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Problems with the tax man?

Call the Ombudsman


Paul Dube is the first-ever ombudsman for
taxpayer rights, who hopes to break logjams
between taxpayers and CRA.

By: On Your Side, Published on Sat May 01 2010

Sam submitted his 2008 income tax return last April. He's still waiting for the refund he thought he would get.

"I'm owed over $75,000 as a result of an investment loss I was able to claim," he said when contacting me last year.

Last September, he was told by the Canada Revenue Agency that his tax return had been selected for special review.

By late December, when he still had no refund, he filed a written complaint about service with the CRA.

Only this month, when he escalated his complaint to the ombudsman for taxpayer rights, did he start to see some progress.

"After a year of waiting, I now have someone assigned to do my 2008 tax return," he says.

Sam isn't his real name. He fears being identified in case his refund is tied up further. He's planning to buy a home and can't qualify for a mortgage without his tax assessment.

"A lot of taxpayers don't know they have rights. They are not aware of the taxpayer bill of rights and the taxpayers' ombudsman," says Paul Dubé, the first person appointed to the job just over two years ago.

He's trying to raise his profile, especially since he's hearing from members of Parliament that CRA complaints are more common than any other beefs.

Dubé is a former criminal defence lawyer in New Brunswick and Ottawa, specializing in charter rights and labour law.

His role is to encourage procedural fairness and act as interpreter between taxpayers and one of the most powerful bureaucracies in Canada.

The taxpayer bill of rights isn't a new document. It has been around since the mid-1980s, but wasn't widely known.

"In 2007, it was taken off the shelf and dusted off. Eight service rights were added. And there was an undertaking to appoint an ombudsman to uphold these rights," Dubé says.

There are 15 rights in all, starting with No. 1: "You have the right to receive entitlements and to pay no more and no less than what is required by law."

No. 5 - often problematic when disputes arise - is "the right to be treated professionally, courteously and fairly."

And No. 6, which failed to be observed in Sam's case, is "the right to complete, accurate, clear and timely information."

Sam says he's still waiting to hear why his tax return was delayed so long. If CRA staff had a problem with the investment loss he claimed, they didn't say anything or ask him for more information.

In the ombudsman's view, the tax department and Canada's 30 million taxpayers don't speak the same language.

When asked what advice he'd give the CRA, he says: "Work on your communications. And give people a chance to be heard."

Dubé has a staff of 28 people and wants to hire six more. In his first year of operation, he handled almost 5,000 inquiries and complaints and opened more than 1,000 files.

His intervention led to a variety of corrective responses from the CRA - ranging from apologies to taxpayers to the release of seized bank accounts, the payment of refunds and changes to CRA policies or procedures.

As an ombudsman, he operates at arm's length from the CRA. He has a separate website, www.taxpayersrights.gc.ca, and phone number (1-866-586-3839).

He can't order the CRA to do anything. His only power is moral suasion and the ability to go public when changes aren't made.

"I see that as an advantage," he says. "Orders take longer. When we're involved, the logjam breaks. Sometimes, taxpayers can't communicate about their problems in a way the CRA understands."

He also has the power to look into systemic and emerging issues, so that problems affecting a large number of people can be corrected as soon as possible.