect of costs unrelated to the appeal which were incurred at the objection stage. Those expenses, by definition, were not incurred as part of the appeal ‘proceeding’”.
In respect of the cross-appeal, the Court of Appeal considered whether the lower court had erred in declining to award solicitor-client costs. The Court held there was no error because such costs could not include pre-appeal costs, and even if such costs could be awarded, solicitor-client costs are awarded only where there has been reprehensible, scandalous or outrageous misconduct connected with the litigation (see also Scavuzzo v. The Queen (2006 TCC 90)).
The Court allowed the appeal, dismissed the cross-appeal, set aside the lower court’s cost award and substituted a cost award of $4,800 plus disbursements and taxes (2015 FCA 95).
The Court of Appeal decision in Martin may have failed to address all relevant provisions of Rule 147, which arguably provide for very broad discretion for awarding costs. For example, paragraph 147(3)(j) of the Tax Court Rules states the Court may consider “any other matter relevant to the question of costs”.
The Court of Appeal’s decision also raises an issue regarding the circumstances in which deceitful pre-appeal conduct may unduly or unnecessarily prolong a proceeding – wouldn’t such a hindrance follow in every case of deceitful conduct by a party?
Further, the Court of Appeal appeared particularly concerned that the taxpayer’s pre-appeal expenses could not be addressed in the cost award, but it seems clear that the Tax Court had exercised its discretion to award a lump sum based not only on the quantum of the pre-appeal costs but on the existence of the auditor’s deceitful behavior and the Crown’s obstinate approach and refusal to resolve – at any stage – an uncomplicated tax dispute.