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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

Wilson: SCC Overhauls Standard of Review?

Tax professionals who advise clients on judicial review of the CRA’s discretionary decisions should monitor developments in the standard of review in light of the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision in Wilson v Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd (2016 SCC 29).

In Wilson, the appellant was a non-unionized procurement specialist who worked for Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. for four and a half years. He was dismissed in November 2009 and filed an unjust dismissal complaint under the Canada Labour Code. At issue was whether the significant severance package provided to Mr. Wilson rendered the dismissal just.

The labour adjudicator found that a severance payment did not exempt an employer from a determination with respect to whether a dismissal was just. Applying a standard of review of reasonableness, the application judge reversed the decision of the labour adjudicator, finding that the Code permitted the dismissal of non-unionized employees without cause. The Federal Court of Appeal agreed, but held that the appropriate standard of review was one of correctness.

The Supreme Court of Canada allowed the appeal and restored the decision of the labour adjudicator. The Court split 5-3 and issued several sets of reasons in its decision.

On the merits, Justice Abella wrote for the Court that the standard of review with respect to a labour arbitrator was one of reasonableness, to be assessed in the specific context under review. In this case, Justice Abella found the interpretation of the labour adjudicator was reasonable. However, Justice Abella remarked – albeit in obiter – that the line between reasonableness and correctness had begun to blur in the case law. A single standard of reasonableness, she stated, would operate to both protect deference and give effect to one correct answer where the rule of law required it. This would give effect to the different gradations of deference to be given to administrative decision makers in different contexts.

Chief Justice McLachlin and Justices Karakatsanis, Wagner and Gascon concurred with Justice Abella’s reasons and expressed appreciation for her attempt to galvanize constructive conversation about the standard of review. However, they declined to recast the standard of review. Justice Cromwell also concurred in the result, but rejected Justice Abella’s attempt to define a new framework, finding that the correctness/reasonableness distinction that emerged in Dunsmuir was still appropriate.

Justices Cote, Brown and Moldaver dissented. Agreeing with the Federal Court of Appeal, they stated that a standard of correctness applied and that the contradictions inherent in a growing body of labour decisions called for judicial clarity. Specifically, they held that “where there is lingering disagreement on a matter of statutory interpretation between administrative decision-makers, and where it is clear that the legislature could only have intended the statute to bear one meaning, correctness review is appropriate”.

What does Wilson mean for tax litigators? First, even though four members of the Court declined to overhaul the Dunsmuir framework, they lauded Justice Abella’s attempt to refine this area of law. The views expressed in the reasons indicate that the Court may be willing to revisit and clarify Dunsmuir (which also contained three sets of reasons).

Second, to the extent that members of the Court wish to supplant the Dunsmuir test with a single standard of reasonableness (containing gradients of deference), attempts to challenge the CRA’s discretionary decisions could be met with increased difficulty in the future.

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Wilson: SCC Overhauls Standard of Review?

Gordon: CRA May Not Fetter Discretion on Interest Relief Application

In Gordon v Canada (Attorney General) (2016 FC 643), the Federal Court granted the taxpayer’s application for judicial review and reminded the CRA that it may not fetter its discretion when considering applications for interest relief.

The taxpayer, an individual, bought and imported vehicles using the dealer license of Coastal Collision, a local auto dealership. Both parties consulted their respective accountants, who advised the parties that Coastal Collision should collect and remit GST/HST on the auto sales.

Accordingly, in reporting periods from January 1, 2008 to June 30, 2010, Coastal Collision collected and remitted the GST/HST on all the vehicles sold in its arrangement with the taxpayer.

The CRA reassessed the taxpayer and Coastal Collision on the basis that the taxpayer was required to collect and remit GST/HST on the auto sales. The CRA reduced the GST/HST owed by Coastal Collision, and increased the taxpayer’s GST/HST owing to $46,650.84.

