On March 8, 2011, the Federal Court of Appeal allowed an appeal by the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) in Canada Revenue Agency v. Tele-mobile Company Partnership et al. and granted a motion by the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) in a judicial review to strike the application on the the ground that it is plain and obvious that the application has no possibility of success. The Federal Court had previously dismissed the CRA's motion to strike.
In short, a number of Telus entities (Telus) filed a judicial review to prohibit the CRA from issuing assessments against Telus for goods and services tax (“GST”) on the international roaming fees charged by Telus to its customers from October 2004. Telus asserts that if it is assessed for GST, unfair and onerous obligations and financial hardships would be visited upon it.
Justice Stratus held:
" We note that if prohibition is granted because of these alleged consequences, the Minister cannot issue an assessment – in effect, as a matter of law, the Minister will be obligated to forgive a tax liability that he believes is present, solely because of alleged hardships that the taxpayer will suffer.
In our view, that cannot be. The Court cannot stop the Minister from carrying out his statutory duty under the Excise Tax Act, R.S.C. 1985, c. E-15, subsection 275(1) to assess GST payable by law merely because doing so will impose unfair and onerous obligations and financial hardships upon the taxpayer.
To the extent that CRA has exercised its discretion in a manner that has improperly caused TELUS damage, TELUS may have other recourses available to it. To the extent that the exercise of discretion affects the amount of tax owing, TELUS may challenge the assessment in accordance with Part IX of the Excise Tax Act, R.S.C. 1985, c. E-15. Alternatively, it may apply for a remission order under section 23 of the Financial Administration Act, R.S.C. 1985, c. F-11. Further, it may be able to bring an action in tort to obtain compensation for any damages that were caused by CRA."
On May 5, 2011, Telus filed a leave application with the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC File 34244). Please stay tuned.
This is an important case for taxpayers and I hope the Supreme Court of Canada grants leave. Under the Excise Tax Act, a debt due to Her Majesty as the result of a GST/HST assessment is immediately due and payable. Large (and small) assessments must be paid and collections actions are not halted pending the outcome of an objection and appeal. This means that companies can suffer financial hardship if the Canada Revenue Agency is incorrect in its interpretation of the law. While a taxpayer has other expensive legal options to pursue the CRA if they make a mistake, it the mistake causes financial hardship and the company disappears or an individual taxpayer loses everything important in life, the fact that the battle with the tax man is ultimately successful is of little consolation.
What is important to remember is that suppliers engaged in commercial activities are not the party ultimately responsible for paying the GST/HST (consumers are). The suppliers collect the GST/HST from recipients and remit the GST/HST to the Receiver General of Canada. However, this group is the target of most audits. Telus fits within this group in the case at issue. A supplier (such as Telus) may have tried to comply with the law and may or may not have made a mistake while acting as the government's collection agent. There should be a mechanism to stop the CRA from potentially large incorrect assessments of suppliers engaged in commercial activities (including zero-rated activities).