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Jean Coutu: SCC Revises Test for Rectification under the Civil Code

On December 9, 2016, the Supreme Court of Canada rendered its judgment in Jean Coutu Group (PJC) Inc. v Attorney General of Canada (2016 SCC 55) along with its companion case Canada (Attorney General) v Fairmont Hotels Inc. (2016 SCC 56).

Our post on the Court’s decision in Fairmont Hotels is available here.

In Jean Coutu, a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court specified and enhanced the civil law test applicable to rectification of a written instrument where the taxpayer has suffered an unintended and adverse tax result. The Court had previously addressed this test in Quebec (Agence du revenu) v Services Environnementaux AES Inc. (2013 SCC 65).

The Supreme Court confirmed that a general intention of tax neutrality does not permit the modification instruments in accordance with the Civil Code of Quebec.

In Jean-Coutu, the taxpayer brought a motion for rectification in the Superior Court of Quebec in order to modify certain documents for transactions that were undertaken to neutralize the effect of the fluctuations in foreign exchange rates. The transactions had achieved this goal, but such transactions had the unexpected and adverse effect of creating foreign accrual property income for one of the companies in the corporate group.

The taxpayer argued that the constant and clear intention of the parties to address the exchange rate fluctuation without generating adverse tax consequences was not reflected in the transaction documents.

The Quebec Superior Court allowed the taxpayer’s motion on the basis that the evidence showed there was discrepancy between the clear intention of the parties and the tax consequence of the transaction as executed.

The Quebec Court of Appeal allowed the Crown’s appeal and stated that the taxpayer’s general intent that its transactions be completed in a tax-neutral manner was insufficient to support a motion for rectification.

On appeal, the Supreme Court defined the issue as follows:

[14] This appeal raises the following key issue: Where parties agree to undertake one or several transactions with a general intention that tax consequences thereof be neutral, but where unintended and unforeseen tax consequences result, does art. 1425 C.C.Q. allow the written documents recording and implementing their agreement to be amended with retroactive effect to make them consistent with that intention of tax neutrality?

In its analysis, the Court applied and confirmed the guidelines it developed in Services Environnementaux AES Inc.

Pursuant to an exhaustive review of the provisions of the Civil Code of Quebec applicable to contracts, the Supreme Court reaffirmed that under the Quebec civil law the agrement or contract lies in the common intention of the parties. A contract is created by “an agreement of wills by which one or several persons obligate themselves to one or several other persons to perform a prestation” (see Article 1378 of the C.C.Q.), which prestation must be “possible and determinate or determinable” (see Article 1378 of the C.C.Q.), and must have a cause (see Article 1410 of the C.C.Q.) and an object (see Article 1412 of the C.C.Q.).

For the majority, Justice Wagner stated that, in light of these provisions of the Civil Code of Quebec, a court may not use the remedy offered by article 1425 C.C.Q. to modify a transactional scheme because it generated unforeseen adverse tax consequences. The Court stated:

[23] A taxpayer’s general intention of tax neutrality cannot form the object of a contract within the meaning of art. 1412 C.C.Q., because it is insufficiently precise. It entails no sufficiently precise agreed-on juridical operation. Nor can such a general intention in itself relate to prestations that are determinate or determinable within the meaning of art. 1373 C.C.Q. It says nothing about what one party is bound to do or not to do for the benefit of the other. Therefore, a general intention of tax neutrality, in the absence of a precise juridical operation and a determinate or determinable prestation or prestations, cannot give rise to a common intention that would form part of the original agreement (negotium) and serve as a basis for modifying the written documents expressing that agreement (instrumentum). As a result, art. 1425 C.C.Q. cannot be relied on to give effect to a general intention of tax neutrality where the writings recording the contracting parties’ common intention produce unintended and unforeseen tax consequences.