On October 27, 2011, the CRA refunded Coastal Collision’s overpayment, at which time the taxpayer paid a portion of his GST/HST owing, and paid the remaining amount on October 31, 2011.

The CRA assessed interest on the GST/HST assessed against the taxpayer.

The taxpayer made an application for interest relief in which he asked for cancellation of all interest accrued since 2008 except for the modest interest accrued from October 27 to 31, 2011, the period after the CRA refunded Coastal Collision and before the taxpayer had paid the full amount owing.

Under subsection 281.1(1) of the Excise Tax Act (see also subsection 220(3.1) of the Income Tax Act), the CRA may waive or cancel interest and penalties that have been assessed against a taxpayer. The CRA has published guidelines that describe the circumstances in which the CRA may grant relief (i.e., natural disasters, illness, emotional/mental distress, CRA delay, inability to pay/financial hardship, etc.) and certain factors to be considered on each application (i.e., taxpayer’s history of compliance, existence of unpaid balance, actions taken to remedy the omission, existence of reasonable care/diligence by taxpayer, etc.) (see the CRA’s guidelines here and here).

In Gordon, the CRA had denied the taxpayer’s request for interest relief on the basis that a “wash transaction” existed in this case (i.e., the GST/HST was collected and remitted by the wrong entity within a closely related group of commercial entities or associated persons), and the provisions of GST/HST Memorandum 16.3.1 “Reduction of Penalty and Interest in Wash Transaction Situations” allowed the waiver/cancellation of only that interest in excess of 4 percent.

On the application for judicial review in the Federal Court, the taxpayer argued that it was unfair to charge interest on payments that were at all times in the possession of the CRA, and the CRA had erred in refusing to grant relief. The Crown argued that the CRA had made no reviewable error in the decision, and moreover the decision was reasonable.

The Federal Court noted that fettering of discretion is always outside the range of acceptable outcomes and if therefore per se unreasonable (Stemijon Investments Ltd. v. Canada (Attorney General), 2011 FCA 299; JP Morgan Asset Management (Canada) Inc. v. M.N.R., 2013 FCA 250). A decision-maker may consider administrative guidelines, but a decision-maker will fetter his/her discretion if they consider the guidelines as binding (Waycobah First Nation v Canada (Attorney General) 2011 FCA 191).

In this case, the Federal Court noted the CRA had treated Memorandum 16.3.1 as binding, and as such the Minister had fettered her discretion. The CRA had failed to give any consideration to the taxpayer’s individual circumstances, including his history of compliance, the fact that GST/HST had been remitted promptly, and the error was not the result of any negligence on the taxpayer’s part (in fact, he had relied on professional advice).

The Federal Court granted the taxpayer’s application for judicial review, set aside the CRA’s decision, and returned the matter to the CRA for redetermination in accordance with the Court’s reasons.

The Gordon case is another reminder from the courts that the CRA’s administrative guidelines, while providing “consistency, transparency and fairness in the decision-making process”, are advisory only and the CRA may not rely on such guidelines in a manner that limits the discretion conferred under the statute.

Taxpayers who encounter such a response from the CRA on an application for interest relief may wish to remind the CRA of this important principle, as it has been the subject of several cases in recent years, and the courts have been clear about the role of such guidelines in the decision-making process.

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Gordon: CRA May Not Fetter Discretion on Interest Relief Application

FC Dismisses JR Application for Delay

A party may bring an application pursuant to section 18.1 of the Federal Courts Act for review of a discretionary decision of a government board, commission or other tribunal.  Generally, the application must be made within 30 days of the decision.

In R & S Industries (2016 FC 275), the Federal Court dismissed a taxpayer’s application for judicial review of a discretionary decision of the CRA because the Court held that the taxpayer had missed the 30-day deadline and no extension of time should be granted.

In R & S, the taxpayer made some errors in a T2059 form in connection with a subsection 97(2) rollover of property to a partnership. The CRA reassessed, and the taxpayer objected.

