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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?

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

Foreign-based Requirement Under Section 231.6 of the Income Tax Act Upheld by the Federal Court

The Canada Revenue Agency had an important win this week in its efforts to access information outside of Canada.  On March 20, 2013, the Federal Court issued its decision in Soft-Moc Inc. v. M.N.R.  2013 FC 291, dismissing Soft-Moc’s judicial review application to have the CRA’s decision to issue a Foreign-Based Information Requirement set aside or varied.

The CRA has broad powers to access information related to the determination of a taxpayer’s tax obligations.  Under subsection 231.6 of the Income Tax Act, these powers include the issuance of a Foreign-Based Information Requirement to obtain information or documents located outside of Canada.

In Soft-Moc, the CRA was conducting a transfer pricing audit and sought information from corporations in the Bahamas who provided services to Soft-Moc.  These corporations and their individual Bahamian resident shareholder owned 90% of the common shares of Soft-Moc.  The CRA issued a Foreign-Based Information Requirement to Soft-Moc under subsection 231.6(2) of the Income Tax Act.

The Requirement requested substantial amounts of information related to the Bahamas Corporations including extensive details of the services provided, customers, financial statements, costs and profits and employee data.  Soft-Moc applied for judicial review of the decision to issue the requirement.

Primarily, Soft-Moc argued that the information requested went well beyond that necessary to enable the CRA to complete the transfer pricing audit and that the decision to issue the requirement was, therefore, unreasonable.  Soft-Moc argued that a portion of the information requested was irrelevant and that some portions were confidential or proprietary.

The Court was not sympathetic to Soft-Moc’s arguments, noting the wide-ranging statutory powers of the CRA to collect information and the low threshold to be met in determining whether the requested information is relevant and reasonable.

This win, which was not surprising in light of the Federal Court of Appeal’s earlier decision in Saipem Luxembourg S.A. v. The Canada Customs and Revenue Agency, 2005 FCA 218, will encourage the CRA to continue to use foreign-based requirements more frequently and earlier in the audit process.

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Foreign-based Requirement Under Section 231.6 of the Income Tax Act Upheld by the Federal Court

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