CRA issues? The Taxpayers’ Ombudsman might be able to help — for free

Can get the message through to the CRA? The Taxpayers' Ombudsman may be able to help. Getty Images

By now, most Canadians have filed their taxes and are done dealing with the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) until next year. But what if you belong to the unlucky minority who will have to battle with the taxman for the next several months?

READ MORE: Here are the Canadians most likely to get a tax audit 

There many reasons why the CRA may linger in your life like an unwanted guest:

  • Documents that must be submitted to prove your eligibility for tax breaks or benefits
  • Taxes owed that you can’t pay all at once or don’t think you should be paying at all
  • Errors in your return that must be sorted out
  • Processing delays on the part of the CRA

And that’s just a partial list.

The good news is that the Taxpayers’ Ombudsman might be able to help in some of those cases — for free.

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READ MORE: 5 things you need to do to win (or survive) a CRA tax audit

What’s the Taxpayers’ Ombudsman, you ask?

That’s an excellent question. Most people — including some tax professionals, according to Global News reporting — don’t know it exists.

What the Ombudsman can do for you

The government of former prime minister Stephen Harper created the Ombudsman in 2007 to enforce parts of the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, which the Conservatives also launched that year.

Specifically, the Ombudsman exists to deal with service complaints. Are you dealing with a CRA agent or auditor who seems unreasonably hostile or disregards the evidence you submitted? Are you having trouble making heads or tails of what the CRA is asking for? Or is the agency asking for the same documents several times or over the years? Are you getting conflicting information from CRA agents?

The Ombudsman can help with all of that.

READ MORE: 3 of the tax mistakes you’re most likely to make, according to the CRA

First, though, you’ll have to put in an effort to sort things out with the CRA itself. Step one is calling the agents you’re dealing with to try to resolve the issue. If that doesn’t work, you should escalate to the agents’ supervisor. If you still didn’t get what you want, you have to file a formal complaint with the CRA. And if even that leads nowhere, you can (finally) turn to the Ombudsman, which operates at arms-length from the CRA.

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Clearly, filing a complaint with the Ombudsman takes some legwork. But you can skip the back-and-forth with the CRA in cases of financial hardship, Isabelle Gervais, director of the Office of the Taxpayers’ Ombudsman, told Global News. For example, if the CRA cut off a benefit you depend on or won’t agree to a tax repayment plan that will let you keep paying the bills, the Ombudsman will review your case right away.

READ MORE: Canada’s 2018 tax season: 6 things you need to know

Once it receives a valid complaint, the Ombudsman will get back to you in a few days (usually two business days) and aim to have your case addressed by the CRA within six months, though it often takes as little as a few weeks, Gervais told Global News.

And what it can’t

The Ombudsman will not get involved in tax disputes.

“They can’t get to the bottom of a tax issue,” said Dale Barrett, author of Tax Survival for Canadians: Stand up to the CRA and the principal of Barrett Tax Law.

But even when it comes to service issues, the Ombudsman does not have the power to force the CRA to take action.

READ MORE: Self-employed? Here are 6 steps to get your taxes right

“They don’t have the power to ensure [that taxpayers’ service rights are respected]. They have the power to consistently bug the minister [of National Revenue],” Barrett added.
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Barrett has only turned to the Ombudsman a handful of times in the past 10 years and never found it to be helpful, he told Global News.

In fact, in one instance the CRA refused to move forward with a client’s file until the Ombudsman’s complaint was resolved, which only served to slow things down, he added.

“I can fix the problem much faster,” Barrett said.

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Good to know about the Ombudsman, anyways

Sometimes, having someone on your side with the power to bug the CRA may be enough. According to the Ombudsman’s latest annual report to Parliament, 100 per cent of its recommendations will be “acted upon” by the CRA.

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Barrett acknowledged that service-related issues can have a big impact on taxpayers’ finances, lifestyle and peace of mind.

“If you have a tax collector who doesn’t care that you can’t afford to pay for your medications unless they give you a payment plan, that definitely has a material effect,” he said.

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And the Ombudsman can also pick up on widespread issues and nudge the CRA toward addressing systemic problems. Recently, for example, the office has flagged the fact that many single parents have trouble meeting the CRA’s requirements for proof of eligibility to receive the Canada Child Benefit. It also noted that many Canadians get inconsistent or conflicting information from CRA agents. And it pointed to the CRA not always giving people proper notice that funds will be withdrawn from their bank accounts or that their wages will be garnished.

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Still, these red flags are based on just a tiny sliver of Canada’s taxpayer files. The Ombudsman received fewer than 1,500 new complaints in fiscal 2017.

“They should be receiving tens of thousands of complaints per year,” said Barret, who called the Ombudsman’s outreach efforts “terrible.”

“There are only a few hundred big tax firms in this country, and I’ve never received communication from [the Ombudsman],” he added.

Even in that, though, there may be a silver lining.

Unlike CRA call centres, which are notoriously bad at answering calls during tax season, someone at the Ombudsman’s office is usually around to pick up the phone.

If you call within business hours, “there’s always a person here answering and talking to you,” Gervais said.

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