If the tax­man’s abus­ing you, stay mad and see a pro

Vancouver Sun - - Business - DON CAYO VAN­COU­VER SUN TAX TALK

Can you imag­ine a bet­ter way for a wonk like me to pass time over the hol­i­days than delv­ing into a new book about the tax­man’s trans­gres­sions?

Well, I can — and for two rea­sons. One re­lates to ac­tu­ally hav­ing a lot more fun things to do. The other is a re­flec­tion on the spe­cific book I read — The Tax­man is Watch­ing, pub­lished by Harper Collins and writ­ten by a fa­ther- and- son team of On­tar­i­obased tax lawyers, Paul and Philippe DioGuardi, who have of­fices across Canada, in­clud­ing Van­cou­ver.

I ex­pected, at the very least, to feel a pang of pro­fes­sional jeal­ousy as a writer who is new to the tax- hor­ror story genre. Af­ter all, th­ese guys have had their whole ca­reers to col­lect a trove of hair- rais­ing tales.

In­stead, I found my­self mildly irked at the in­former­cial- like tone of much of the book. It con­sists pri­mar­ily of a se­ries of anec­dotes, many of them vague, that are gen­er­ally fol­lowed by an ad­mo­ni­tion for the reader to re­tain a lawyer.

This ad­mo­ni­tion, by the way, comes with lit­tle hint of what the price tag will be. My read­ers tell me they’ve had es­ti­mates — of­ten in the 10s, and some­times in the 100s, of thou­sands of dol­lars — for le­gal fees to fight their cases. But the DioGuardis of­fer only an iso­lated, ca­sual warn­ing that it could get “ ex­pen­sive.”

This, of course, is a key prob­lem in most of the cases of tax­payer abuse I’ve been writ­ing about. Tax­pay­ers are far too of­ten stonewalled by Canada Rev­enue Agency staff whose ac­tions and in­ac­tions make a mock­ery of in­ter­nal re­view pro­cesses. Thus the only way for vic­tims to fight back — no mat­ter how capri­cious and in­sub­stan­tial the case against them — is through the pro­hib­i­tively ex­pen­sive courts.

The lawyer/ au­thors seem to be pri­mar­ily con­cerned with the law, while I — as a jour­nal­ist with a low thresh­old of out­rage — like to think my lens fo­cuses on what is just, not merely what’s le­gal. There can be a big dif­fer­ence. And I don’t care what the law says — other than, if it’s stupid or un­just it should be changed. My con­cern in cases I write about is whether the out­come is fair.

So, for sym­pa­thy — no mat­ter if you’re the vic­tim of bu­reau­cratic in­dif­fer­ence, in­com­pe­tence and / or vin­dic­tive­ness, or if you’ve in­no­cently trans­gressed some inane law — you might come to me. But for ad­vice, see a pro.

That’s es­pe­cially true if you’re guilty of some­thing — and it’s guilty peo­ple who seem to be this book’s pri­mary tar­get au­di­ence. The DioGuardis ar­gue strongly for putting your money on a l aw ye r, n o t a n a cco u n t a n t . Ac­coun­tants can be forced to tes­tify against their clients, the au­thors stress re­peat­edly, but lawyers, pro­tected by priv­i­lege, can­not.

They’re also big on turn­ing yo u r s e l f in be f o re yo u g e t caught. They ar­gue that a lawyer can of­ten ne­go­ti­ate re­duced penal­ties if you con­fess up front. This may be true, al­though it doesn’t sit well with my sense of jus­tice. I de­spise a sys­tem where s o m e p e o p l e ( t h o s e w i t h lawyers) are treated bet­ter than those with­out.

Of course, this isn’t the only in­jus­tice stem­ming from the CRA dou­ble stan­dards. An­other that I con­trib­ute to di­rectly is that peo­ple I write about seem to get much bet­ter treat­ment as soon as their sto­ries are pub­lished. It’s not that I don’t think they de­serve bet­ter treat­ment, it’s that I feel for those who don’t have an ad­vo­cate in the press.

But we don’t have to like the tax­man — we have to live with him. So my ad­vice is, if you’re guilty and you know your bill is go­ing to be big, call the lawyer right now. But if you’re just ag­grieved — treated shab­bily by slack- asses or petty tyrants — and if the amount is less than a lawyer will likely charge, then maybe not.

You could just pay up and get on with your life.

Or you can go down fight­ing. In­un­date the min­is­ter’s of­fice with ap­peals to rea­son, and send me copies. ( My e- mails on the sub­ject num­ber well over 800, and I can’t pos­si­bly write about them all. But the CRA can’t tell which ones might pop up in print if they don’t smarten up.)

You should also en­list the help of your MP. Push to speak to CRA of­fi­cials who have some author­ity and are will­ing to use it, keep track of what they tell you, and keep track of any runaround you get. De­mand the over­due ap­point­ment of the promised om­buds­man, and make a case. Stay mad as hell, and vow not to take it any more.

I don’t know if th­ese things will work, but I can’t be­lieve they’ll make things any worse. And a lot of vic­tims tell me they feel bet­ter if they have a chance to vent.

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