Taxpayer Interest And Penalty Relief: How Can A Taxpayer Get Some Relief?

Canadian taxpayers are entitled to apply to the Canada Revenue Agency for taxpayer relief of penalties and interest.  All that is required is for a taxpayer who has been assessed to complete and submit an RC4288 form "Request for Taxpayer Relief - Cancel or Waive Penalties and Interest".  This form can be used for goods and services tax ("GST") and harmonized sales tax ("HST") relief in addition to income tax.

The form is relatively simple - however, the devil is in the details.  Section 2 is very important and any taxpayer seeking a significant amount of relief should take care in writing the reasons for the request for relief.  We often prepare a separate document providing the facts and reasons why relief should be granted - we do not limit the written communication to the form.  We also attach relevant documents to show transparency and openness.

It is important to understand that relief is not guaranteed.  While the CRA has broad discretion to grant relief, they also have broad discretion to deny relief. The CRA provides limited information about when they will grant penalty and interest relief.  The CRA indicates that the Minister of National Revenue may grant relief from penalty or interest when the following types of situations prevent a taxpayer from meeting their tax obligations:

  • extraordinary circumstances:  Penalties or interest may be cancelled or waived in whole or in part when they result from circumstances beyond a taxpayer's control. Extraordinary circumstances that may have prevented a taxpayer from making a payment when due, filing a return on time, or otherwise complying with a tax obligation include, but are not limited to, the following examples:
    • natural or human-made disasters, such as a flood or fire;
    • civil disturbances or disruptions in services, such as a postal strike;
    • serious illness or accident; and
    • serious emotional or mental distress, such as death in the immediate family;
  • actions of the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA): The CRA may also cancel or waive penalties or interest when they result primarily from CRA actions, including:
    • processing delays that result in taxpayers not being informed, within a reasonable time, that an amount was owing;
    • errors in CRA material which led a taxpayer to file a return or make a payment based on incorrect information;
    • incorrect information provided to a taxpayer by the CRA;
    • errors in processing;
    • delays in providing information, resulting in taxpayers not being able to meet their tax obligations in a timely manner; and
    • undue delays in resolving an objection or an appeal, or in completing an audit;
  • inability to pay or financial hardship:  The CRA may, in circumstances where there is a confirmed inability to pay amounts owing, consider waiving or cancelling interest in whole or in part to enable taxpayers to pay their account. For example, this could occur when:
    • a collection has been suspended because of an inability to pay caused by the loss of employment and the taxpayer is experiencing financial hardship;
    • a taxpayer is unable to conclude a payment arrangement because the interest charges represent a significant portion of the payments; or
    • payment of the accumulated interest would cause a prolonged inability to provide basic necessities (financial hardship) such as food, medical help, transportation, or shelter; consideration may be given to cancelling all or part of the total accumulated interest; and
  • other circumstances: The CRA may also grant relief if a taxpayer's circumstances do not fall within the situations described above.

The CRA is working to improve its procedures for dealing with Requests for Taxpayer Relief. When a completed form is filed with the supporting documentation, the CRA should send a letter to the requester acknowledging receipt of the Request for Taxpayer Relief.  The file should be assigned to a CRA officer and the taxpayer should receive requests for relevant documentation (unless a full set of relevant documents is provided with the Request for Taxpayer Relief).

If the taxpayer gets a decision that is not favourable - it happens often - then there is the ability to request an impartial review of the CRA officer's decision by the CRA (not the same CRA officer who rejected the request).

If the review procedure ends in a rejection of the requested relief, it is possible to seek a review by the Federal Court of Appeal by way of a judicial review.  However, judicial reviews often are an expensive legal procedure and can cost tens of thousands of dollars (even hundreds of thousands of dollars in some cases depending on the complexity of the issues). There have been judicial review applications filed and the Federal Court of Appeal has in some cases sided with the taxpayer.

I will be honest with you - the Request for Taxpayer Relief Program can be frustrating for persons seeking relief. That does not mean it is not worth the effort and one should not try. Just know that you may feel like you are still stuck in the mud while pursuing a process that may take time.

For more information, please contact Cyndee Todgham Cherniak at 416-307-4168 or at cyndee@lexsage.com.  We have many useful articles about tax audits under Free Information - Sales Tax, Harmonized Sales Tax (HST) and Goods and Services Tax (GST) Articles.

15 Stages Of A Canada Revenue Agency GST/HST Audit

If you have never been audited before, you probably have no idea what to expect.  Most audits follow the same 15 stages (more or less).  On the taxpayer's side of things, each stage is stressful.

