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The Gwartz Decision: The GAAR Is Not a Filler

In Brianne Gwartz v. The Queen, 2013 TCC 86, the Crown attempted to utilize the GAAR to recharacterize as dividends certain capital gains which had been realized by a family trust and allocated to the minor-aged taxpayers in 2003, 2004 and 2005.  The Crown argued that the transactions giving rise to the GAAR circumvented section 120.4 (the “kiddie tax”) which was amended in 2011 to apply to certain capital gains paid to minors.

The taxpayers conceded the existence of a “tax benefit” and an “avoidance transaction”, leaving the only issue being whether there existed “abusive tax avoidance”.  The Tax Court of Canada made some interesting comments about the application of the GAAR generally and specifically as it related to this case, the main points of which can be summed up as follows:

1      Tax planning is not inherently abusive for the purposes of ss. 245(4):  Taxpayers are entitled to plan their affairs in such a way that will minimize tax liability.  Choosing a course of action that minimizes the tax liability is not necessarily abusive [paras. 45 and 46].

2      GAAR cannot be used to fill in the gaps:  Abusive tax avoidance cannot be found to exist if a taxpayer can only be said to have abused some broad policy that is not in itself grounded in the provisions of the Act.  “[I]t is inappropriate, where the transactions do not otherwise conflict with the object, spirit and purpose of the provisions of the [Act] to apply the GAAR to deny a tax benefit resulting from a taxpayer’s reliance on a previously unnoticed legislative gap” [para 47].

3      There is no broad policy in the Act against surplus stripping:  In this case, the Crown contended that the taxpayers contravened the general policy against surplus stripping, but dropped this position at trial.  The Court noted that courts have held that surplus stripping does not inherently constitute abusive tax avoidance [para 50].

4      There is no broad policy in the Act against income splitting:  The Court noted that the increasing marginal tax rates and the choice to tax the individual as the basic taxable unit create incentives under the Act for taxpayers to split their income with their family members [para. 52].

5      The significance of subsequent amendments as an indicator of the policy underlying previous versions of a provision:  The Court noted subsequent amendments do not necessarily in themselves provide an indicator of some policy underlying the prior versions of a legislative provision.  Subsequent amendments must be considered along with all other relevant material to ascertain the object, spirit and purpose of the provision.  In certain circumstances, a subsequent amendment might suggest that the provision’s object or spirit were frustrated by the tax avoidance strategy. In other circumstances, it might suggest that Parliament simply changed its mind and now intends to prevent something that initially was not intended to be captured by the provision [para 57].

The Court ultimately allowed taxpayers’ appeals, finding that the object, spirit and purpose of section 120.4 of the Act were not indicative of a general policy against surplus stripping.  The Court held that the fact that specific anti-avoidance provisions were enacted at the time that 120.4 was enacted provided an indicator that Parliament was fully aware of the manner in which taxpayer’s could distribute corporate surplus.  Parliament’s exclusion of capital gains from section 120.4 was thus deliberately not intended to capture the transactions at issue.  In furtherance of this conclusion, the Court, by reviewing external evidence such as the 1999 Budget Plan and Notices of Way and Means Motions, found that the subsequent amendments to 120.4, which added only certain capital gains transactions, was evidence that “…Parliament decided not to cover capital gains when the measure was first enacted, and chose to do so on a prospective basis only in respect to a narrow subset of capital gains transaction.” [para. 74]

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The Gwartz Decision: The GAAR Is Not a Filler

Taxpayer entitled to disclosure of the “policy” underlying statutory provisions allegedly abused in GAAR cases

On December 20, 2012, the Tax Court ruled on a motion under Rule 52 of the Tax Court of Canada Rules (General Procedure) (the “Rules”) to require the Minister to comply with a demand for particulars specifying how the Income Tax Act (the “Act”) was abused in a General Anti-Avoidance rule (“GAAR”) case.

In Birchcliff Energy Ltd. v The Queen (2012-10887(IT)G), the Minister alleged that the GAAR should apply because the series of transactions (the “Transactions”) undertaken by the taxpayer resulted in a misuse of 10 sections of the Act and an abuse of the Act as a whole. In response, the taxpayer sought an order requiring the Minister to disclose the policy behind each section of the Act that was allegedly abused and how the Transactions abused that policy.

The Tax Court held that the Minister must disclose the object, spirit, and purpose of the provisions of the Act (the “Policy”) that the assessor relied upon in making the assessment. The Minister does not need to disclose the actual Policy that will be argued at trial, or the way that the Policy was abused.

