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.