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 two 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.
Revenu Québec renonce aux cotisations «choc»
21 septembre 2012 | 14h41
Mise à jour: 21 septembre 2012 | 18h45
Après avoir mis en place une politique qui aurait entraîné des suicides et des crises cardiaques, la haute direction de Revenu Québec a discrètement opéré un changement de cap.
Après avoir mis en place une politique qui aurait entraîné des suicides et des crises cardiaques, la haute direction de Revenu Québec a discrètement opéré un changement de cap vis-à-vis des contribuables produisant leur déclaration de revenu en retard.
Dans un communiqué publié au début septembre intitulé sobrement « Conséquences de la non-production d'une déclaration de revenus », Revenu Québec revient sur certaines pratiques établies dans les dernières années, dans le cadre de l'effort accru de récupération fiscale du gouvernement.
Ainsi, Revenu Québec cessera d'émettre des avis de cotisation « choc », dont le but est essentiellement de faire peur aux contribuables et de les forcer à contacter Revenu Québec s'ils n'ont pas produit leur déclaration après une certaine date.
Dans le passé, Revenu Québec avait pris l'habitude d'envoyer des avis de cotisation gonflés sans corrélation avec les revenus passés d'un contribuable, selon Beryl Wasjman, président de l'l'Institut des affaires publiques de Montréal et éditeur du journal The Suburban.
« Ces avis estimés ont fait des ravages. Il y a des gens qui ne lisent pas tout et qui pensaient qu'ils devaient bel et bien ces sommes. Il y a eu des tentatives de suicide et des crises cardiaques à cause de ces avis », signale M. Wasjman.
Les estimations pouvaient atteindre jusqu'à cinq fois les montants jamais gagnés par la personne, selon lui.
Revenu Québec clarifie aussi le processus de saisies bancaires et de recours juridiques à la disposition des personnes qui s'estiment lésées.
M. Wajsman dit avoir reçu une avalanche de demandes d'aide de simples citoyens désespérés depuis la création de l'Agence du revenu du Québec, au début 2011.
« On parle d'une explosion de cas, des histoires insupportables », a-t-il dit.
Il relate l'histoire d'une dame qui a subi un divorce et qui a omis de publier sa déclaration à temps. Après avoir reçu un avis de cotisation gonflé, elle a été retrouvée inconsciente dans sa baignoire, les poignets en sang, selon M. Wajsman. « Il y a des gens qui paniquent », a-t-il expliqué.
M. Wajsman affirme avoir réussi à convaincre le grand patron de Revenu Québec, Jean St-Gelais, et l'ex-ministre du Revenu, Raymond Bachand, de changer leur façon de faire après être allé les rencontrer en personne.
« Personne n'avait eu le courage d'aller les voir. C'était la première fois qu'on leur exposait la situation dans son ensemble », a-t-il dit.
Joint par Argent, le porte-parole de Revenu Québec, Stéphane Dion, s'est montré laconique.
« Revenu Québec a voulu préciser et clarifier pour les citoyens certains éléments de la réglementation et des directives internes. C'est pourquoi nous avons publié ce texte sur notre site internet », a-t-il écrit par courriel.