The CRA Appeals Officer told the taxpayer that an amended T2059 must be filed in order to properly deal with the reassessment.  Accordingly, the taxpayer filed an amended T2059 pursuant to subsection 96(5.1) of the Income Tax Act, which allows a subsection 97(2) rollover election to be amended where “in the opinion of the Minister, the circumstances of a case are such that it would be just and equitable” to permit the taxpayer to amend an election.

A CRA officer (other than the Appeals Officer) denied the application under subsection 96(5.1) and various letters were sent to the taxpayer to that effect.  The Appeals Officer then confirmed the reassessment on the basis that the taxpayer’s request under subsection 96(5.1) had been denied.

When the taxpayer appealed the reassessment to the Tax Court, the Crown alleged that the Tax Court had no jurisdiction to review the CRA’s decision to reject the taxpayer’s application under subsection 96(5.1) to amend the T2059 because it was a discretionary decision of the Minister of National Revenue and not subject to an appeal to the Tax Court.

The taxpayer then commenced a judicial review application in the Federal Court on the basis that the decision under subsection 96(5.1) was both procedurally unfair and unreasonable. The Crown rejected both arguments and further argued that the application was out of time and no extension should be granted.

In dismiss the taxpayer’s application, the Federal Court stated that it was clear that the taxpayer had missed the 30-day deadline because there had been a lengthy delay from the date of the decision (January 31, 2014) to the filing of the application for judicial review (May 19, 2015).

The Federal Court refused to consider the subsequent correspondence between the taxpayer and the CRA as having created a later date on which the decision was communicated.

The Court did not accept the taxpayer’s argument that the character of the decision as an exercise of Ministerial discretion was not conveyed to the taxpayer until sometime after January 2014. Further, the Federal Court noted that the taxpayer had counsel throughout the process, and counsel was knowledgeable about the CRA’s decision-making process. The Court held that the CRA had no obligation to inform the taxpayer of the availability of judicial review of the discretionary decision.

In respect of an extension of time to file the application, the Federal Court held that the taxpayer had failed to establish that (i) it had a continuing intention to pursue the judicial review application, (ii) no prejudice arose to the Minister of National Revenue, (iii) there was a reasonable explanation to the delay, and (iv) there was merit to the application (see Exeter v. Canada, 2011 FCA 253).

Despite having found that the taxpayer was out of time to pursue a judicial review application, the Federal Court considered the taxpayer’s arguments in respect of the merit of the application, and held that the CRA’s decision was neither unfair nor unreasonable.

The appeal in the Tax Court continues. It is still an open question whether or not the Tax Court has jurisdiction to consider the taxpayer’s arguments regarding subsection 96(5.1) in the context of an appeal of the reassessment.

This case is an important reminder to tax professionals that if the CRA communicates a discretionary decision to a taxpayer, the appropriate relief is sometimes in Federal Court rather than Tax Court. Identifying and quickly responding to those discretionary decisions is key to preserving the client’s right to pursue a remedy.

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FC Dismisses JR Application for Delay

Taxpayers’ Ombudsman Addresses CBA Meeting

On January 27, 2016, Sherra Profit, the Taxpayers’ Ombudsman, addressed a meeting of the Canadian Bar Association Tax Section on the subject of assisting taxpayers in resolving their service complaints.

The Office of the Taxpayers’ Ombudsman handles individual complaints from taxpayers where he/she was not able to resolve a service complaint through the CRA’s internal process or if the complaint process hasn’t been tried and there are compelling circumstances for the Ombudsman to review it. Such compelling circumstances could include, for example, situations in which an auditor repeatedly contacts a taxpayer when the taxpayer has asked them to deal with their authorized representative, or unexplained delays by the CRA in processing a refund.

The Ombudsman’s mandate with respect to individual complaints is strictly on the service side, and no technical tax issues will be considered in the investigation.

