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The importance of a notice of objection: Salisbury v. The Queen

In Salisbury House of Canada Ltd. et al. v. The Queen (2013 TCC 236), the Tax Court of Canada reiterated the importance of the statutory preconditions that must be met before a taxpayer may appeal to the Court. These statutory requirements should be kept in mind by taxpayers who wish to ensure their disputes are heard on the substantive merits rather than dismissed for procedural reasons before they have an opportunity to argue their case.

In Salisbury, the corporate taxpayer operated several restaurants in the Winnipeg area. The company was assessed additional GST for the period February to June, 2006 but did not object to those assessments. Around the same time, a new board of directors was elected. Due to financial difficulties, the company made a proposal under the Bankruptcy and Insolvency Act and attempted to negotiate an agreement with the CRA pertaining to the GST arrears. The parties eventually agreed that a portion of the GST liability would be paid. Importantly, at this point, no directors’ liability assessments had been issued under s. 323 of the Excise Tax Act. Payment was remitted, but the directors sought to have their potential liability for tax determined “by a court of competent jurisdiction”.

The company and the individual directors each filed a Notice of Appeal in the Tax Court. In response, the Crown brought a motion to dismiss the appeals pursuant to paragraph 53(b) of the Tax Court of Canada Rules (General Procedure) on the grounds that (inter alia) the appeals were scandalous, frivolous or vexatious.

Under section 306 of the Excise Tax Act, a taxpayer must file a notice of objection before a Notice of Appeal may be filed in the Tax Court. In Salisbury, the GST assessments against the corporate taxpayer had not been challenged by way of objection and there had been no assessments issued against the directors.  The Minister argued that the appellants had no statutory right of appeal because the requirements of section 306 had not been met.

The Tax Court granted the Minister’s motion and dismissed the appeals. Since no notices of objection had been filed by the company, this precluded an appeal from the original GST assessments. In respect of the appeals by the individual directors, the Court held that they too could not succeed – no assessments had been issued, and no notices of objection filed.

The Salisbury decision is consistent with a long line of jurisprudence reflecting the requirement that taxpayers must satisfy the statutory preconditions before appealing to the Tax Court. In Roitman v. The Queen (2006 FCA 266), the Federal Court of Appeal stated that a court “does not acquire jurisdiction in matters of income tax assessments simply because a taxpayer has failed in due course to avail himself of the tools given to him by the Income Tax Act.” More recently, in Goguen v. The Queen (2007 DTC 5171), the Tax Court reiterated that, as “a matter of law, the failure of the [taxpayer] to serve a notice of objection on the Minister deprive[s] the Tax Court of Canada of the jurisdiction to entertain an appeal in relation to the assessment” (see also Whitford v. The Queen (2008 TCC 359), Bormann v. The Queen (2006 FCA 83), and Fidelity Global Opportunities Fund v. The Queen (2010 TCC 108)).

Salisbury reminds corporate and individual taxpayers of the need to obtain proper advice from tax professionals with respect to their rights and obligations under the Excise Tax Act and the Income Tax Act. This is all the more important in cases where the corporation is experiencing financial difficulty and/or contemplating protection under the Bankruptcy and Insolvency Act (i.e., as the CRA may be a primary creditor). In Salisbury, the directors may not have been personally liable for corporate taxpayer’s GST liability. However, because of the manner and timing of the payment of GST arrears, their “appeal” to the Tax Court was defeated on procedural rather than substantive grounds and they were, unfortunately, precluded from presenting their case.

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The importance of a notice of objection: Salisbury v. The Queen

Sales of condominium units under audit by Canada Revenue Agency

A Canada Revenue Agency (“CRA”) audit initiative is targeting taxpayers who have recently sold condominium units they did not occupy or occupied for only a short period of time (the “CRA Condo Project”).

The CRA is reassessing some of these dispositions on the basis that the condo was sold in the course of business, treating the profit as income (instead of capital gains) and, in some cases, assessing gross negligence penalties under subsection 163(2) of the Income Tax Act. In doing so, the CRA may be incorrectly reassessing some taxpayers whose gains are legitimate capital gains and that may be subject to the principal residence exemption (click here for a discussion of the principal residence exemption).

Consider this example. A taxpayer signs a pre-construction purchase agreement for a condo in 2007.  In 2009, the unit was completed and occupied by the taxpayer, before the entire development was finished and registered in land titles.  Land titles registration occurs in 2010, but shortly thereafter the taxpayer sells the condo for a profit.  Ordinarily, one would conclude the condo was held on account of capital and the gain would be at least partially exempt from tax on the basis that condo was the taxpayer’s principal residence.  The CRA may be inclined to reassess on the basis that land title records show the taxpayer on title for only a short time, as though the taxpayer had intended to merely “flip” the condo rather than reside in it.

