What happens when a transaction is undertaken that is planned to be tax-free, but due to an unforeseen error in the execution of the plan, it is subsequently discovered that tax is payable? Until recently, if all else failed, one option was to apply to the courts to allow for “rectification”. That is, since the parties to the transaction originally based their actions on the assumption that the plan was tax-effective, ask the courts to allow them to “redo” the deal correctly to restore its original tax-free intent.
Rectification is essentially not a tax concept. It generally applies where parties to a transaction discover that the legal documents that apply do not accurately represent the agreement or intent of the parties at the time. When both parties agree, the courts are inclined to grant relief and allow for a retroactive correction of the legal documents.
Back in 2000, in the case of Juliar, rectification was granted in a tax context to correct what was essentially an error on the part of the tax planners. Simply put, Mr. and Mrs. Juliar transferred shares to a holding company on the assumption that the shares had a high adjusted cost base (ACB) and no rollover provision was made. When it was subsequently discovered that the ACB was indeed low, they applied to the court for rectification, asking to convert a taxable sale to a rollover under section 85 of the Income Tax Act. The court agreed.
Since then, the case of Juliar has been cited often in cases where mistakes in legalities have created undesired tax results. However, in the recent decisions of Jean Coutu and Fairmont, the Supreme Court has overturned Juliar and has put an end to the idea that rectification can be used as a tool to correct errors in tax planning and its execution.
The court in Fairmont stated:
“…rectification is not equity’s version of a mulligan. Courts rectify instruments which do not correctly record agreements. Courts do not “rectify” agreements where their faithful recording in an instrument has led to an undesirable or otherwise unexpected outcome.”
Juliar was expressly overturned on the basis that the decision resulted in “impermissible retroactive tax planning”.
There is a famous decision (Shell Canada) that stands for the idea that a taxpayer is taxed on the way it arranges its affairs, rather than how it could have arranged its affairs. This concept is often referred to when a legal transaction is executed poorly, resulting in unintended tax consequences. These new decisions are in line with this concept, and they take away a weapon of last resort for taxpayers and their advisors.