The Ombudsman also handles systemic investigations in respect of which she reports directly to the Minister of National Revenue. Such investigations have addressed processing delays, or system-wide mistakes (i.e., a large number of individual taxpayers being erroneously classified as deceased in the CRA’s database). These systemic investigations could arise out of recurring complaints, requests from tax professionals, or otherwise.

The Office of the Taxpayers’ Ombudsman operates independent of the CRA and attempts to be impartial and fair in the review of service-related complaints. The Ombudsman is ultimately accountable to the Minister, not the CRA.  All information communicated to the Ombudsman through the complaint process is kept confidential, except to the extent a taxpayer gives consent to its release to assist the investigatory process.

Ms. Sherra also provided a list of tips for tax professionals for assisting their clients with service-related complaints:

  1. Manage the taxpayer’s expectations
  2. Use the CRA Service Complaints Program first, unless compelling circumstances exist
  3. Provide a signed consent to authorize a representative
  4. Submit detailed information

Contact information, if a complaint is contemplated, can be found on the Ombudsman’s website.

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Taxpayers’ Ombudsman Addresses CBA Meeting

Tax Court: CRA Employee May Not Testify as Expert

In HLP Solution Inc. v. The Queen (2015 TCC 41 ) the Tax Court held that a CRA employee lacked the necessary impartiality to testify as an expert witness because of her prior involvement in auditing the taxpayer.

Background

The taxpayer was a software company that claimed Scientific Research and Experimental Development (SR&ED) tax credits for the 2009 taxation year. The CRA reassessed to deny the SR&ED credit claims.

In the Tax Court, the taxpayer challenged the qualification of the CRA’s expert witness on the basis that she did not have the necessary impartiality to testify as an expert witness in the appeal. The Tax Court held a voir dire to determine whether the Crown’s proposed expert witness could testify in the appeal.

The proposed expert witness held a doctorate in computer science and was employed with the CRA as a Research and Technology Advisor (RTA). The taxpayer’s allegation of impartiality was not based on the fact that the proposed expert witness was employed with the CRA. Rather, the taxpayer argued that it was the proposed expert witness’s involvement in every stage of the file that impugned her impartiality.

The Crown submitted that it is rare for a court to refuse to hear the testimony of an expert witness, and that there must be clear evidence of bias, which, according to the Crown, was not present in this case. Moreover, the Crown submitted that it was in the capacity as an expert that the opinion was given, irrespective of whether this occurred at the audit stage, objection stage, or during appeal.

Analysis

In analyzing whether to admit the evidence by the Crown’s witness, the Tax Court reviewed the leading case on the admission of expert evidence, the Supreme Court of Canada decision R. v. Mohan ([1994] 2 SCR 9), in which the Court set out the criteria for determining whether expert evidence should be admitted, namely: relevance, necessity in assisting the trier of fact, the absence of an exclusionary rule, and a properly qualified expert.

In Mohan, the Supreme Court established that the question of relevancy is a threshold requirement for the admission of expert evidence and a matter to be decided by the judge as a question of law. There must first be logical relevance in order for the evidence to be admitted. The judge must then perform a cost-benefit analysis to determine whether the value of the testimony is worth the costs, in the sense of its impact on the trial process.

The Tax Court also reviewed R. v. Abbey (2009 ONCA 624), in which the Ontario Court of Appeal applied Mohan but also distinguished between the preconditions to admissibility and the judge’s role as a gatekeeper. The Ontario Court of Appeal noted that while the inquiry into the preconditions to admissibility is a rules-based analysis that tends to yield “yes” or “no” answers, the gatekeeper function does not involve the application of bright line rules and frequently requires the exercise of judicial discretion. The gatekeeper function is more subtle and involves weighing the benefits of the probative value of the evidence against the prejudice associated with admitting the evidence.

