Lawyer-client relationships enjoy what is commonly referred to as solicitor-client privilege – or lawyer-client privilege. Regrettably (and surprisingly to some), accountants do not have this protection!
As the recent Federal Court of Appeal (“FCA”) decision in Zeifmans LLP has confirmed, where pushed for client information by the CRA, accounting firms – but not law firms – are required to disclose client information, including work done in tax situations!
Special rules in the Excise Tax Act (“ETA”) provide the Canada Revenue Agency (“CRA”) with tools to request or require information for verification and administrative purposes. The CRA can send out a “requirement to provide information” – known as RFI – relating to the enforcement of Part IX of theETA to a registrant or third party (section 289). Where the person refuses to comply with an RFI, the Minister may make an application to the Federal Court and obtain a “compliance order” and, if the person still fails to comply with the compliance Order and provide the information as ordered, the person can be subject to contempt of court penalties (section 289.1). (Note that there are parallel provisions under the Income Tax Act (“ITA”): see section 231.2(1) and section 231.7 of the ITA).
In the recent decision of Truong v. Canada, 2018 FCA 6 (“Truong”), the Federal Court of Canada (“FCA”) confirmed that alternative assessment methodologies are permissible when the CRA is unable to audit a taxpayer using the traditional method.
Over the past number of years the CRA has been taking an increasingly aggressive stance against Canadian taxpayers who don’t meet their tax obligations. This approach has only intensified – and perhaps very rightly so – since the Panama Papers scandal broke. Since then the Canadian government has earmarked an additional $444.4-million between 2016 and 2021 to help the CRA crackdown on tax evaders.
In years past, tax evaders caught by the CRA could expect hefty fines and penalties, but would rarely face jail time. More recently however the CRA has been trying to put people engaged in tax fraud or tax evasion in jail.
In a previous blog (click here) we wrote about the case of CBS Canada Holdings Co. v. The Queen (2016 TCC 85), and the limitations that decision placed on a lawyer acting as an advocate. In particular, the Tax Court of Canada (the "TCC") held that the law firm representing CBS had sworn an affidavit on a controversial issue, and in doing so had crossed the line between being an advocate for the client and inappropriately become involved in the facts of the case as a witness.
As we noted at the time, the decision was appealed to the Federal Court of Appeal (the "FCA"). The FCA has now issued its decision (2017 FCA 65), completely exonerating the lawyers for CBS!
CBS Canada Holdings Co. (2016 TCC 85)considered when a lawyer crosses the line between advocate and partisan, and when doing so results in a conflict with the lawyer’s responsibilities as an officer of the court.
Two recent decisions advance the law of privilege. Lizotte v Aviva Insurance Company of Canada (2016 SCC 52) and MNR v Iggillis Holdings Inc. (2016 FC 1352) respectively clarify the difference between solicitor client privilege (SCP) and litigation privilege (LP), and also establish that so-called advisory common interest privilege (CIP) - privilege that protects transactional negotiations between parties with separate legal representation - does not exist in Canada. The two decisions are reminders of the scope of privilege in the tax context, and also highlight the importance of understanding the proper ambit of privilege when engaging in tax transactions or tax litigation.
The principle of solicitor-client privilege holds that communications between a client and his or her lawyer cannot be compelled to be disclosed without permission of the client. Although this principle started as an evidentiary rule, it has developed into a principle of fundamental justice.
Canadian tax legislation endows the CRA with various powers to compel individuals and businesses to disclose information and documentation in support of administering or enforcing that tax legislation. Failure to comply with CRA’s requirements undert these rules can result in fines or imprisonment. Solicitor-client privilege and these disclosure rules collide where CRA attempts to compel client-related information and documentation from lawyers. The Supreme Court of Canada has recently dealt with this issue in Chambre des notaires du Québec (2016 SCC 20) and its companion case Thompson (2016 SCC 21). The decisions make clear that solicitor-client privilege will be upheld in the face of these disclosure provisions.