Arguments

The taxpayer argued that in making a GAAR assessment, the Minister must assume as a fact the Policy and an abuse of that Policy. Relying on Johnston v M.N.R. (1948 S.C.R. 486), the taxpayer argued that the Crown had a duty to disclose “precise findings of fact and rulings of law which have given rise to the controversy”. The taxpayer also argued that there was a heightened obligation on the Minister to be specific in cases of misconduct, negligence, or misrepresentation, relying on Chief Justice Bowman’s decision in Ver v Canada ([1995] T.C.J. No. 593). Misuse or abuse, it was argued, belonged in the category of offenses requiring more precise disclosure.

The Minister, on the other hand, argued that the Policy was a conclusion of law, not fact and that only allegations of fact must be disclosed in particulars. The Minister raised a “slippery slope” argument, suggesting that this ruling could require the Crown to explain its legal interpretation of all provisions of the Act in the future. Although the Minister acknowledged that Trustco v Canada (2005 SCC 54) placed the burden of identifying the Policy on the Crown, that burden did not apply to pleadings. The Minister also argued that disclosing the Policy would not help the Appellant because the Minister could still argue a different policy at trial.

Decision

The Tax Court highlighted the unique nature of GAAR, and stated that any disclosure requirements from this case would only apply to GAAR assessments. Justice Campbell Miller specifically pointed to the Crown’s burden to prove the Policy in GAAR cases as evidence of its unique requirements.

Justice Miller separated the elements of the Policy into two distinct categories:

1)      The actual Policy that would be argued and decided at trial (the “True Policy”), and

2)      The fact that the Crown relied on a particular Policy when determining that GAAR should be applied (the “Historical Policy”).

The Court held that the True Policy was a question of law that should ultimately be decided by the court. This policy was open to change throughout the course of litigation and did not need to be disclosed to the Appellant at this stage.

The Historical Policy, however, was held to be “a material fact, not an assumption, but the fact the Minister relied upon x or y policy underlying the legislative provisions at play in the case.” Taxpayers are entitled in pleadings to know the basis of the assessment. Disclosing the Historical Policy would be similar to disclosing the legislation upon which non-GAAR assessments are made. The Court distinguished the Historical Policy from the type of materials to which the taxpayer was denied access in Mastronardi v The Queen (2010 TCC 57), a recent Tax Court decision holding that the Minister did not need to disclose the extrinsic materials on which the Minister relied in determining the Policy. In Mastronardi, the materials sought to be disclosed were evidence that could be used to prove the policy, rather than the material fact of which policy was relied on (evidence itself is not a material fact).

The Historical Policy that must be disclosed is not the Policy of each identified section in isolation. The Minister must identify the collective policy of all of the identified provisions together that the Crown relied on in making the assessment. The Historical Policy should be disclosed under paragraph 49(1)(e) of the Rules as “any other material fact”.

With regards to the Appellant’s request for information on how the Policy was abused, the Court held that it was not required to be disclosed. Abuse is a conclusion of law to be determined by the court based on the Policy and the facts of the case. The Minister did not assume how the Policy was abused as a fact. The Minister concluded, based on the Policy and the facts assumed, that there was an abuse.

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The Tax Court has reiterated that the taxpayer is entitled to know the basis of the assessment made against him.  Such an approach is consistent with principles of fundamental fairness and is entirely in keeping with the letter and spirit of the Rules.

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Taxpayer entitled to disclosure of the “policy” underlying statutory provisions allegedly abused in GAAR cases

GAAR Did Not Apply In Respect of Capital Gains Allocated to Minor Beneficiaries of a Family Trust

On March 21, 2012 the Tax Court of Canada issued judgment in the decision of McClarty Family Trust et al v. The Queen. The Minister of National Revenue (the “Minister”) had applied the general anti-avoidance rule (the “GAAR”) in section 245 of the Income Tax Act (the “Act”) to re-characterize capital gains reported by the McClarty Family Trust (“MFT”) as taxable dividends. However, the Court agreed with the appellants’ submissions that the transactions in issue were undertaken primarily for the purpose of placing Darrell McClarty, the father of the minor beneficiaries of the MFT, beyond the reach of creditors and allowed the appeal.

The Minster’s argument was that pursuant to a series of transactions, Darrell McClarty was able to split business income with his minor children in a manner that avoided the tax on split income in section 120.4 of the Act (as it existed in 2003 and 2004).