And specifying the applicable test developed in Services Environnementaux AES Inc., the Court stated:

[24] In my opinion, when unintended tax consequences result from a contract whose desired consequences, whether in whole or in part, are tax avoidance, deferral or minimization, amendments to the expression of the agreement in accordance with art. 1425 C.C.Q. can be available only under two conditions. First, if the unintended tax consequences were originally and specifically sought to be avoided, through sufficiently precise obligations which objects, the prestation to execute, are determinate or determinable; and second, when the obligations, if properly expressed and the corresponding prestations, if properly executed, would have succeeded in doing so. This is because contractual interpretation focuses on what the contracting parties actually agreed to do, not on what their motivations were in entering into an agreement or the consequences they intended it to have.

Furthermore, the Court distinguished Jean Coutu from Services Environnementaux AES Inc.:

[31] In contrast, in the appeal here, the parties to the contract did not originally and specifically agree upon a juridical operation for the purpose of turning their general intention to neutralize tax consequences into a series of specific obligations and prestations. This general intention of the parties was not sufficiently precise to establish the details of a contemplated operation […] The determinate scenario agreed on by PJC Canada and PJC USA was drawn up properly, but because it was drawn up properly, it produced unintended and unforeseen tax consequences.

The Court dismissed the taxpayer’s appeal and affirmed the decision of the Quebec Court of Appeal.

In dissent, Justice Côté stated that the convergence of principles between the common law and the civil law as expressed by the majority in Jean Coutu was inconsistent with the contract law applicable in Quebec:

[91] […] I agree with my colleague that convergence between Quebec civil law and the common law of the other provinces is desirable from a tax policy perspective (para. 52). Indeed, in this Court, the parties agreed that the common law and the civil law are functionally similar with respect to the availability of rectification. But retreating from the interpretation of art. 1425 C.C.Q. adopted in AES in order to achieve harmony with this Court’s contraction of equitable discretion in Fairmont is inconsistent with the law of contract in Quebec.. […] Given that contracts can be expressed orally without recourse to written instruments, AES left open the possibility of rectifying errors in oral expression (paras. 28 and 32). This is consistent with the civil law principle, inherent in arts. 1378 and 1425 C.C.Q., that a contract is based on the common intention of the parties, not on the expression of that intention.

[92] The majority’s reasons in Fairmont are irreconcilable with these articles of the Code. Rectification in Canadian common law jurisdictions in now “limited to cases where the agreement between the parties was not correctly recorded in the instrument that became the final expression of their agreement” (Fairmont, at para. 3). There appears to be no scope for rectifying oral agreements. With respect, to the extent that my colleague in this case would import this limitation into the civil law, the “convergence” between the two legal systems is, in my opinion, far from “natural” (majority reasons, at para. 52).

The decision rendered by the Supreme Court in Jean Coutu is of significant importance as it restricts the circumstances in which taxpayers may rely on Article 1425 of the Civil Code to rectify transaction documents in tax cases.

Quebec tax professionals should carefully consider the additional guidelines provided in Jean Coutu in assessing whether or not a motion for rectification is available to correct mistakes resulting in unintended and unforeseen adverse tax consequences.

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Jean Coutu: SCC Revises Test for Rectification under the Civil Code

Westerhoff and McCallum: More from the OCA on Expert Evidence

The Ontario Court of Appeal released its decision last week in Westerhof v. Gee Estate and McCallum v. Baker (2015 ONCA 206), which are the companion cases to Moore v. Getahun.  All three appeals were heard together.

The legal issue before the Court in Westerhof  and McCallum was whether participant experts and non-party experts could give opinion evidence without having to comply with Rule 53.03, which describes the deadlines and content requirements for expert reports.

The Court of Appeal held that the Divisional Court erred in concluding that the type of evidence – whether fact or opinion – is the key factor in determining to whom Rule 53.03 applies.

Rather, the Court of Appeal was unanimous in that participant experts and non-party experts may give opinion evidence without complying with Rule 53.03.  As a result, Rule 53.03 does not apply to the opinion evidence of a non-party expert or participant expert where he or she has formed a relevant opinion based on personal observations or examinations relating to the subject matter of the litigation for a purpose other than the litigation.