  1. CRA Selection Process:  The taxpayer usually has no involvement in this process.  It all happens behind the scenes and the taxpayer can only guess why their name was selected. Sometimes the taxpayer is randomly selected.  Sometimes the taxpayer is selected as a result of the industry segment in which they operate.  Sometimes the taxpayer is selected because of something in a filing with the CRA.  Sometimes the taxpayer is selected because of a tip made to the CRA.
  2. The Audit Letter: The taxpayer receives a letter from the CRA notifying them that they are to be audited. Normally, the taxpayer is asked to contact the CRA auditor.  However, sometimes the auditor just shows up at the business premises.
  3. The CRA letter requesting certain documents:  Usually the CRA auditor will send to the taxpayer a letter indicating what documents need to be provided before the initial meeting at the taxpayer's premises or what documents must be available for the first day of the audit.
  4. Initial Meeting:  If the audit occurs at the taxpayer's premises, the auditor will have a meeting at the start of the audit.  The auditor explains what is expected during the audit.  The taxpayer should also communicate to the auditor what is expected.  The taxpayer may indicate that the auditor must deal with a specific person so that the entire organization does not end up working for the auditor.
  5. Fieldwork:  The on-site audit is the fieldwork stage.  The fieldwork can take place over a few days or over a lengthy period of time.
  6. Office work: Usually the auditor will take information back to the CRA offices and work on the audit from the CRA premises.
  7. Follow-up questions: It is common for the CRA auditor to contact the taxpayer after the fieldwork stage of the audit. Sometimes additional documents are requested.  Sometimes additional questions are asked.
  8. Preliminary Report: The CRA auditor will prepare a proposal and send it to the taxpayer for comment.  Usually a proposed assessment number is provided to the taxpayer.
  9. Response Letter: The taxpayer has an opportunity to change the minds of the CRA.  This is the best opportunity to stop an incorrect assessment from being issued.
  10. Notice of Re-assessment: The CRA auditor sends to the taxpayer the Notice of Reassessment setting out how much is being assessed.
  11. CRA Collections: As of the date of the Notice of Re-assessment, a debt is due to Her Majesty.  CRA Collections may start collection activities immediately after the Notice of Re-Assessment is issued.
  12. Notice of Objection: If a taxpayer disagrees with a Notice of Re-Assessment, the taxpayer can file a Notice of Objection.
  13. Objection: The taxpayer will communicate with a CRA Appeals Officer and the re-assessment will either be confirmed, amended to reversed.
  14. Notice of Appeal: Assuming that not all the issues are addressed in the objection stage, a taxpayer may file an appeal with the Tax Court of Canada.
  15. Day in Tax Court: A taxpayer will have their day(s) in the Tax Court of Canada if the appeal is not settled.  A Tax Court judge will listen to the parties and render a judgement.

For more information, please contact Cyndee Todgham Cherniak at 416-307-4168 or at cyndee@lexsage.com.  We have many useful articles about tax audits under Free Information - Sales Tax, Harmonized Sales Tax (HST) and Goods and Services Tax (GST) Articles.

How To Find Out What Is In The Canada Revenue Agency's Files About Your Audit

Wouldn't you like to know what is in the Canada Revenue Agency's ("CRA") files concerning your GST/HST audit? This information is very valuable in finding out where the CRA made a mistake or what is the basis for the misunderstanding about your taxes.  We recommend obtaining this information as soon as possible after an assessment is issued AND after an appeals officer makes a decision to confirm an assessment.  The information in your audit file may help you prepare a notice of objection or notice of appeal.  The information in your CRA files may also be very useful during an examination for discovery. During the examination for discovery, your lawyer may use the information to catch the auditor or appeals officer (the usual deponents for the CRA) in a misstatement.  The examination for discovery process sometimes leads to settlements. Most importantly, the information in the auditors own files may be used to contradict assumptions made in making the assessment.

You may obtain information in your CRA files by filing an Access to Information and Privacy (ATIP) request.  The ATIP requester must complete a Form RC378.  Where you may need the assistance of a tax lawyer is to ensure you are asking for the correct information.  If you have no idea for what to ask (e.g., the T2020 form completed by the CRA officer each time she/he spoke to you or a representative or someone in the CRA), you may miss requesting useful information.  This is the most common problem is not knowing what would be in the CRA's audit file.

The filing fee is only $CDN 5.00.

The CRA posts limited information on the Canada Revenue Agency web-site about making an ATIP request - see How to access information at the CRA.

The next problem that arises is that the CRA may withhold information.  There is the right of appeal should the CRA withhold certain information. This will be the subject of a subsequent blog post.

Based on our experience, the ATIP process often results in information being provided that an auditor will not often send to the taxpayer.  For example, if the auditor obtained an appraisal from the CRA, Real Property Appraisal Division, the auditor is often told not to give that document to the taxpayer.  The ATIP process usually results in the release of the appraisal.  Similar,y the auditor often will not share internal emails.  The ATIP process usually results in the release of the internal emails.  At the end of an audit, the auditor prepares a memo for the team leader/supervisor.  The ATIP process usually results in the release of the Auditor's file memo(s).

Based on our experience, it is important to file an ATIP request.  It is a small price to pay to possibly win the tax argument.  It is a small price to pay to potentially save the expense of a hearing at the Tax Court of Canada and years of fighting the tax dispute.  Finally, wouldn't you like to know what the auditor wrote in your file?

If you require assistance, please contact Cyndee Todgham Cherniak at 416-307-4168 or cyndee@lexsage.com.  We offer flat rates to file ATIP requests.