Ombudsman Update - The Right to Know (2010)

Background

The Office of the Taxpayers’ Ombudsman (OTO) received several complaints where taxpayers stated that the decision letters they received from the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) regarding their appeal or objection did not adequately explain the decisions. Taxpayers stated the decision letters cited the relevant rule pertaining to the decision but did not provide the reasons why it was made. In our view, this was unsatisfactory as it is the explanation of ‘why' that lies at the heart of meaningful reasons behind a decision. Without the ‘why', information about a decision is not complete, accurate, or clear. Furthermore, by not providing it the CRA was not being accountable to the taxpayer.

At the time of our examination, the CRA confirmed the decision letters only notified taxpayers of the appeal or objection decision (whether it confirmed, varied, or reversed the original assessment or ruling), and the legislative provisions upon which the decision was based. The letters did not provide the reasons for the decision.

Although the legislative provision was cited in the decision, it did not give sufficient explanation or context specific to the objection or appeal filed by each individual taxpayer. The lack of specific reasoning pertaining to each specific factor outlined in the decision letters left taxpayers in a situation where they were unable to either agree or disagree with the determination reached by the CRA and were unable to determine if they should escalate their objection or appeal to the next stage. This was crucial information for taxpayers to have in light of the fact they only have 90 days from the date of the notice of confirmation or reassessment to appeal to the Tax Court of Canada.

Taxpayers were able to get detailed information regarding the appeal or objection decisions by making a request through the Access to Information and Privacy (ATIP) Directorate for all records relating to their appeal or objection. Once an ATIP request was made, the taxpayer would then be provided with the information that the Appeals officer used to render the decision, such as audit files and rulings as well as the decision report. However, this often caused delays for the taxpayer, and was putting the onus on the taxpayer to ask for information that should have been made available with the original decision letter. The OTO determined that putting taxpayers in a position where they had to go back to the CRA to request an explanation, or submit an ATIP request that could take months to complete, was in contradiction with articles 6 and 11 of the Taxpayer Bill of Rights.


To address the findings, the Taxpayers’ Ombudsman recommended that:


“Once the Appeals Branch has reviewed a taxpayer's objection or appeal and made a decision to confirm, vary, or reverse the CRA's original decision, it should provide the taxpayer with the reasons for its decision in writing. These reasons need not refer to every factor or conclusion in the process of reaching the decision, but should be sufficient, when read in context, to show why the Appeals Branch made the decision it did.

Providing reasons means providing basic information about the decision, including a description of the decision, the authority under which the decision was made, a description of the main steps in the decision-making process, and reference to the main factual basis for the decision.

We recommend that CRA either provide these reasons in the body of the decision letter to the taxpayer, or institute a policy that the Report on an Appeals or Summary Report is enclosed with every decision letter”.

The CRA informed the Ombudsman it was generally in agreement with the recommendation and committed to improving its services to taxpayers by reviewing its administrative policies and procedures related to the manner in which information concerning decisions made by the Appeals Branch on objections or appeals are provided to the taxpayer.

 

Update

Since the report The Right to Know was published in 2010, the OTO received two updates from the CRA on the implementation of the recommendations. We received the first update in March 2011 and the second update in December 2017.

In reviewing the update in March 2011, we found that for CPP/EI Appeals the CRA had put procedures in place requiring appeals officers to provide taxpayers with detailed decision letters and to provide the summary section of the CPT110, Report on an Appeal. With regards to Tax and Charities Objections, following consultations with stakeholders including field offices and the Department of Justice, it was determined officers would not include a copy of the report on objection, but would instead prepare detailed decision letters. At that time, the work to complete template letters, procedures and training was still ongoing.

In reviewing the update received in December 2017, we found the CRA had fully implemented the recommendation as follows:

  • CPP/EI Appeals: Decision letters were revised to include the decision as reflected in the recommendation section of the appeals officer’s report, a brief explanation of the reason for the decision, a paragraph that lists the legislation used in the appeal and a copy of the summary section from the appeals officer’s report.

  • Tax and Charities Objections: Appeals officers are now required to prepare a detailed final letter to advise objectors of the decision. The final letter or notice of confirmation was revised to include the taxpayer’s representations, the CRA’s reasons for the decision, and the authority under which the decision was made.

We confirmed the CRA has updated its policies and procedures stating all decision letters that disallow or partially disallow an appeal or objection must now contain a written explanation of all the factors used to make a determination for each point raised in an appeal/objection. The CRA also provided officers with sample letters to use as templates for the various types of notices sent out. The sample letters provide guidance on how the letters should be structured and what information they must include, to ensure sufficiency of information as well as consistency and quality.

 

Conclusion

The key issue in the initial examination was that decision letters from the CRA regarding the outcome of an appeal or objection did not adequately explain the decisions. The letters did not provide taxpayers with complete, accurate and clear information in a timely manner to allow them to determine whether they agreed with the decision reached by the CRA.

The Ombudsman finds the CRA has addressed the issue raised in the report and fully implemented the recommendation. Following the implementation of the recommendation outlined in the report, the OTO has not received any further complaints related to the content of decision letters.

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