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.
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 ( 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.
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.