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Auditor General Provides Recommendations for Improving CRA Review of Objections

Under the federal Income Tax Act, the Canada Revenue Agency must consider a taxpayer’s objection and must vacate, confirm or vary the underlying tax assessment. This review must be completed “with all due dispatch”.

Unfortunately, no specific timeline is required for the CRA’s review of an objection (unlike the many specific deadlines imposed on taxpayers pursuant to the Income Tax Act or otherwise). Generally, a taxpayer’s only recourse in a case of excessive delay is to request interest relief or make a service complaint to the Office of the Taxpayer’s Ombudsman. The CRA has stated that it is aware of these potential delays, and has implemented service standards in respect of the various types of objections it receives each year

On November 29, 2016, the Office of the Auditor General of Canada released its report on the CRA’s review of income tax objections and included the following summary of its conclusions:

We concluded that the Canada Revenue Agency did not process income tax objections in a timely manner.

Although the Agency had developed and reported performance indicators for the objection process, the indicators were incomplete and inaccurate. Specifically, there was no indicator or target for the time that taxpayers should wait for decisions on their objections.

In addition, the Agency did not adequately analyze or review decisions on income tax objections and appeals, and there was insufficient sharing of the results of these objection and court decisions within the Agency.

This issue is very well-known to many Canadians (and their professional tax advisors) who have filed and pursued objections, and it is not surprising when you consider the CRA currently has an inventory of more than 171,000 objections in respect of personal and corporate income taxes totaling more than $18 billion.

Interestingly, the report notes that the amount of federal income tax dollars in dispute more than tripled from $6.2 billion in 2005-06 to $18.8 billion in 2013-14, and the amount in dispute has remained around $18 billion in 2014-15 and 2015-16.

The report recommends the following:

  • The CRA should provide timelines for resolving objections
  • The CRA should develop and implement an action plan with defined timelines and targets for reducing the inventory of objections
  • The CRA should review the objection process to identify and implement modifications to improve the timely resolutions of objections
  • The CRA should modify its performance indicators so that it may accurately measure and report on its performance
  • The CRA should review and share the results where objections are decided in favour of taxpayers in such a way that may improve the quality of audit results

Minister of National Revenue Hon. Diane Lebouthillier released a statement in response to the Auditor General’s report, and stated (in part): “An action plan is already underway to reduce processing times and it will be ready at the beginning of 2017.”

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Auditor General Provides Recommendations for Improving CRA Review of Objections

Wilson: SCC Overhauls Standard of Review?

Tax professionals who advise clients on judicial review of the CRA’s discretionary decisions should monitor developments in the standard of review in light of the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision in Wilson v Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd (2016 SCC 29).

In Wilson, the appellant was a non-unionized procurement specialist who worked for Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. for four and a half years. He was dismissed in November 2009 and filed an unjust dismissal complaint under the Canada Labour Code. At issue was whether the significant severance package provided to Mr. Wilson rendered the dismissal just.

The labour adjudicator found that a severance payment did not exempt an employer from a determination with respect to whether a dismissal was just. Applying a standard of review of reasonableness, the application judge reversed the decision of the labour adjudicator, finding that the Code permitted the dismissal of non-unionized employees without cause. The Federal Court of Appeal agreed, but held that the appropriate standard of review was one of correctness.

The Supreme Court of Canada allowed the appeal and restored the decision of the labour adjudicator. The Court split 5-3 and issued several sets of reasons in its decision.

On the merits, Justice Abella wrote for the Court that the standard of review with respect to a labour arbitrator was one of reasonableness, to be assessed in the specific context under review. In this case, Justice Abella found the interpretation of the labour adjudicator was reasonable. However, Justice Abella remarked – albeit in obiter – that the line between reasonableness and correctness had begun to blur in the case law. A single standard of reasonableness, she stated, would operate to both protect deference and give effect to one correct answer where the rule of law required it. This would give effect to the different gradations of deference to be given to administrative decision makers in different contexts.

Chief Justice McLachlin and Justices Karakatsanis, Wagner and Gascon concurred with Justice Abella’s reasons and expressed appreciation for her attempt to galvanize constructive conversation about the standard of review. However, they declined to recast the standard of review. Justice Cromwell also concurred in the result, but rejected Justice Abella’s attempt to define a new framework, finding that the correctness/reasonableness distinction that emerged in Dunsmuir was still appropriate.