Darrell McClarty was the owner of all of the issued and outstanding Class A voting shares of McClarty Professional Services Inc. (MPSI). The MFT owned all of the issued and outstanding Class B, non-voting common shares. MPSI, in turn, owned 31% of Projectline Solutions Inc., which earned business income from the provisions of geotechnical engineering services.

In 2003 and 2004, the MFT received stock dividends consisting of Class E common shares of MPSI. The Class E shares had low paid-up capital and a high redemption value. After the Class E shares were received by the MFT, the MFT sold them to Darrell McClarty for fair market value, realizing capital gains. The capital gains were then distributed to the minor beneficiaries of the MFT, and thereby not subject to tax under section 120.4 of the Act.

Through a series of loans between Darrell McClarty, MPSI and the MFT, Mr. McClarty ended up owing $104,400.37 in outstanding promissory notes to the MFT and the MFT had outstanding promissory notes in the amount of $96,000 owned to its minor beneficiaries. The Minister argued that the creditor protection objectives were essentially ineffective and that the circular flow of loans disguised the true intention of the plan, which was to distribute funds to minor beneficiaries in a manner that would not subject them to the tax on split income in section 120.4.

However, the Court accepted Mr. McClarty’s evidence that he was motivated to protect assets from his former employer, who was a potential judgment creditor in relation to allegations of improper use of software belonging to the former employer. The Court also agreed that because of the liabilities of Mr. McClarty and the MFT noted above, the creditor protection objectives were achieved.

It was also argued that the protection from creditors would have been achieved simply by paying dividends to the beneficiaries of the MFT and therefore the declarations of stock dividends amounted to avoidance transactions. However, the Court accepted the Appellants’ argument that the transfer of wealth from MPSI was undertaken to provide protection from creditors without attracting significant tax costs. The transactions were not avoidance transactions because it was acceptable to undertake creditor proofing transactions in a manner that attracted the least possible tax. Furthermore, the transaction would never have occurred in the absence of the need to protect MPSI’s assets.

The Court therefore concluded that because there were no avoidance transactions under subsection 245(3) of the Act, there was no need to continue the analysis to determine if there was abusive tax avoidance. However it did note that to the extent that there was a gap in the legislation, which allowed for the distribution of capital gains to minor beneficiaries of a trust in a manner that was not taxable under section 120.4 of the Act, it was inappropriate for the Minister to use the GAAR to fill in the gaps.

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GAAR Did Not Apply In Respect of Capital Gains Allocated to Minor Beneficiaries of a Family Trust

A General Anti-Avoidance Rule (GAAR) for the United Kingdom?

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The United Kingdom is now seriously considering the introduction of a form of GAAR after having relied for years on judicial doctrines of anti-avoidance as expounded in such cases as WT Ramsay Ltd v. IRC, [1981] STC 174 (HL); CIR v. Burmah Oil Co. Ltd., [1982] STC 30 (HL); Furniss v. Dawson, [1984] STC 153 (HL); Craven v. White, [1988] STC 476 (HL); Ensign Tankers (Leasing) v. Stokes (HMIT), [1992] STC 226 (HL).  The most recent report is dated November 11, 2011 and is entitled “GAAR Study: A study to consider whether a general anti-avoidance rule should be introduced into the UK tax system“.

The uncertain and indeed sometimes contradictory principles developed in the U.K. cases have impelled an Advisory Committee consisting of a distinguished group of practitioners, academics and judges led by Graham Aaronson, Q.C. to advocate a “moderate” rule that targeted “abusive” arrangements, but to reject a “broad spectrum” general anti-avoidance rule. It is difficult for Canadians who have lived for over 20 years with the GAAR in section 245 of the Income Tax Act and observed the Canadian courts in scores of cases grapple with concepts such as “abuse”, “misuse” or “avoidance transactions” not to view with a measure of smug satisfaction – indeed Schadenfreude – the spectacle of a high level panel wrestling with such philosophical conundrums as the distinctions between “contrived and artificial schemes”, “abnormal arrangements” and “responsible tax planning”. The problem in the United Kingdom of codifying an anti-avoidance rule is similar to that in the United States where the judicial anti-avoidance doctrines applied in different circuits have necessitated the enactment of an amendment to § 7701(o) of the Internal Revenue Code to include a complex codification of the economic substance doctrine, one of the principal pillars of United States anti-avoidance jurisprudence. The Advisory Panel has performed a creditable task by analyzing the very problems that Canadian courts have been struggling with since the inception of the Canadian version of GAAR. The philosophical predilection of the United Kingdom courts embodied in Ramsay and its progeny may well influence the interpretation of the English GAAR just as the Duke of Westminster‘s case has implicitly survived GAAR in Canadian jurisprudence and has influenced its interpretation and evolution.

