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Supreme Court of Canada: Rectification is Alive and Well in Quebec

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Earlier today, the Supreme Court of Canada delivered its decision in two Quebec rectification cases, Agence du Revenu du Quebec v. Services Environnementaux AES Inc. and Agence du Revenu du Quebec v. Jean Riopel. In a unanimous decision rendered by Mr. Justice LeBel (the only civil law judge on the panel) the Court upheld the decisions of the Quebec Court of Appeal in these two cases, permitting the parties to correct mistakes which resulted in unintended tax consequences. However, the reasons set out in Mr. Justice LeBel’s decision differ in part from the decisions of the Quebec Court of Appeal.

By way of background, Canada has a bijuridical legal system. The French civil law is the law in Quebec relating to civil matters while the law in the rest of Canada is based on the English common law. In these two cases, the issue related to whether rectification (which is a concept under the common law) can also be applied under Quebec civil law. It should be noted that the term “rectification” is not used in the reasons for judgment in either of the two appeals.

After going through the facts of each case and the decisions of the lower courts (see our previous posts on these cases here and here) Mr. Justice LeBel stated that the dispute between the taxpayers and the Quebec tax authority raises both procedural and substantive issues. He then went on to state that the substantive issue of whether proceedings to amend documents are permitted under Quebec’s civil law is the main issue and that the procedural issues are of only minor importance.

Mr. Justice LeBel noted that there was uncontested evidence establishing the nature of the taxpayers’ intention in each case and that under the civil law, in most cases a contract is based on the common intention of the parties and not on the written document. In this case, it was clear that the taxpayers’ intention was not properly documented because of the errors made by the taxpayers’ advisors. Accordingly, the taxpayers could rescind the contract or amend the documents to implement their intentions. In this case, the taxpayers had agreed to correct the documents so that the documents were consistent with their intentions.

The issue that then arises is to how such correction affects the tax authorities. Mr. Justice LeBel notes that in this case, there is an interplay of civil law and tax law and he makes the important point that the tax authorities generally do not acquire rights to have an erroneous written document continue to apply for their benefit where an error has been established and the documents are inconsistent with the taxpayer’s true intention.

Mr. Justice LeBel held that the parties in these two cases could amend the written documents because there was no dispute as to the intention of the parties and that it is open to the court to intervene to declare that the amendments to the documents made by the taxpayers were legitimate and necessary to reflect their intentions. He goes on to state that if a document includes an error, particularly one that can be attributed to an error by the taxpayer’s professional advisor, the court must, once the error is proved in accordance with the rules of evidence, note the error and ensure that it is remedied. In addition, the tax authorities do not have any acquired rights to benefit from an error made by the taxpayers in their documents after the taxpayers have corrected the error by mutual consent to reflect their intentions.

However, Mr. Justice LeBel warns taxpayers not to view this recognition of the parties’ common intention as an invitation to engage in bold tax planning on the assumption that it will always be possible for taxpayers to redo their contracts retroactively should the planning fail.

In the cases under appeal, the taxpayers amended the written documents to give effect to their common intention. This intention had clearly been established and related to obligations whose objects were determinative or determinable. Accordingly, the taxpayers’ amendments to the written documents were permitted.

Interestingly, the Attorney General of Canada, who intervened in the appeals, asked the court to consider and reject a line of authority that has developed since the Ontario Court of Appeal‘s decision in Attorney General of Canada v. Juliar, 2000 DTC 6589 (Ont. C.A.). Juliar is recognized as the leading case in rectification matters and has been the basis of numerous successful rectification applications in respect of tax matters in the common law provinces of Canada. Mr. Justice LeBel stated that the two cases under appeal are governed by Quebec civil law and it is not appropriate for the court to reconsider the common law remedy of rectification in connection with these appeals. Accordingly, Mr. Justice LeBel refrains from criticising, approving or commenting on the application of Juliar and rectification under the common law.

It is also interesting to note that in Juliar the CRA sought leave to appeal the decision of the Ontario Court of Appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada and that leave was denied. We will have to wait to see if the CRA attempts to take another case to the Supreme Court of Canada to determine the applicability of Juliar and rectification under the common law. However, it is now clear that Quebec taxpayers can now “fix” most tax mistakes if they can prove that their intention was to undertake a transaction which does not result in tax and the transaction does not involve “bold tax planning”.