Justices Cote, Brown and Moldaver dissented. Agreeing with the Federal Court of Appeal, they stated that a standard of correctness applied and that the contradictions inherent in a growing body of labour decisions called for judicial clarity. Specifically, they held that “where there is lingering disagreement on a matter of statutory interpretation between administrative decision-makers, and where it is clear that the legislature could only have intended the statute to bear one meaning, correctness review is appropriate”.

What does Wilson mean for tax litigators? First, even though four members of the Court declined to overhaul the Dunsmuir framework, they lauded Justice Abella’s attempt to refine this area of law. The views expressed in the reasons indicate that the Court may be willing to revisit and clarify Dunsmuir (which also contained three sets of reasons).

Second, to the extent that members of the Court wish to supplant the Dunsmuir test with a single standard of reasonableness (containing gradients of deference), attempts to challenge the CRA’s discretionary decisions could be met with increased difficulty in the future.

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Wilson: SCC Overhauls Standard of Review?

CRA Provides OTIP Update

The CRA’s Offshore Tax Informant Program (OTIP) was launched in January 2014.

From the CRA’s webpage describing the program:

Launched as part of the Canada Revenue Agency’s (CRA) efforts to fight international tax evasion and aggressive tax avoidance, the new Offshore Tax Informant Program (OTIP) allows the CRA to make financial awards to individuals who provide information related to major international tax non-compliance that leads to the collection of taxes owing …

… To be eligible under the OTIP, individuals must provide the CRA with specific and credible details of major international tax non-compliance that lead to additional taxes being assessed and collected. When program requirements are met, the CRA may enter into a contract with the individual that could lead to an award if the potential additional assessment of federal tax, excluding interest and penalties, is more than $100,000.

Any individual, no matter where they are in the world, is eligible to participate as an informant, subject to certain limitations …

At a recent STEP conference roundtable, the CRA stated that, from January 2014 to April 2016, the CRA had received 2,984 calls (812 of which were from potential informants) and 333 written submissions. The CRA also said that it has entered into over a dozen contracts with informants.

The CRA’s report on the volume of OTIP calls and the recent media focus on the Panama Papers are reminders for any non-compliant Canadian taxpayers that they may wish to consider contacting a tax professional and using the Voluntary Disclosure Program to correct any non-compliance regarding offshore assets and/or unreported income.

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CRA Provides OTIP Update

Gordon: CRA May Not Fetter Discretion on Interest Relief Application

In Gordon v Canada (Attorney General) (2016 FC 643), the Federal Court granted the taxpayer’s application for judicial review and reminded the CRA that it may not fetter its discretion when considering applications for interest relief.

The taxpayer, an individual, bought and imported vehicles using the dealer license of Coastal Collision, a local auto dealership. Both parties consulted their respective accountants, who advised the parties that Coastal Collision should collect and remit GST/HST on the auto sales.

Accordingly, in reporting periods from January 1, 2008 to June 30, 2010, Coastal Collision collected and remitted the GST/HST on all the vehicles sold in its arrangement with the taxpayer.

The CRA reassessed the taxpayer and Coastal Collision on the basis that the taxpayer was required to collect and remit GST/HST on the auto sales. The CRA reduced the GST/HST owed by Coastal Collision, and increased the taxpayer’s GST/HST owing to $46,650.84.

On October 27, 2011, the CRA refunded Coastal Collision’s overpayment, at which time the taxpayer paid a portion of his GST/HST owing, and paid the remaining amount on October 31, 2011.

The CRA assessed interest on the GST/HST assessed against the taxpayer.

The taxpayer made an application for interest relief in which he asked for cancellation of all interest accrued since 2008 except for the modest interest accrued from October 27 to 31, 2011, the period after the CRA refunded Coastal Collision and before the taxpayer had paid the full amount owing.

Under subsection 281.1(1) of the Excise Tax Act (see also subsection 220(3.1) of the Income Tax Act), the CRA may waive or cancel interest and penalties that have been assessed against a taxpayer. The CRA has published guidelines that describe the circumstances in which the CRA may grant relief (i.e., natural disasters, illness, emotional/mental distress, CRA delay, inability to pay/financial hardship, etc.) and certain factors to be considered on each application (i.e., taxpayer’s history of compliance, existence of unpaid balance, actions taken to remedy the omission, existence of reasonable care/diligence by taxpayer, etc.) (see the CRA’s guidelines here and here).