Background

At the trial of Mr. Westerhof, the plaintiff proposed to call evidence from nine medical witnesses.  From the outset, the trial judge ruled that the medical witnesses who treated or assessed the plaintiff but did not comply with Rule 53.03 would not be entitled to give opinion evidence concerning their diagnosis or prognosis, even though they had not been retained for the purpose of the litigation. Those witnesses were also prevented from giving evidence of the history they had taken from Westerhof. The Divisional Court upheld the trial judge’s conclusion.  The Court of Appeal did not agree and reversed the decision, ordering a new trial.

At the trial of Mr. McCallum, the defendant appealed that decision on the basis, inter alia, that the trial judge erred by allowing treating medical practitioners who had not complied with Rule 53.03 to give “an avalanche” of opinion evidence.  The Court of Appeal dismissed this appeal.

Principles set out by the Court of Appeal

Simmons J.A., writing on behalf of the Court of Appeal, concluded that a witness with special skill, knowledge, training or experience who has not been engaged by or on behalf of a party to the litigation may give opinion evidence for the truth of its contents without complying with Rule 53.03 where:

  • The opinion to be given is based on the witness’s observation of or participation in the events at issue; and
  • The witness formed the opinion to be given as part of the ordinary exercise of his or her skill, knowledge, training and experience while observing or participating in such events.

The Court also tried to clear the confusion that often arises from referring to these witnesses as “fact witnesses” because their evidence is derived from their observations of or involvement in the underlying facts.  Simmons J.A. preferred to refer to these witnesses as “participant experts,” which takes into account that in addition to providing evidence relating to their observations of the underlying facts, they may also give opinion evidence admissible for its truth.  As with all evidence, and especially opinion evidence, the Court reiterated that it retains its gatekeeper function in relation to opinion evidence from participant experts and non-party experts.

Six factors were cited by the Court as reasons why the Divisional Court erred:

  1. The Divisional Court failed to refer to a single case under the pre-2010 jurisprudence, which support the conclusion that Rule 53.03 does not apply to opinion evidence given by participant experts. The Court reiterated its view in Moore that “the 2010 amendments to rule 53.03 did not create new duties but rather codified and reinforced … basic common law principles.”  The Court found no basis for the Divisional Court to conclude that the pre-2010 jurisprudence did not continue to apply following the 2010 amendments to the Rules relating to expert witnesses.
  2. Apart from Westerhof, no cases were brought to the Court’s attention that support the view that participant experts are obliged to comply with Rule 53.03 when giving evidence concerning treatment opinions.
  3. There was nothing in Justice Osborne’s Report on the Civil Justice Reform Project that indicated an intention to address participant experts or non-party experts; rather, the focus was litigation experts – expert witnesses engaged by or on behalf of a party to provide opinion evidence in relation to a proceeding.
  4. The use of the words “expert engaged by or on behalf of a party to provide [opinion] evidence in relation to a proceeding” in Rule 4.1.01 and Form 53 makes it clear that an expert must be “engaged by or on behalf of a party to provide [opinion] evidence in relation to the proceeding before the rule applies.  The Court concluded that witnesses, albeit ones with expertise, testifying to opinions formed during their involved in a matter, do not come within this description.  They are not engaged by a party to form their opinions, and they do not form their opinions for the purpose of the litigation.
  5. The Court was not persuaded that disclosure problems exist in relation to the opinions of participant experts and non-party experts requiring that they comply with Rule 53.03.  Quite often, these experts will have prepared documents summarizing their opinions about the matter contemporaneously with their involved, which can be obtained as part of the discovery process.  In addition, it is open to a party to seek disclosure of any opinions, notes or records of participant experts and non-party experts the opposing party intends to rely on at trial.
  6. Requiring participant witnesses and non-party experts to comply with Rule 53.03 can only add to the cost of the litigation, create the possibility of delay because of potential difficulties in obtaining Rule 53.03 compliant reports, and add unnecessarily to the workload of persons not expected to have to write Rule 53.03 compliant reports.

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Westerhoff and McCallum: More from the OCA on Expert Evidence

Moore v. Getahun: Expert Witnesses

On January 29, 2015, the Ontario Court of Appeal released its widely-anticipated reasons in Moore v. Getahun (2015 ONCA 55).

