Years ago, the Tax Court of Canada introduced its informal procedure, a type of “small claims” court for tax cases. I was intrigued at the time, because it allowed for non-lawyers such as myself to represent taxpayers, under certain conditions. So, I did some research and wrote an article on the topic which was published by CA Magazine. At the time, I hadn’t ever been to Tax Court (I’m confessing this now, years later, having successfully represented 3 clients since). My article was based strictly on research, and some anecdotes from a colleague. Anyhow, I thought I’d reprint an abridged version of that article for old times sake, so here it is:
Entering the courtroom I was less than impressed. It was smaller than I had imagined. And although there was a generous amount of oak trim surrounding me, it somehow felt cold and clinical. Perhaps my expectations were too high. I’ll admit to being a bit zealous. After all, here I was, about to plead a case in the Tax Court of Canada, and I was not even a lawyer.
As a chartered accountant, I was within my rights to represent my client in a tax case. The Informal Procedure Rules were established in 1991 to provide a “small claims court” environment where an individual taxpayer could represent himself without the need to adhere to strict rules of procedure and evidence. A lawyer or an agent, such as an accountant, may also represent an individual in an Informal Procedure case.
Under the rules of the Tax Court, the Informal Procedure may be invoked in an appeal where, for each assessment, the amount of federal tax involved, plus applicable penalties, is equal to or less than $12,000. In the case of a loss determination, the amount in dispute must not be more than $24,000, and where the dispute is in respect of an amount of interest only, the threshold is $12,000.
I explained to my client that the objective of these rules was expediency. Her case would be heard relatively quickly, within a few months of her application. The hearing would be short and a decision would be rendered quickly, usually in the same day, but generally not later that 90 days after the hearing. She would not be subjected to examination by the opposing counsel prior to the hearing. Her risk in the case of an unfavourable judgement would be reduced by the fact that costs could not be claimed against her by the Crown.
After our objection was denied, I had filed a timely Notice of Appeal on behalf of my client with the Registrar of the Tax Court. Since I was a layman, the strict rules of format regarding such a document were relaxed. The court had accepted my Notice, which was prepared in a letter style. However, I had still made certain that the letter contained all the necessary elements. Similar to what you might find in a Notice of Objection, the letter indicated the name of the taxpayer, the details of the assessment and the issues surrounding the appeal.
The judge gave me a curt nod and asked me to begin. I rose from my seat, thanked him respectfully, and gave my opening statement. I tried to avoid showing my anger at the injustices heaped on my poor, suffering client by the cold-hearted tax department. I would be better off, I figured, with a brief and logical summary of my case.
I guided my client logically through the sequence of events, ensuring that she stayed to the point at all times. As we went along, I introduced documents to support the testimony. In the Informal Procedure, the rules governing the introduction of evidence are markedly relaxed.
After cross-examination, I was asked to give my closing argument. I reviewed the evidence and referred to a court case as an authority to support our position. I came to a conclusion based on the facts and the law surrounding the issues, and I once again concluded with a request to have the Minister’s assessment altered. I thanked the court and sat down, hoping no one had seen me sweat.
I was done. I had presented a concise and forceful case. Although I was feeling exhilarated, I wasn’t sure whether I would give up my accounting practice just yet to pursue a law degree. The judge had been lenient with me, knowing I was a layman. The Informal Procedure was designed with non-lawyers in mind…