In Gordon, the CRA had denied the taxpayer’s request for interest relief on the basis that a “wash transaction” existed in this case (i.e., the GST/HST was collected and remitted by the wrong entity within a closely related group of commercial entities or associated persons), and the provisions of GST/HST Memorandum 16.3.1 “Reduction of Penalty and Interest in Wash Transaction Situations” allowed the waiver/cancellation of only that interest in excess of 4 percent.

On the application for judicial review in the Federal Court, the taxpayer argued that it was unfair to charge interest on payments that were at all times in the possession of the CRA, and the CRA had erred in refusing to grant relief. The Crown argued that the CRA had made no reviewable error in the decision, and moreover the decision was reasonable.

The Federal Court noted that fettering of discretion is always outside the range of acceptable outcomes and if therefore per se unreasonable (Stemijon Investments Ltd. v. Canada (Attorney General), 2011 FCA 299; JP Morgan Asset Management (Canada) Inc. v. M.N.R., 2013 FCA 250). A decision-maker may consider administrative guidelines, but a decision-maker will fetter his/her discretion if they consider the guidelines as binding (Waycobah First Nation v Canada (Attorney General) 2011 FCA 191).

In this case, the Federal Court noted the CRA had treated Memorandum 16.3.1 as binding, and as such the Minister had fettered her discretion. The CRA had failed to give any consideration to the taxpayer’s individual circumstances, including his history of compliance, the fact that GST/HST had been remitted promptly, and the error was not the result of any negligence on the taxpayer’s part (in fact, he had relied on professional advice).

The Federal Court granted the taxpayer’s application for judicial review, set aside the CRA’s decision, and returned the matter to the CRA for redetermination in accordance with the Court’s reasons.

The Gordon case is another reminder from the courts that the CRA’s administrative guidelines, while providing “consistency, transparency and fairness in the decision-making process”, are advisory only and the CRA may not rely on such guidelines in a manner that limits the discretion conferred under the statute.

Taxpayers who encounter such a response from the CRA on an application for interest relief may wish to remind the CRA of this important principle, as it has been the subject of several cases in recent years, and the courts have been clear about the role of such guidelines in the decision-making process.

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Gordon: CRA May Not Fetter Discretion on Interest Relief Application

CRA Creates New Offshore Compliance Advisory Committee

The CRA continues its efforts to strengthen tax compliance in Canada.

Following the CRA’s recent announcement of its efforts to crackdown on international tax evasion, the CRA announced the creation of a new Offshore Compliance Advisory Committee. From the CRA’s news release:

… The Offshore Compliance Advisory Committee (OCAC) will be composed of seven independent experts with significant legal, judicial and tax administration experience.

The members will provide input to the Minister and the CRA on additional administrative strategies for offshore compliance to build on the Budget 2016 investment.

The OCAC’s first meeting will be in spring, 2016, and its initial areas of focus will include:

  • Strategies to help alleviate and discourage offshore non-compliance;
  • Administrative policies being used by other tax administrations to address this global issue
  • Advice to the CRA in moving forward with its measurement of the tax gap;
  • Additional strategies and practices related to promoters of tax schemes; and
  • Potential ways to improve the CRA’s criminal investigation functions.

The OCAC will be chaired by Dr. Colin Campbell. Dr. Campbell is currently Associate Professor of Law at Western University and a published author on tax matters. The Committee’s Vice-Chair is Kimberley Brooks, Associate Professor of the Schulich school of Law at Dalhousie University. Ms. Brooks, a member of the Canadian Tax Foundation Board of Governors and a member of the International Fiscal Association, practiced law in Toronto and the United Kingdom.

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CRA Creates New Offshore Compliance Advisory Committee

CRA Provides Update on Efforts to Combat Tax Evasion

Following the release of the “Panama Papers” and the Canadian federal government’s budget announcement that additional resources will be directed to the CRA to collect existing tax debts and combat tax evasion, the CRA has provided an update on its “crack down on tax evasion and tax avoidance”.

