COVID-19 and Communicating with the CRA

CRA offices have been temporarily closed during the COVID-19 pandemic and officials are working from home. Standard CRA communications channels are under strain. E-mail is an obvious answer: at the time of writing (June 16), procedures have been created for international waivers and compliance certificates, and a general commitment has been made for e-mail's use in audits. But e-mail could be more widely used right now, and other forms of electronic communication should be investigated for the post-pandemic future.

Generally, the CRA's methods of communication are more limited than those used in the private sector. The CRA is subject to strict rules of confidentiality, both under legislation and under its own internal policies. The CRA also handles an immense amount of sensitive information, so its communication lines must understandably remain tight. Thus, the typical means of communicating with Appeals or Audit officials have been sending a letter to the central mailroom at their office, faxing to their line, or calling them at the landline that is hard-wired to the official's desk. E-mail has not been an option, presumably owing mostly to security risks.

But now, with offices closed, there is no one in the mailrooms and no one sitting at the desks to receive calls. Certain general CRA call lines are open, but it is not clear what is happening with CRA mail. On a recent call with the CRA Charities Directorate, a CRA employee recommended submitting charity applications through the CRA's web portals, because that employee's understanding was that the reviewers had no access to mail—meaning that mailed applications would remain unread until the CRA resumed office access. Further, we understand that CRA employees who are permitted in exceptional cases to enter their offices are not allowed to access anything that is or is part of a space that includes "high-touch points." This likely means that no one is retrieving messages from the fax machine that is shared across floors of the office. Thus, it has become harder for taxpayers and tax practitioners to contact the CRA, which makes it harder for all parties involved to effectively manage their files and resolve tax audits and disputes.

Given this state of affairs, we would like to make the case for the CRA to allow more taxpayer communication by e-mail both during and after the pandemic. First, it is quick and cheap. Second, it is accessible: allowing e-mail communication prevents taxpayers from potentially exposing themselves to COVID-19 by venturing to the post office or accessing a fax machine. Finally, the practices of the Rulings Directorate from long before the pandemic started show that the CRA can successfully communicate in this manner. Appendix F of Information Circular IC70-6R9 ("Advance Income Tax Rulings and Technical Interpretations," April 23, 2019) contains the standard authorization form to allow communication with taxpayers by e-mail.

One implementation issue is limited remote access for CRA employees. To our knowledge, many CRA employees have already been given a remote device, and for those who have not, plans to issue one are in the works. The bigger implementation issue is, of course, the security risks. In the long term, the CRA could look to security systems already available and in use in the private sector and other government and sensitive sectors, both in Canada and in other countries, to protect taxpayer information—end-to-end encryption is the goal. In the short term, the use of e-mail could (1) be restricted to taxpayers who have signed a consent similar to the form used by Rulings to accept e-mail risk, and (2) where such a form has not been signed, limit the topics of e-mail communication to non-sensitive matters such as exchanging status updates and setting up phone calls.

A related issue, but one of which we have limited knowledge, is how CRA officials communicate with each other in the current situation of remote work. The OECD's Forum on Tax Administration, of which Canada is a member, suggests "[a]s an emergency measure, allowing employees to use private emails or private phones to communicate, with guidance on when such communications might be appropriate and how to take account of security and data protection."

Faye Kravetz and Amanda Laren
Robins Appleby LLP, Toronto

COVID-19 and Canadian Tax
A special joint issue of Canadian Tax Focus and Tax for the Owner-Manager
July 2020
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