We can expect to see substantial refinement in the development of the “moderate” (or “targeted”) anti-avoidance rule (“TAAR” as opposed to “GAAR”) to ensure that it conforms to the stated objectives of the rule in that it

(a) deters or counteracts contrived, artificial and abusive schemes;

(b) does not undermine or discourage competitiveness that arises from “responsible” tax planning;

(c) eliminates uncertainty in predicting the tax consequences of arrangements that results from, inter alia

(i) “notoriously long and complex” tax legislation;

(ii) differing interpretations of arrangements by courts and tribunals; and

(iii) a battery of specific anti-avoidance rules.

Graham Aaronson and the Advisory Committee are to be commended for producing a competent and commonsensical report that responds realistically to a serious issue. The legislative implementation of the proposals is not certain. The possibility of GAAR was explored in the United Kingdom in 1998 and came to nothing. It may be assumed that if the proposals are enacted, it will take many years for the United Kingdom courts to develop principles that will clarify the application of the rule, in the same way in which the Supreme Court of Canada has reduced the Canadian version of GAAR to manageable proportions in Canada Trustco.

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A General Anti-Avoidance Rule (GAAR) for the United Kingdom?

Tax Court of Canada: The GAAR Does Not Apply to Disallow Deduction of a $5.6 Million Business Loss

On October 28, 2011 the Tax Court of Canada released Judgment and Reasons for Judgment of the Honourable Justice Judith Woods in Global Equity Fund Ltd. v. Her Majesty The Queen, 2011 TCC 507.  Global Equity Fund Ltd. (“Global”) had appealed the application of the General Anti-Avoidance Rule (the “GAAR”) by the Minister of National Revenue (the “Minister”) to disallow the deduction of a $5,600,250 business loss incurred on the sale of shares in a private corporation.

The Court found that the loss was produced after Global subscribed for shares of a new subsidiary corporation, which then issued preferred shares to Global which were redeemable and retractable for $5,600,250 but had a paid up capital of $56 and which resulted in an income inclusion of $56.  The stock dividend had the effect of reducing the fair market value of the shares of the new subsidiary to a nominal amount but did not affect Global’s adjusted cost base in those shares.  Global then disposed of the common shares to a newly settled family trust at a loss in the amount of $5,600,250.

The Court did not accept Global’s argument that the transactions leading up to the loss were implemented for creditor protection purposes.  Accordingly the Court held that a number of transactions in issue were avoidance transactions within the meaning of subsection 245(3) of the Income Tax Act (the “Act”).

The Court also noted that this case was similar to two recent decisions of the Tax Court of Canada where similar strategies were used by other taxpayers to create capital losses. In both cases (Triad Gestco Ltd. v. The Queen, 2011 TCC 259 and 1207192 Ontario Ltd. v. The Queen, 2011 TCC 383) the Tax Court upheld the application of the GAAR to deny the losses.  The Court noted that both of these decisions are under appeal to the Federal Court of Appeal.

However, in Global’s case the Court was not prepared to accept the Crown’s argument that the object and spirit of the provisions of the Act identified by the Crown evidenced a policy to disallow losses realized within an economic unit to real losses.  The Court held that Parliament did not intend that the object and spirit of provisions identified by the Crown which targeted capital losses were intended to inform as to the object and spirit of the provisions relied upon by Global in the facts of this case.

Relying on the Supreme Court of Canada decision in Canada Trustco Mortgage Co. v. The Queen (2005 SCC 54), Justice Woods held that the provisions in the Act relied upon by Global to produce the losses had not been misused and she was also unable to discern a general policy from these provisions that restricted business losses in the manner suggested by the Crown.  The Tax Court rejected the Crown’s argument that there was a general restriction against the deduction of artificially-created business losses.  For all of these reasons the Tax Court held that the Minister had not met the onus of establishing abusive tax avoidance under subsection 245(4) of the Act and allowed the appeal.

[Note: The author, along with Jehad Haymour of Fraser Milner Casgrain LLP, acted as counsel for Global – Ed.]

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Tax Court of Canada: The GAAR Does Not Apply to Disallow Deduction of a $5.6 Million Business Loss