On June 12, 2013, the Federal Court of Appeal released its decision in Canada v. Guindon (2013 FCA 153).
The court was tasked with examining the nature of advisor penalties, which are sanctions imposed under s. 163.2 of the Income Tax Act on tax planners engaged in “culpable conduct”. At first instance, the Tax Court of Canada (2012 TCC 287) had set aside one such penalty assessed against Ms. Guindon, holding that s. 163.2 created an “offence” within the meaning of s. 11 of the Charter. Consequently, according to the Tax Court, persons assessed under the provision were entitled to s. 11 protections, which apply to persons “charged with an offence”, and include fundamental principles applicable to criminal prosecutions such as the right to be presumed innocent, and the right to be tried within a reasonable time.
The key portion of s. 163.2 reads as follows, and it is easy to see how the Tax Court drew its particular interpretation:
(4) Every person who makes or furnishes, participates in the making of or causes another person to make or furnish a statement that the person knows, or would reasonably be expected to know but for circumstances amounting to culpable conduct, is a false statement that could be used by another person (in subsections (6) and (15) referred to as the “other person”) for a purpose of this Act is liable to a penalty in respect of the false statement.
The Federal Court of Appeal reversed the Tax Court’s ruling, first on the basis that Ms. Guindon had not followed the proper process in challenging s. 163.2, by failing to provide notice of a constitutional question, and so the Tax Court lacked the jurisdiction to make the order it did. However, the Federal Court of Appeal considered the merits of the issue in any event, and held that advisor penalty proceedings are not criminal in nature and do not impose “true penal consequences.”
The Federal Court of Appeal applied the test set down by the Supreme Court of Canada in R. v. Wigglesworth ( 2 S.C.R. 541), which dictates that a provision will engage s. 11 Charter protections if (1) the matter is “by its very nature, intended to promote public order and welfare within a public sphere of activity” rather than being “of an administrative nature instituted for the protection of the public in accordance with the policy of a statute”; or (2) the provision exposes persons to the possibility of a “true penal consequence” such as imprisonment or a fine meant to redress wrong done to society.
The Federal Court of Appeal viewed advisor penalties for the provision of false information as an aspect of the self-compliance that is fundamental to the administration of the tax system. The penalties were not to condemn morally blameworthy conduct, but to ensure that the tax system works properly by maintaining discipline and compliance. Section 163.2 is also, the court observed, distinguishable from the clear offence provisions in the Income Tax Act because it contains only fixed sanctions rather than a range of penalties that allow for the exercise of judicial discretion in sentencing an offender.
The court also rejected Ms. Guindon’s argument that the sheer size of the penalty – in her case a fine of $564,747 – demonstrates the criminal nature of the sanctions, pointing to an array of cases in which very severe penalties were held to be administrative in nature. “Sometimes”, the court commented, “administrative penalties must be large in order to deter conduct detrimental to the administrative scheme and the policies furthered by it.”
If you have difficulty comprehending the distinctions that the Wigglesworth test draws between administrative and criminal provisions, you are not alone. The Federal Court of Appeal acknowledged that the line drawn by the test is “sometimes a fuzzy one”.
That is an understatement. At a time when substantial penalties can be leveled under provisions that appear to be aimed at protecting a public interest (such as the fair and proper administration of the tax system) by deterring culpable conduct, the Wigglesworth test is becoming increasingly difficult to apply. The difficulty is not limited to the sphere of tax law. Just one year ago, in Rowan v. Ontario Securities Commission (2012 ONCA 208), the Court of Appeal for Ontario had to apply the test to administrative monetary penalties (“AMPs”) under the Ontario Securities Act, which carry a maximum fine of $1,000,000. The court held that the specific fines at issue in that case were administrative rather than penal, but held also that s. 11(d) of the Charter limited the authority of the Securities Commission to impose AMPs that did not transgress the barrier from administrative to criminal. In other words, presumably, an overly severe AMP could, in the context of another case, indicate that the Commission had overstepped its regulatory mandate by imposing a truly penal consequence.
Rowan, then, demonstrates the difficulty and unpredictability of determining, under Wigglesworth, whether a specific sanction is penal or administrative. Guindon presents a related, but distinct practical problem: there exist provisions, such as s. 163.2 of the Income Tax Act, which can be described fairly as both intending to promote public order and welfare within a public sphere of activity (a criminal purpose) and intending to protect the public in respect of a policy of a statute (an administrative purpose). While advisor penalties clearly contemplate the promotion of tax policy objectives, they are equally concerned with persons who, through intentional conduct or willful blindness furnish false statements that are contrary to an important public interest. There is real concern raised by this case that a court can easily, using the language of Wigglesworth, justify opposite results. At the cost of certainty and predictability – important principles when constitutional protections are at stake – there is just too much ‘wiggle room’.
The narrow implication of Guindon is that unless the Supreme Court of Canada is called upon and reverses the result, the CRA will not have to govern itself by traditional criminal law standards in assigning culpability and sanctions for advisors. This could well have a chilling effect on the tax planning community. Speaking more broadly however, because advisor penalties straddle the “fuzzy” line between criminal and administrative law, Guindon is an ideal case for the Supreme Court of Canada to confront the practical unworkabilities of the Wigglesworth test.
We are honoured to have one of Canada’s leading criminal defence counsel, Brian Heller of Heller Rubel, as the author (with the valued assistance of Graham Jenner).