In the lower court’s controversial decision released last year, the court criticized the practice of counsel reviewing draft expert reports and communicating with experts. The court stated that counsel should not review or comment on draft expert reports because of the risk that such reports could be shaped by the views expressed by counsel. This criticism caused considerable concern in the legal profession, as well as in the community of expert witnesses (see our previous post on the Moore case here).

The Court of Appeal dismissed the appeal, holding that the determinations made on the expert evidence issue by the lower court judge did not affect the actual outcome of the trial.

Importantly, Justice Sharpe, writing for the majority of the Court of Appeal, held that the trial judge erred in concluding that it was improper for counsel to assist an expert witness in the preparation of the expert’s report.

Justice Sharpe stated that “the ethical and professional standards of the legal profession forbid counsel from engaging in practices likely to interfere with the independence and objectivity of expert witnesses” and that “it would be bad policy to disturb the well-established practice of counsel meeting with expert witnesses to review draft reports.”

Justice Sharpe further stated that “[C]ounsel play a crucial mediating role by explaining the legal issues to the expert witness and then by presenting complex expert evidence to the court.  It is difficult to see how counsel could perform this role without engaging in communication with the expert as the report is being prepared.”

With respect to the issue of continuous disclosure of consultations regarding draft reports, Justice Sharpe held that “absent a factual foundation to support a reasonable suspicion that counsel improperly influenced the expert, a party should not be allowed to demand production of draft reports or notes of interactions between counsel and expert witnesses.”  In Justice Sharpe’s view, making preparatory discussions and drafts subject to automatic disclosure would be contrary to existing doctrine and would inhibit careful preparation.  Further, compelling production of all drafts, good and bad, would discourage parties from engaging experts to provide careful and dispassionate opinions, but would instead encourage partisan and unbalanced reports.  Moreover, allowing open-ended inquiry into the differences between a final report and an earlier draft would run the risk of needlessly prolonging proceedings.

Accordingly, the Court of Appeal rejected the trial judge’s holding that counsel should not review draft reports with experts, as well as her holding that all changes in the reports of expert witnesses should be routinely documented and disclosed.

The Court of Appeal’s decision in Moore seems to have lifted the haze caused by the trial judge’s decision and clarified the role of the expert and the manner in which expert reports are to be prepared under the 2010 amendments to rule 53.03 of the Ontario Rules of Civil Procedure. Further, the Court of Appeal’s decision is important guidance in respect of the preparation and presentation of expert reports in trial courts across the country.

Moore v. Getahun: Expert Witnesses

Brent Kern Family Trust: FCA Dismisses Appeal

In Brent Kern Family Trust v. The Queen (2014 FCA 230), the Federal Court of Appeal dismissed the taxpayer’s appeal with reasons delivered from the bench. The taxpayer had argued that the decision of Canada v. Sommerer (2012 FCA 207) should not apply in this case and, in the alternative, that Sommerer was wrongly decided and ought not to be followed.

Brent Kern Family Trust was a case in which the taxpayer undertook a series of transactions whereby a taxpayer (Mr. K) completed an estate freeze for two corporations (the underlying facts are described in detail in the Tax Court decision (2013 TCC 327)).

Following the estate freeze, two family trusts were set up each with Mr. K and his family as beneficiaries as well as each trust having a separate corporate beneficiary. Next, each of the trusts subscribed for common shares in the corporate beneficiary of the other trust.

Once the structure was in place, a dividend was flowed through the structure and, as a final step, one of the trusts paid funds to Mr. K but relied on the application of subsection 75(2) of the Act to deem the dividend income received by the trust to be income in the hands of one of the corporate beneficiaries. Accordingly, if subsection 75(2) of the Act applied, the income would not be subject to tax as a result of section 112 of the Act and Mr. K could keep the gross amount of the funds.

In the decision rendered at trial, the Tax Court held that Sommerer case applied and subsection 75(2) of the Act did not apply on the basis that the trust purchased the property in question for valuable consideration and no “reversionary transfer” occurred.