In HLP, the Tax Court held that it was preferable to disqualify the expert at the qualification stage. The Court based its conclusions on many of the taxpayer’s allegations, including the following:

  • the proposed expert witness was involved with the audit and objection;
  • the proposed expert witness delivered the opinion (the technical review report) that served as the basis for the assessment;
  • following the taxpayer’s representations, the proposed expert witness also wrote an addendum to the technical review report in which she maintained the same position;
  • the proposed expert witness participated in every meeting with the taxpayer as the CRA’s representative;
  • the proposed expert witness confused her role as an RTA with that as an expert witness; and
  • the proposed expert witness reproduced word-for-word paragraphs from her technical review report.

The Tax Court was careful to note that it was not disqualifying the expert on the basis of her employment with the CRA but rather on the basis of her close involvement throughout the audit and objection stages of the file.

The Tax Court allowed the Crown to submit a new expert report.

The Tax Court’s decision in HLP will have a direct impact on future cases in which proposed expert witnesses were involved in the audit and objection processes as CRA employees. Such employees – though they may have the required professional qualifications to testify as an expert witness – cannot be qualified as expert witnesses because they lack the necessary impartiality to testify.

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Tax Court: CRA Employee May Not Testify as Expert

McNally: CRA Does Not Have Unfettered Discretion to Delay Assessment

In McNally v. Canada (National Revenue) (2015 FC 767), the taxpayer brought an application to the Federal Court for an order requiring the Minister to assess his tax return. The Federal Court allowed the taxpayer’s application and ordered the Minister to examine the taxpayer’s tax return and issue a Notice of Assessment within 30 days.

Background

The taxpayer invested funds in a gifting tax shelter in respect of which he claimed a number of deductions.

The taxpayer filed his 2012 federal income tax return in April 2013. Two months later – in June 2013 – he received a letter stating that his return had not been assessed because the CRA was undertaking an audit of the gifting tax shelter program. In July 2013, the taxpayer filed an application for judicial review of the CRA’s decision not to assess his return. Two years later, the taxpayer’s 2012 return still had not been assessed.

Arguments

Under subsection 152(1) of the Income Tax Act, the CRA shall examine a taxpayer’s return of income and assess the tax for that taxation year “with all due dispatch.”

The taxpayer argued that the CRA was deliberately delaying the assessment for the improper purpose of discouraging participation in gifting tax shelters. The court noted that, in the CRA’s view, widely-marketed tax shelters are generally invalid. In this case, the CRA admitted that it chose not to assess the tax returns of participants in the gifting tax shelters in order to discourage participation in such investments, to undertake an audit the tax shelter, and to educate the public about gifting tax shelters.

The CRA admitted that the main reason the taxpayer’s return was not reassessed was to discourage participation in gifting tax shelters. The CRA submitted that this motive did not conflict with its duty under subsection 152(1) of the Act.

Analysis

In allowing the application, Justice Harrington of the Federal Court followed the decision in Ficek v Canada (Attorney General) (2013 FC 502) in which the Court held that the Minister had failed to assess the taxpayer’s return “with all due dispatch.”

In Ficek, a delay in examining the taxpayer’s return arose from a new policy of discouraging certain types of tax shelter investments. In Ficek, the court acknowledged that the CRA has discretion in assessing taxpayers but noted “…the discretion is not unfettered, it must be reasonable and for a proper purpose of ascertaining and fixing the liability of the taxpayer” (para. 21). Importantly, the Court held that there should be some certainty to the taxpayer’s financial affairs (para. 34).

In McNally, Justice Harrington followed this reasoning. He held that the phrase “with all due dispatch” does not imply a specific time period before which the Minister must make an assessment. However, he found that while the Minister has discretion, it is not unfettered. The determination of whether the Minister has examined a taxpayer’s return “with all due dispatch” is a question of fact.

The Federal Court ultimately determined that the Minister had failed to assess the taxpayer’s tax return “with all due dispatch.”  The court held:

[41] … Although the Minister is responsible for administrating the Income Tax Act, ultimately it falls upon the courts to decide whether a claimed deduction is valid or not. It is plain and obvious that Mr. McNally’s rights have been trampled upon for extraneous purposes.

