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.