This assessing position may be incorrect because the buyer of a condo does not appear on title until the entire condominium development is registered.  In fact, several years can pass from the date of signing the purchase agreement to occupancy to land titles registration – and, accordingly, the taxpayer’s actual length of ownership will not be apparent from the land title records.

This type of situation could cause serious problems for some taxpayers. If a taxpayer is audited and subject to reassessment on the basis that their entire gain should be taxed as income, the taxpayer will need to gather evidence and formulate arguments in time to respond to an audit proposal letter within 30 days, or file a Notice of Objection within 90 days of the date of a reassessment.

Taxpayers could respond to such a reassessment by providing evidence that they acquired the condo with the intent that it would be their residence, and that the subsequent sale was due to a change in life circumstances.  Taxpayers may wish to gather the following evidence to support such claims:

  • Purchase and sales agreements;
  • Letter or certificates granting permission to occupy the condo;
  • Proof of occupancy, such as utility bills, bank statements, CRA notices, identification (such as a driver’s license) showing the condo as a residence; or
  • Evidence of a change in life circumstances which caused the condo to no longer be a suitable residence, including:
    • Marriage or birth certificates;
    • A change of employer or enrollment in education that required relocation; or
    • Evidence showing the taxpayer cared for a sick or infirm relative, or had a disability that precluded using a condo as a residence.

Taxpayers should be prepared to provide reasonable explanations for any gaps in the evidence.  If a taxpayer wishes to explore how best to respond in the circumstances, they should consult with an experienced tax practitioner.

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Sales of condominium units under audit by Canada Revenue Agency

Tax Court of Canada Appeal of Large Corporation Thwarted by Wording of Objection

Since 1995, the Large Corporation Rules found in subsections 165(1.11), 169(2.1) and 152(4.4) of the Income Tax Act (Canada) have applied to discourage large corporations from objecting to tax assessments as a means of keeping tax years “open”. In Bakorp Management Ltd. v. The Queen, 2013 TCC 94, the Minister brought a motion to dismiss the corporation’s tax appeal on the basis that it failed to comply with the Large Corporation Rules. Basically, these rules require that an objection fled by a large corporation must reasonably describe each issue to be decided and, for each issue, must specify the relief sought as the amount of change in a balance. The rules also limit the issues and relief sought in a subsequent appeal to those set out in the objection. The locus classicus on the interpretation of these provisions is the decision of the Federal Court of Appeal in The Queen v. Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan Inc., 2003 FCA 471.

In Bakorp, the corporation owned shares of another corporation that were redeemed in 1992 for $338M. As the proceeds from the redemption were received over a number of years, Bakorp reported in 1995 the portion of the deemed dividend related to proceeds received in 1995. The Minister reassessed Bakorp’s 1995 tax year to reduce the deemed dividend from $53M to $25M, a reduction of $28M. The corporation objected to the Minister’s reassessment and the Minister confirmed the reassessment. The corporation then filed a Notice of Appeal taking the position that the $28M deemed dividend remaining in its 1995 income was actually received in 1993 and should be included in the corporation’s 1993 tax year, not the 1995 year.

The Minister was, no doubt, surprised by Bakorp’s position to reduce the 1995 deemed dividend to zero. In response, the Minister brought a motion to dismiss the corporation’s appeal, arguing that the issue and relief set out in the Notice of Appeal were not those set out in the Notice of Objection.

Bakorp argued that it had complied with the Large Corporation Rules because the issue in both its objection and appeal was, fundamentally, the amount of deemed dividend to be included in its 1995 income. The Court disagreed noting that it could not “imagine a fuller reconstruction than making a 180 degree turn in what is to be included in income.” In the Court’s view, applying such a general approach to identifying the issue would render the Large Corporation Rules meaningless. In respect of specifying the relief sought, the Court was not prepared to accept that a complete reversal from wanting $53M included in income to wanting nothing included in income could be seen as complying with the Large Corporation Rules.

As a notice of appeal has been filed with the Federal Court of Appeal, the Tax Court’s reasoning will not be the last word in this particular matter. However, it is safe to say that the Bakorp decision is a timely reminder that large corporations must take particular care in preparing a Notice of Objection. Failure to do so may seriously impact a later appeal to the Tax Court of Canada.

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Tax Court of Canada Appeal of Large Corporation Thwarted by Wording of Objection