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Federal Court of Appeal Reaffirms the Onus of Proof Rules in Tax Appeals

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In the recent case of McMillan v. Canada, the Federal Court of Appeal has reaffirmed the onus of proof rules in tax appeals. While the rules were never particularly unsettled at the federal level, the somewhat anomalous decision of the British Columbia Court of Appeal in Northland Properties v. The Queen in Right of the Province of British Columbia, appeared to cast doubt on prior Federal Court of Appeal pronouncements as well as the decision of Justice L’Heureux-Dubé in Hickman Motors Ltd. v. Canada. In Northland, the B.C. Court of Appeal took issue with the concept, articulated by Justice L’Heureux-Dubé in Hickman, that the onus was on the taxpayer to “demolish” the assumptions pleaded by the Minister by means of raising a prima facie case at which point the burden shifts to the Minister to prove the assumptions on the balance of probabilities:

[29] Before us, counsel for the Crown made persuasive submissions on the issue of the so-called “prima facie” standard: L’Heureux-Dubé J.’s use of “prima facie” was made in the context of a case in which the Crown had not called any evidence whatsoever; it was relying solely on its assumptions. It is certainly possible in such circumstances that a prima facie case, or even one with “gaps”, would be sufficient to displace the Crown’s assumptions, but the prima facie standard described by Justice L’Heureux-Dubé should not be interpreted as having altered the usual standard of proof in tax cases: see the comments in Sekhon v. Canada, [1997] T.C.J. No. 1145 at para. 37; and Hallat v. The Queen (2000), [2001] 1 C.T.C. 2626 (F.C.A.).

The facts in McMillan are uncomplicated and not particularly interesting. The taxpayer had a business in the Dominican Republic and claimed a number of expenses in connection with that business. The Tax Court denied most of the expenses claimed on the basis that they were not proven by the taxpayer. The taxpayer appealed to the Federal Court of Appeal and her appeal was dismissed on the basis that she did not demonstrate any material error on the part of the Tax Court judge.

The interesting part of the decision is the Federal Court of Appeal’s articulation of the rules relating to onus of proof in tax appeals:

[7] Before concluding these reasons, we note that the appellant did not raise in her memorandum of fact and law any issue with respect to the Judge’s statement at paragraph 19 of the reasons, and repeated at paragraph 21, that the appellant “has the initial onus of proving on a balance of probabilities (i.e. that it is more likely than not), that any of the assumptions that were made by the Minister in assessing (or reassessing) the Appellant with which the Appellant does not agree, are not correct.” In our respectful view, it is settled law that the initial onus on an appellant taxpayer is to “demolish” the Minister’s assumptions in the assessment. This initial onus of “demolishing” the Minister’s assumptions is met where the taxpayer makes out at least a prima facie case. Once the taxpayer shows a prima facie case, the burden is on the Minister to prove, on a balance of probabilities, that the assumptions were correct (Hickman Motors Ltd. v. Canada, [1997] 2 S.C.R. 336 at paragraphs 92 to 94; House v. Canada, 2011 FCA 234, 422 N.R. 144 at paragraph 30).

Thus, the Federal Court of Appeal has once again embraced the prima facie standard as the test that must be met by a taxpayer to displace or demolish assumptions pleaded by the Minister. While there may be a different standard applicable in provincial tax appeals in British Columbia, the reaffirmation of the prima facie standard by the Federal Court of Appeal is welcome news in federal tax appeals.

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