Under certain circumstances, Canadians are obliged to provide books, records, documents and information to government agencies, such as the Canada Revenue Agency ("CRA"). This article briefly discusses the CRA's reciprocal obligations to provide confidential documents in its records to taxpayers and their advisors.
The easiest way to get copies of documents and information from the CRA is to simply ask. However, taxpayer information may be obtained by filing formal requests under either the Access to Information Act ("ATIA") or the Privacy Act. As a matter of practice, we will initiate a request under one of these two statutes for virtually every tax dispute matter we are retained to resolve. When a dispute arises between an organization or individual and the CRA, it is extremely helpful to have access to the relevant contents of the government's file as early as possible. The earlier and wider the disclosure the better, since the documents and information in the government's file allow for an evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of the government's position and a formulation of strategy. We generally request copies of auditor's and appeals officer's reports and working papers, notes from meetings and conversations between CRA personnel and with third parties, information and documents provided by third parties and by the taxpayer, CRA internal memoranda and technical interpretations and so on. We usually find very helpful documents in the materials provided by the CRA, sometimes leading to the successful resolution of a tax dispute.
The CRA can also refuse to fulfill certain requests and/or delay fulfilling requests for documents and information in particular circumstances. If the CRA is unable to fulfill requests on a timely basis, the CRA may grant itself an extension of time to comply. Typically, the stated reason for the extension is that fulfilling the request would "unreasonably interfere" with the operation of a government agency. The rationale for refusing to disclose CRA documents is not always clear. For example, in Coastal Resources v. M.N.R., 1 the taxpayer spent one and a half years trying to obtain a non-redacted document that was requested under the ATIA. On cross-examination, the CRA's delegate was unable to satisfactorily explain why the CRA refused to provide the requested document. As a result, the Federal Court held that the CRA's decision to refuse to release the non-redacted document was unreasonable and ordered the CRA to produce it.
Regardless of the occasional hurdle encountered in attempting to obtain access to the CRA's records pertaining to a client, we highly recommend making a formal request for CRA documents and information in virtually every case.