The CRA stated that the first jurisdiction that will be investigated is the Isle of Man, which the CRA had identified as the recipient of CDN$860 million of electronic funds transfers by approximately 800 taxpayers. Additional jurisdictions and financial institutions will be included in a second investigative project starting in May 2016.

The CRA also announced several other aspects of its program including the hiring of new auditors/specialists, a focus on tax schemes targeted to wealthy taxpayers, investigations of high-risk multinational corporations, use of investigative tools and technology, larger investigation teams, international collaboration, and the formation of an independent advisory committee on tax evasion and aggressive tax planning.

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CRA Provides Update on Efforts to Combat Tax Evasion

CRA: Drones Depreciable at 25%

Aerial drones appear to have many commercial uses. If you use a drone in your business, you may be able to deduct capital cost allowance in respect of the drone.

In CRA Document 2016-0633111E5 “CCA Class of a Drone” (March 11, 2016), the CRA provided its views on the correct classification of a drone for the purposes of the capital cost allowance (“CCA”) provisions of the Income Tax Act.

Under the CCA provisions of the Act, a taxpayer may deduct an amount in respect of the cost of certain property used in a business. The classes of property and the applicable allowance rates are described in section 1100 and Schedule II of the Income Tax Regulations.

The CRA stated that, where the cost of a property qualifies for inclusion in the classes of property described in Schedule II, the specific class of the property is determined by reference to the specific functions of the property and the circumstances of its usage.

The CRA stated that “drone” is not defined in the Act or Regulations, but that the CRA understands that an aerial drone is a type of unmanned aircraft. The CRA also stated that the Canadian Aviation Regulations “describe aerial drones as a type of aircraft” (ed. note: we were unable to find a reference to “drone” in the Canadian Aviation Regulations, but the definition of “unmanned air vehicle” appears to include aerial drones).

Accordingly, in the CRA’s view, an aerial drone would be included in Class 9(g) (“an aircraft”) of Schedule II of the Regulations, which has a CCA rate of 25 percent of the undepreciated capital cost of the property in the class.

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CRA: Drones Depreciable at 25%

FC Dismisses JR Application for Delay

A party may bring an application pursuant to section 18.1 of the Federal Courts Act for review of a discretionary decision of a government board, commission or other tribunal.  Generally, the application must be made within 30 days of the decision.

In R & S Industries (2016 FC 275), the Federal Court dismissed a taxpayer’s application for judicial review of a discretionary decision of the CRA because the Court held that the taxpayer had missed the 30-day deadline and no extension of time should be granted.

In R & S, the taxpayer made some errors in a T2059 form in connection with a subsection 97(2) rollover of property to a partnership. The CRA reassessed, and the taxpayer objected.

The CRA Appeals Officer told the taxpayer that an amended T2059 must be filed in order to properly deal with the reassessment.  Accordingly, the taxpayer filed an amended T2059 pursuant to subsection 96(5.1) of the Income Tax Act, which allows a subsection 97(2) rollover election to be amended where “in the opinion of the Minister, the circumstances of a case are such that it would be just and equitable” to permit the taxpayer to amend an election.

A CRA officer (other than the Appeals Officer) denied the application under subsection 96(5.1) and various letters were sent to the taxpayer to that effect.  The Appeals Officer then confirmed the reassessment on the basis that the taxpayer’s request under subsection 96(5.1) had been denied.

When the taxpayer appealed the reassessment to the Tax Court, the Crown alleged that the Tax Court had no jurisdiction to review the CRA’s decision to reject the taxpayer’s application under subsection 96(5.1) to amend the T2059 because it was a discretionary decision of the Minister of National Revenue and not subject to an appeal to the Tax Court.

The taxpayer then commenced a judicial review application in the Federal Court on the basis that the decision under subsection 96(5.1) was both procedurally unfair and unreasonable. The Crown rejected both arguments and further argued that the application was out of time and no extension should be granted.

In dismiss the taxpayer’s application, the Federal Court stated that it was clear that the taxpayer had missed the 30-day deadline because there had been a lengthy delay from the date of the decision (January 31, 2014) to the filing of the application for judicial review (May 19, 2015).

The Federal Court refused to consider the subsequent correspondence between the taxpayer and the CRA as having created a later date on which the decision was communicated.

