Tax Court holds that advisor penalties under section 163.2 of the ITA constitute criminal offences

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In what is certain to be the first step in a very important precedent, the Tax Court of Canada held on October 2, 2012 that the advisor penalties created under section 163.2 of the Income Tax Act constitute criminal offences and entitle the taxpayer to all of the constitutional protections that entails, including a standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt: Guindon v. The Queen, 2012 TCC 287.

The case involved a tax avoidance scheme that was deeply flawed from a technical perspective:

[1] The participants in a donation program (the “Program”) were to acquire timeshare units as beneficiaries of a trust for a fraction of their value and donate them to a charity in exchange for tax receipts for the actual value of the units. No donation ever took place as the timeshare units never existed and no trust was settled. The Minister of National Revenue (the “Minister”), on the basis that the Appellant made, participated in, assented to or acquiesced in the making of 135 tax receipts that she knew, or would reasonably be expected to have known, constituted false statements that could be used by the participants to claim an unwarranted tax credit under the Income Tax Act (the “Act”), assessed against the Appellant on August 1, 2008 penalties under section 163.2 of the Act in the amount of $546,747 in respect of false statements made in the context of that donation program. The Appellant appealed the assessment.

The appellant was a lawyer with no experience or expertise in tax law. Nevertheless she prepared an opinion that was used by the Program promoters to attract potential donors. The opinion was found to be badly flawed and purported to rely upon documentation which the appellant had never examined (and which, in fact, did not exist):

[105] The Appellant wrote and endorsed a legal opinion regarding the Program, an opinion which she knew would be part of a promotional package intended for potential participants in the Program. Her legal opinion clearly states that she reviewed the principal documents relating to the Program when these documents had in fact never been provided to her. She knew, therefore, that her legal opinion was flawed and misleading.

[106] The Appellant chose to rely on the Program’s Principals. They pressured her into providing them with an executed version of the legal opinion without providing her with the supporting documents on which to found her opinion. Yet her legal opinion does not reflect this reality. Rather, it indicates that the documents were reviewed.

[107] When the Appellant chose to involve the Charity in the Program and, later, to sign the tax receipts, she knew she could not rely on her legal opinion. She again decided to rely on the Principals. However, the Principals had relied on the Appellant to attest the legality of the Program. The Appellant knew her legal opinion could not be relied on and, for that reason, she could not be entitled to blindly rely on the Principals. In other words, the Appellant would have been entitled to rely on the Principals if a different professional had signed the legal opinion. She could not, however, rely on her own legal opinion which she knew to be incomplete.

[108] Her conduct is indicative either of complete disregard of the law and whether it was complied with or not or of wilful blindness. The Appellant should have refrained from involving the Charity and signing the tax receipts until she had either reviewed the documents herself or had another professional approve the Program’s activities. When the Appellant issued the tax receipts, she could have reasonably been expected to know that those receipts were tainted by an omission, namely, that no professional had ever verified the legal basis of the Program.

[109] The Appellant cannot agree to endorse a legal opinion and then justify her wrongful conduct by saying she did not have the necessary knowledge — either of tax law or of foreign law — to write that opinion.

[110] Moreover, the Appellant’s conduct after the tax receipts were signed negatively affects her credibility and reflects badly on her character. When the Appellant was informed, after the tax receipts had been issued, that the legal titles were not in order, she co-signed a letter informing the participants of the situation. At that point, the Appellant knew she could not rely on the Principals — the same individuals who had never provided her with the documents she was supposed to review and the same individuals she had trusted in signing the tax receipts. Yet when Ploughman sent out a letter, days before the end of the fiscal year, stating that all was in order and that the participants could submit their receipts, the Appellant blindly relied on him again, without asking any further questions.

Thus, it is reasonably clear that if the test under section 163.2 were a normal burden of “balance of probabilities” the advisor penalties against the appellant would have been sustained.

Justice Bédard, however, performed a very thorough and detailed analysis of section 163.2 to determine whether the penalties imposed amounted to criminal sanctions. At the end of that careful analysis he concluded that they did create criminal offences and allowed the appeal:

[69] The Respondent submits that it is not the penalty that would stigmatize the Appellant but rather her unlawful conduct and the professional sanctions that could result from it. What the Respondent fails to recognize is that this judgment, when rendered, will be public. That professional sanctions may be imposed subsequently does not alter the fact that there will be a public document setting out all the details of the Appellant’s conduct, whether that conduct was found to qualify as culpable conduct or not, and indicating the amount of the penalty that she is being assessed. This constitutes a form of stigma which one should not fail to consider.

[70] In conclusion, applying the rationale enunciated in Wigglesworth, section 163.2 of the Act should be considered as creating a criminal offence because it is so far-reaching and broad in scope that its intent is to promote public order and protect the public at large rather than to deter specific behaviour and ensure compliance with the regulatory scheme of the Act. Furthermore, the substantial penalty imposed on the third party — a penalty which can potentially be even greater than the fine imposed under the criminal provisions of section 239 of the Act, without the third party even benefiting from the protection of the Charter — qualifies as a true penal consequence.

This case will almost undoubtedly be appealed, quite possibly to the Supreme Court of Canada. Nevertheless, the rationale of the decision seems balanced and well-reasoned. If it is sustained on appeal it may very well sound the death knell for advisor penalties under section 163.2 since the burden of proof on the Crown, i.e., proof beyond a reasonable doubt, will normally be far too onerous to justify prosecuting such penalties.