At the heart of tax integration in Canada is the refundable tax and dividend refund mechanism in subsection 129(1) of the Income Tax Act (the “Act”).

Generally, to avoid undue deferral of tax on investment income earned through a “Canadian-controlled private corporation”, such corporations must pay refundable tax on investment income (either under Part I or Part IV of the Act), which effectively brings the corporate tax rate on such income to the same rate had the income been earned directly by the Canadian shareholder.

In order to ensure that such income once distributed to an individual shareholder is not subject to double taxation, the Act provides that taxable dividends paid by a private corporation entitle the corporation to a refund of the lesser of 1/3rd of the taxable dividends paid and the balance of the corporation’s “refundable dividend tax on hand” (“RDTOH”) account. Importantly, the Act imposes a strict deadline for obtaining the refund: the return for the year in which the refund is claimed must be filed within three years of the end of the year in which the dividend is paid.

Despite this seemingly clear-cut limitation period, a number of taxpayers over the years have turned to the courts to seek what amounts to a judicial extension of the filing deadline. 1057513 Ontario Inc. v. The Queen(2014 TCC 272) is the latest in a line of recent decisions considering whether the three-year refund limitation period is absolute.

In 1057513, the taxpayer declared and paid dividends to its shareholder in the 1997-2004 tax years. The taxpayer’s director and officer was unaware that a personal holding corporation had an obligation to file a tax return in the years in question. Upon the filing of the tax returns in 2008, the CRA assessed Part IV dividend tax (and interest and penalties) and denied the dividend refund claim.

On appeal, the taxpayer made three arguments: (i) the language in subsection 129(1) was ambiguous (or “at least not unambiguous”), (ii) a textual, contextual and purposive (“TCP”) analysis of the provision reveals latent ambiguities which should allow for a late refund, and (iii) the filing deadline is directory, not mandatory, meaning that not filing the return on time is not fatal to the refund claim.

Not surprisingly, the Tax Court dismissed the appeal. Relying on Tawa Developments Inc. v. The Queen (2011 TCC 440) and other relevant decisions, the Tax Court determined that there was nothing textually unambiguous about the requirement to file a return within three years, finding the statutory language to be “strikingly lucid and abundantly clear”.

Under the TCP argument, the taxpayer argued that the Court should read out the deadline because it was “antipodal” to the integration principal. The Court disagreed, and concluded that the rule was necessary in the context and for the purpose of achieving an effective self-assessing system. Finally, the Court was not swayed by the taxpayer’s argument that a filing deadline without a penalty is directory and not mandatory. The Court noted that while there may be no penalty per se, there was certainly a consequence of the failure to file – that being the inability to access the dividend refund.

It seems clear from the jurisprudence to date that the three-year filing deadline for obtaining a dividend refund under subsection 129(1) is absolute. Taxpayers and their advisors are encouraged to file returns as soon as possible to avoid the potential punitive double-taxation.