[42] The Minister owes Mr. McNally a statutory duty to examine his return “with all due dispatch.” There may well be circumstances in which it will take some time to reach a conclusion with respect to a given return. It may well be appropriate to await the audit of third parties. However this is not one of those cases.

[43] The CRA is entitled to express concerns with respect to certain shelters and to warn that such shelters will be audited. In Mr. McNally’s case, however, the resulting delay is capricious and cannot be allowed to stand. Even assuming these secondary purposes to be valid, they are overwhelmed by the primary main purpose and cannot save the day.

Interestingly, McNally goes a step further than the Court in Ficek, in which the Court had simply declared that the CRA had failed to assess with all due dispatch. McNally is a good example of the Federal Court exercising its judicial review authority to compel the CRA to carry out its statutory duty. This does not assure the taxpayer that he is entitled to his charitable donation claims, but at least he will be able to commence a challenge of the disallowance of the claims.

While the McNally decision does not go so far as to tell us what “with all due dispatch” means, the decision is the second important reminder that the CRA’s discretion in assessing taxpayers, while broad, is not unfettered.

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McNally: CRA Does Not Have Unfettered Discretion to Delay Assessment

BP Canada: CRA Entitled to Tax Accrual Working Papers

In BP Canada Energy Company v. Minister of National Revenue (2015 FC 714), the Minister brought an application pursuant to subsection 231.7(1) of the Income Tax Act (Canada) (the “Act”) before the Federal Court of Canada.

The Minister sought a compliance order requiring BP Canada to provide tax accrual working papers prepared by BP Canada’s own employees which were requested by the Canada Revenue Agency (“CRA”) during its audit pursuant to subsection 231.1(1) of the Act.

The Federal Court allowed the application and granted the compliance order.

Background

Under subsection 230(1) of the Act, a taxpayer must keep books and records in such form and containing such information as will enable the taxes payable under the Act to be determined.

Under sections 231.1 to 231.7, the CRA may request and a taxpayer may be required to produce such book and records. Additionally, the CRA has routinely made broad requests for tax accrual working papers.

Taxpayers are generally reluctant to produce tax accrual working papers to tax auditors because these documents could provide a roadmap of the taxpayer’s tax positions, an estimate potential exposure for tax, and an outline the possible assessing position the tax authorities may take. Moreover, these documents are required to be prepared pursuant to securities regulations and accounting standards rather than pursuant to the Act or for the determination of taxes payable.

In “Acquiring Information from Taxpayers, Registrants and Third Parties” the CRA stated that it will follow a policy of restraint in requesting tax accrual working papers during its regular income tax audits – namely, that it would only request them if a proper examination could not be carried out without access to those files.

In BP Canada, the CRA explicitly stated that it sought to obtain BP’s tax accrual working papers to assist the CRA in expediting its audit not only for the years for which the tax accrual working papers were prepared but also for subsequent tax years – thus implying that the documents were not required for the audit but were simply helpful as a matter of convenience for the auditor.

Arguments

BP Canada submitted that tax accrual working papers are subjective opinions regarding tax filing positions and are not required to establish the tax payable under the Act and therefore do not qualify as books and records that are required to be provided to support a tax filing position.

Moreover, BP Canada submitted that, even if the statutory requirements for a compliance order are met, the Federal Court must justify the exercise of its discretion to grant the order.

In this case, BP Canada argued that such discretion could not be justified because it would constitute a compulsory self-audit by the taxpayer and would violate the Minister’s own policy not requiring such documents to be produced.

Decision

In granting the compliance order, the Federal Court found while the Minister may not need the tax accrual working papers to complete an audit, if the Minister wants them, she should have them.  The Federal Court did not accept BP’s “roadmap” argument and put weight on the fact that the tax accrual working papers are already prepared and thus no additional work would be required by the taxpayer.

The Federal Court also stated even though the Act does not require these types of documents be retained, if they are maintained for another reason they can be requested by the Minister.

