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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

Federal Court decides that JP Morgan’s judicial review application challenging the Minister’s decision to assess Part XIII tax may proceed

In a decision released on November 26, 2012 in JP Morgan Asset Management (Canada) Inc. v. Minister of National Revenue and Canada Revenue Agency (Docket T-1278-11), Justice Leonard Mandamin of the Federal Court dismissed the Crown’s appeal of an order by Prothonotary Aalto in JP Morgan Asset Management (Canada) Inc. v. Minister of National Revenue and Canada Revenue Agency in which the Crown moved unsuccessfully to strike out a judicial review application on the basis that the taxpayer had no possibility of success in seeking to set aside the decision of the Minister of National Revenue (the “Minister”) to assess Part XIII tax in a manner contrary to the Minister’s own policy.

This decision is the latest in a series of defeats for the Crown on this issue.  Since the decision of the Supreme Court of Canada in Canada v. Addison & Leyen Ltd., [2007] 2 S.C.R. 793, there has been a vigorous debate around the limits of judicial review of Ministerial action involving the decision to issue an assessment and the scope of section 18.5 of the Federal Courts Act which reads as follows:

Despite sections 18 and 18.1, if an Act of Parliament expressly provides for an appeal to the Federal Court, the Federal Court of Appeal, the Supreme Court of Canada, the Court Martial Appeal Court, the Tax Court of Canada, the Governor in Council or the Treasury Board from a decision or an order of a federal board, commission or other tribunal made by or in the course of proceedings before that board, commission or tribunal, that decision or order is not, to the extent that it may be so appealed, subject to review or to be restrained, prohibited, removed, set aside or otherwise dealt with, except in accordance with that Act.

The Minister has consistently intepreted the decision of the Supreme Court in Addison & Leyen and section 18.5 of the Federal Courts Act as precluding judicial review of the Minister’s decision to issue an assessment.  Thus far, however, the Crown has been largely unsuccessful in striking out such judicial review applications in Federal Court.  See, for example, the decision of Prothonotary Aalto in Chrysler Canada Inc. v. Canada and the decision of Justice Hughes on appeal in Chrysler Canada Inc. v. Canada.

By way of background, the Minister assessed Part XIII tax against JP Morgan in respect of fees it had paid to non-resident affiliates between 2002 and 2008.  JP Morgan applied for judicial review of the Minister’s decision to assess it for amounts payable under Part XIII of the Income Tax Act.  In particular, JP Morgan alleged that in exercising discretion to assess for years other than the current year and the two immediately preceding years

. . . CRA did not consider, or sufficiently consider, CRA’s own policies, guidelines, bulletins, internal communiqués and practices which would otherwise have limited assessments to the current tax year and the two (2) immediately preceding years.  CRA thus acted arbitrarily, unfairly, contrary to the rules of natural justice and in a manner inconsistent with CRA’s treatment of other tax payers.

The Crown moved to strike the application for judicial review, relying on section 18.5 of the Federal Courts Act.  Citing his earlier decision in Chrysler Canada, the Prothonotary dismissed the Crown’s motion.  He held that JP Morgan’s judicial review application dealt with:

. . . the discretion to assess as described in various policies of CRA.  That decision to apparently depart from policies and assess is subject to judicial review and is the type of situation that is contemplated by Addison & Leyen.  The ITA provides that the Minister “may” assess not “shall” assess which connotes a discretionary decision.  The decision of the Minister to apparently depart from policies is not otherwise reviewable [by the Tax Court of Canada] and therefore is subject to judicial review.

Consistent with his earlier decision in Chrysler Canada, the Prothonotary held that “JP Morgan only seeks judicial review of the decision to reassess which is alleged to be contrary to policies of CRA which were in place.  No attack on the reassessments is in play.” In his view, the case was about the Minister’s discretion to assess, not the assessments themselves.

Justice Mandamin dismissed the Crown’s appeal of the Prothonotary’s decision as he did not find that the Prothonotary’s Order was clearly wrong in that the exercise of discretion was based upon a wrong principle or a misapprehension of the facts and there was no improper exercise of discretion on a question vital to the case arising with the Prothonotary’s dismissal of the Crown’s motion to strike.

It is not yet known whether the Crown will appeal the decision of Justice Mandamin in JP Morgan, but it would not be surprising in light of the fact that several Crown motions to strike such judicial review applications are currently before the Federal Court.

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Federal Court decides that JP Morgan’s judicial review application challenging the Minister’s decision to assess Part XIII tax may proceed

Federal Court Calls CRA’s Reasons “Inadequate” on Denial of Fairness Request

On October 21, 2011, the Federal Court (Justice Sandra Simpson) released her decision on an application for judicial review in Dolores Sherry v. The Minister of National Revenue. The applicant requested judicial review pursuant to section 18.1 of the Federal Courts Act of a decision of the Canada Revenue Agency (“CRA”) in which the CRA refused to cancel or waive interest and penalties related to the applicant’s taxes for 1989 to 2000. The decision is important because the Federal Court held that the reasons provided to the applicant by the CRA were inadequate.

The applicant had sought judicial review of the refusal by the CRA and on October 25, 2005, the Minister commenced a review of the applicant’s file in accordance with the terms of an order by Justice Heneghan on April 25, 2005. Justice Heneghan made an order on consent referring the matter to the Minister for redetermination. Upon completing its redetermination, the CRA told the applicant that it declined to reduce the interest charged to the applicant from 1989 to 2000 for the following reasons:

In reviewing your financial circumstances, we conducted a cash flow analysis to determine your ability to meet your tax obligations from 1989 to 2000. In conducting this analysis we have applied the direction in the Court Order and excluded the $100,000 you reported as taxable capital gain in our cash flow analysis and included your rental loses for years 1989 to 1994 as cash outflow. Our cash flow analysis shows that your net cash flow (funds received less expenses paid during the applicable years) was sufficient to meet your tax obligations from 1989 to 2000, except for the negative cash flow years 1991, 1992, and 1993. However, we considered the fact that you had significant equity in properties that you owned during the years 1991 to 2000 and could use this equity to meet your tax obligations and to cover the negative cash flows. Therefore, your request for interest relief under financial hardship is denied.

Justice Simpson held that those reasons were inadequate as CRA “extrapolated” from her income and expenses in 2001 a cash flow summary for the years 1989 to 2000 and CRA relied, in part, on its own appraised value of the applicant’s properties when it considered whether she had equity in her real estate holdings.

Justice Simpson concluded that although the CRA’s decision, as originally communicated to the applicant, did not offer adequate reasons, a more detailed “Fairness Report” prepared by the CRA did provide an adequate explanation. Although, by the time of the hearing, the applicant had a copy of the “Fairness Report”, she was not given a copy when the CRA first told her about its decision. Therefore, the application for judicial review was allowed.

As the applicant was required to initiate a judicial review application before she received the “Fairness Report”, the Court granted her costs for the preparation of the application. Once the “Fairness Report” was secured by the applicant, the only issue on which the applicant was successful was resolved and therefore, no relief beyond the cost award was granted.

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Federal Court Calls CRA’s Reasons “Inadequate” on Denial of Fairness Request