When we take on advocacy cases and causes they usually center on an individual. An individual who has suffered a prejudice that is demonstrative of a broader systemic problem whether in a government department or within a major corporation. Individual cases that have within them issues illustrative of universal applicability. But sometimes it can't be done that way. Fear and impotence stand in the way.
Fear of retribution, and impotence in the face of a maze of ever-changing rules and regulations that baffle even experts. That is the way it is for most citizens who feel victimized by Revenue Quebec and have no idea what to do about it. Many call us.
For whatever reason, the calls increased exponentially this year. We decided to do something about it. More importantly, universally respected outgoing Finance Minister Raymond Bachand, his special assistant for Revenue Cody Barker-Greene and Revenue Quebec's President and CEO Jean St-Gelais listened to our presentations and acted to make things right. Compassionate authority working in concert — expeditiously and efficiently — to help citizens. This is the way government is supposed to work.
Some four months ago I finished a review of the many complaints and calls we received. Roughly eight out of 10 fell into one of three categories. The first was seizures of bank accounts and garnishment of wages within 30 days of one notice being sent by Revenue Quebec. The regulations were so fixed that it seemed the authors never considered that a taxpayer may be out of the country or dealing with a personal crisis.
The second was the problem of estimated assessments sent out to late filers that bore no relation to the past earning history of the taxpayer. They were meant to get the attention of the taxpayer. Sometimes they were as high as five times the amount the taxpayer ever earned. Most who received such an assessment never bothered to look at the back of the letter where it set out the 90-day period in which to file and correct. They went into a panic. Some were so shocked they attempted suicide. And more than one heart attack had been reported by recipients.
The third problem was a disregard of due process that is sacrosanct in every western democracy. Legal actions taken by Revenue Quebec against taxpayers without notice of a court date. Revenue Quebec had the power to go into court and, based on a certificate signed by any RevQue officer, get a judgment against a taxpayer from the clerk of the Superior Court. It was unprecedented power. An annulment of equitable due process.
In our initial conversation, Minister Bachand gave us full consideration and said that if these problems existed, they should be fixed immediately. As I reviewed the issues with St-Gelais and Barker-Greene it became clear that this was not the first time they had heard of some of these problems. And when I pointed out that a great part of the problem lay in the fact that some front-line Revenue Quebec officers, those that first met the public, were not schooled in the law nor the interpretation of regulations. Too often some also had an attitude of a presumption of guilt, rather than innocence, when meeting a taxpayer.
The experienced St-Gelais, who was formerly head of the Autorité des marchés financiers, wanted to have a look at the regulations that governed the actions of the front-line officials. He thought the problem may lay there. And he hoped that it would because changing directory regulations to protect the public was within his purview. New law would take much longer to write and pass.
As it turned out he was right. It was not so much that the regulations gave the bureaucrats these specific powers, as that the regulations were too general in wording. St-Gelais immediately ordered the agency's lawyers to start drafting based on recommendations we had given him. After a week of work with him and Barker-Greene, the new regulations were published in the Revenue Quebec manuals for its officers.
The new rules are included in two sections. The first under the heading of “Consequences of non-production of a tax report.” The second heading is entitled “Third party seizures and certificates in court.”
As a result of our efforts the following changes are now specified in the rules: 1. No estimated assessments will be done before two letters have been sent out, the second by registered mail, over a 60-day period; 2. estimated assessments will now be based strictly on an average of historical data on the taxpayer's previously declared earnings and not just using a “shock” number; 3. if there has been no response to the assessment, Revenue Quebec officers must endeavour to reach the taxpayer by phone and letter over a 10-day period. If there is still no co-operation or response, only then will Revenue Quebec officers proceed to seizure of bank accounts and/or garnishment of wages; 4. after all these options have been exhausted, only then may Revenue Quebec officers proceed to court with a certificate attesting to non-production or non-payment but the taxpayer will still have the right to use any and all “mechanisms of opposition” available in the Court of Quebec; 5. the final reform we argued for and is now included in the regulations is that if at any time a taxpayer feels that his file has not been dealt with “fairly and equitably by Revenue Quebec or any of its officials or agents” the taxpayer may complain directly to the Chief Ombudsperson for Revenue Quebec who reports directly to the President and CEO of the Agency.
These changes will help, literally, hundreds of thousands Quebcers obtain just and fair treatment. Front-line Revenue Quebec officers now have clear directives. And, as I wrote above, government worked the way it should, efficiently, effectively and expeditiously. Were it only always so. Minister Bachand and Mr.Barker-Greene are now in the process of leaving their positions given the change in government. We shall miss them and wish them well. They embody the highest principles of public service. Mr. St-Gelais has been promoted to the post of secrétaire-général et greffier du Conseil exécutif, the head of the entire public service of Quebec. Sometimes nice guys do finish first.