In Brent Kern Family Trust, the Court of Appeal found that there was no reviewable error in the trial judge’s finding that Sommerer applied, that the Court of Appeal in Sommerer “spent considerable time analyzing the text, content and purpose of subsection 75(2)”, and no reviewable error had been brought to the Court’s attention in the present case.

The Court of Appeal dismissed the taxpayer’s appeal and upheld the Tax Court’s decision.

We note also that at least one taxpayer has brought an application in a provincial court to correct a transaction where the taxpayer never intended for Sommerer to apply. In Re Pallen Trust (2014 BCSC 405), the B.C. Supreme Court rescinded two dividends, the effect of which was to eliminate the tax liability in the trust. Re Pallen Trust is under appeal to the B.C. Court of Appeal.

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Brent Kern Family Trust: FCA Dismisses Appeal

More on Rectification in Quebec

Rectification continues to be a topic of heated debate in Quebec. After a series of decisions by the Court of Appeal last year on the subject, the Quebec Superior Court rendered an important judgment on June 19, 2012 (Mac’s Convenience Stores Inc. v. Couche-Tard Inc., 2012 QCCS 2745) on a motion for declaratory judgment involving a well-known Canadian business.

This case is a reminder that rectification is not always available to correct errors made in the planning of a transaction, even if the unintended tax consequences result in a loss of several million dollars for a taxpayer.

The Facts

On April 14, 2005, Mac’s Convenience Store Inc. (“Mac’s”) borrowed $185 million from a U.S. corporation, Sildel Corporation (“Sildel”), which was a “specified non-resident” for purposes of the thin capitalization rules in subsection 18(4) of the Income Tax Act (the “Act”). Under this loan, Mac’s paid interest to Sildel ($911,854 in 2006, $11,069,590 in 2007, and $10,674,247 in 2008). These interest payments were deducted in computing the income of Mac’s for income tax purposes in the relevant years. This loan was fully repaid by Mac’s in 2008.

On April 25, 2006, Mac’s declared and paid a dividend of $136 million to Couche-Tard Inc. (“CTI”) out of its retained earnings. The decision to declare this dividend was taken after consultation with professional advisers.

More than 18 months later, it was discovered that the dividend of $136 million paid to CTI had the effect of raising the “debt” portion of Mac’s debt-to-equity ratio vis-a-vis Sildel for thin capitalization purposes beyond the then statutory limit of 2:1 under subsection 18(4) of the Act. In early 2008, Mac’s notified the CRA of the situation. After conducting an audit, the CRA issued notices of reassessment to Mac’s denying the deduction of all the interest it paid to Sildel during taxation years 2006, 2007, and 2008.

Mac’s filed a motion for declaratory judgment with the Quebec Superior Court requesting that the dividend of $136 million declared on April 25, 2006 and paid to the respondent CTI be cancelled retroactively and replaced by a reduction of Mac’s paid-up capital in the same amount. This rectification would have required no transfer of funds between the parties, but it would have allowed Mac’s to deduct the interest paid to Sildel in computing Mac’s income under the thin capitalization rules.

To read the full article, click here.

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More on Rectification in Quebec

Brick Protection Corp. v. Alberta (Treasury) – Are Warranty Providers Subject to Insurance Corporation Tax Under Part IX of the Alberta Tax Act?

The Alberta Court of Appeal released its decision in this appeal on July 21, 2011.  Brick Protection Corp. (Brick Protection; now Trans Global Warranty Corp.) was a sister corporation of the Brick Warehouse Corp. (The Brick).  Brick Protection sold extended warranties to consumers on appliances and furniture purchased through The Brick.  The issue: Was Brick Protection Corp. doing business as an insurance company in Alberta?  If so, they would be subject to insurance corporation tax under Part IX of the Alberta Tax Act (the Act; now in the Alberta Corporate Tax Act).

For more on the decision of the Alberta Court of Appeal in Brick Protection Corp. v. Alberta (Treasury), read the commentary in FMC’s Focus on Tax.

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Brick Protection Corp. v. Alberta (Treasury) – Are Warranty Providers Subject to Insurance Corporation Tax Under Part IX of the Alberta Tax Act?