Finally, the Federal Court relied on the Federal Court of Appeal case Tower v. MNR (2003 FCA 307) in finding that tax accrual working papers do fit within the scope of subsection 231.1(1) which provides that the CRA may request “the books and records of a taxpayer and any document of the taxpayer or of any other person that relates or may relate to the information that is or should be in the books or records of the taxpayer or to any amount payable by the taxpayer under this Act”.

The Federal Court endorsed the Minister’s audit approach in this case, stating that the Minister’s request for tax accrual working papers is not part of a fishing expedition if the Minister knows that she wants a clear roadmap to be used for current and future audits (see para. 38) (we note, however, that the decision does not consider whether a clear sign of a fishing expedition may be a broad request by the CRA for a roadmap of the taxpayer’s tax considerations).

The decision in BP Canada clearly outlines the Federal Court’s opinion that tax accrual working papers should be produced when requested pursuant to section 231.1 of the Act. The decision serves as an important reminder that taxpayers should be cautious in preparing and maintaining tax accrual working papers.

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BP Canada: CRA Entitled to Tax Accrual Working Papers

ConocoPhillips: FCA Confirms Tax Court’s Jurisdiction to Determine Questions of Timing and the Validity of a Notice of Objection

In ConocoPhillips Canada Resources Corp. v. The Queen (2014 FCA 297), the Federal Court of Appeal overturned a Federal Court decision (2013 FC 1192) and dismissed an application for judicial review by the taxpayer finding that the Federal Court lacked jurisdiction in this case.

ConocoPhillips had commenced an application for judicial review as a result of a dispute between the CRA about whether a Notice of Reassessment had been validly sent to the taxpayer.  The CRA alleged that it mailed a Notice of Reassessment on November 7, 2008. ConocoPhillips alleged that it never received the Notice of Reassessment and that it first learned of the reassessment on April 14, 2010.

Accordingly, when ConocoPhillips filed a Notice of Objection on June 7, 2010, the CRA advised that it would not consider the objection on the grounds that it was not filed within 90 days of the alleged mailing date (i.e., November 7, 2008) and that no request for an extension of time was made within the year following the alleged mailing date of the reassessment.

The Federal Court considered the question of jurisdiction and found that it had jurisdiction because the Court was not being asked to consider the validity of the reassessment (which can only be determined by the Tax Court of Canada) but rather, was only being asked to review the CRA’s decision not to consider the objection.

Based on the standard of reasonableness, the Federal Court found in favour of ConocoPhillips on the basis that the CRA had not sufficiently engaged the evidence to appropriately render an opinion whether or not the reassessment was mailed on the alleged date. The Court set aside that decision.

The Crown appealed to the Federal Court of Appeal on the basis that the Federal Court lacked jurisdiction on this issue.  The Federal Court of Appeal allowed the appeal.

Section 18.5 of the Federal Courts Act provides that judicial review in the Federal Court is not available where, inter alia, an appeal is permitted on the issue before the Tax Court of Canada.  In the present case, the Federal Court of Appeal stated that, pursuant to subsection 169(1)(b) of the Income Tax Act (Canada), ConocoPhillips could have appealed to the Tax Court after 90 days had elapsed following the date its objection was initially filed and the Tax Court would have been the correct forum to determine if, or when, the Notice of Reassessment was mailed and when the time for filing a Notice of Objection expired.

The Federal Court of Appeal clarified that the Minister’s obligation to consider a Notice of Objection is triggered regardless of whether a Notice of Objection may have been filed within the required time-frame. Further, the Minister’s decision on this issue is not an impediment to filing an appeal to the Tax Court pursuant to paragraph 169(1)(b) of the Income Tax Act (Canada). Accordingly, judicial review of this issue was not available in the Federal Court.

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ConocoPhillips: FCA Confirms Tax Court’s Jurisdiction to Determine Questions of Timing and the Validity of a Notice of Objection

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