The Court did not accept the taxpayer’s argument that the character of the decision as an exercise of Ministerial discretion was not conveyed to the taxpayer until sometime after January 2014. Further, the Federal Court noted that the taxpayer had counsel throughout the process, and counsel was knowledgeable about the CRA’s decision-making process. The Court held that the CRA had no obligation to inform the taxpayer of the availability of judicial review of the discretionary decision.

In respect of an extension of time to file the application, the Federal Court held that the taxpayer had failed to establish that (i) it had a continuing intention to pursue the judicial review application, (ii) no prejudice arose to the Minister of National Revenue, (iii) there was a reasonable explanation to the delay, and (iv) there was merit to the application (see Exeter v. Canada, 2011 FCA 253).

Despite having found that the taxpayer was out of time to pursue a judicial review application, the Federal Court considered the taxpayer’s arguments in respect of the merit of the application, and held that the CRA’s decision was neither unfair nor unreasonable.

The appeal in the Tax Court continues. It is still an open question whether or not the Tax Court has jurisdiction to consider the taxpayer’s arguments regarding subsection 96(5.1) in the context of an appeal of the reassessment.

This case is an important reminder to tax professionals that if the CRA communicates a discretionary decision to a taxpayer, the appropriate relief is sometimes in Federal Court rather than Tax Court. Identifying and quickly responding to those discretionary decisions is key to preserving the client’s right to pursue a remedy.

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FC Dismisses JR Application for Delay

Taxpayers’ Ombudsman Addresses CBA Meeting

On January 27, 2016, Sherra Profit, the Taxpayers’ Ombudsman, addressed a meeting of the Canadian Bar Association Tax Section on the subject of assisting taxpayers in resolving their service complaints.

The Office of the Taxpayers’ Ombudsman handles individual complaints from taxpayers where he/she was not able to resolve a service complaint through the CRA’s internal process or if the complaint process hasn’t been tried and there are compelling circumstances for the Ombudsman to review it. Such compelling circumstances could include, for example, situations in which an auditor repeatedly contacts a taxpayer when the taxpayer has asked them to deal with their authorized representative, or unexplained delays by the CRA in processing a refund.

The Ombudsman’s mandate with respect to individual complaints is strictly on the service side, and no technical tax issues will be considered in the investigation.

The Ombudsman also handles systemic investigations in respect of which she reports directly to the Minister of National Revenue. Such investigations have addressed processing delays, or system-wide mistakes (i.e., a large number of individual taxpayers being erroneously classified as deceased in the CRA’s database). These systemic investigations could arise out of recurring complaints, requests from tax professionals, or otherwise.

The Office of the Taxpayers’ Ombudsman operates independent of the CRA and attempts to be impartial and fair in the review of service-related complaints. The Ombudsman is ultimately accountable to the Minister, not the CRA.  All information communicated to the Ombudsman through the complaint process is kept confidential, except to the extent a taxpayer gives consent to its release to assist the investigatory process.

Ms. Sherra also provided a list of tips for tax professionals for assisting their clients with service-related complaints:

  1. Manage the taxpayer’s expectations
  2. Use the CRA Service Complaints Program first, unless compelling circumstances exist
  3. Provide a signed consent to authorize a representative
  4. Submit detailed information

Contact information, if a complaint is contemplated, can be found on the Ombudsman’s website.

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Taxpayers’ Ombudsman Addresses CBA Meeting

CRA Ends Political Activities Audit Program for Charities

On January 20, the CRA announced that its controversial political activities audit program for charities has been wound-down.

From the CRA news release:

The results of the political activities audit program have shown substantial compliance with the rules regarding charities’ involvement in political activities. In light of these outcomes, the political activities program will be concluded once the remaining audits have been finalized.

Our Government’s commitment to openness and transparency includes providing more information on the regulation of charities to the public and the charitable sector in a timely manner and in ensuring the engagement of the sector. In order to achieve this, Minister Lebouthillier also announced that the CRA will publish an annual report to provide the public with more information about its activities and its contribution to an effective regulatory framework for registered charities.

Minister Lebouthillier is committed to engaging with key stakeholders and has asked CRA’s Charities Directorate to find ways to further clarify the rules governing a registered charity’s involvement in political activities. Details of the consultations will be made public as they become available.

See our previous posts on the political activities audit program here and here.

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CRA Ends Political Activities Audit Program for Charities