Not so ‘taxing’ after all
In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.
– Benjamin Franklin
Law students tend to approach tax law with confusion, wariness, and a little bit of fear. It’s unclear exactly what tax law is. Unlike other types of business law, cases are not fought between two citizen parties, but always between the Crown and the taxpayer. The legislation changes so often that textbooks that are only a few years old reference incorrect sections and cite percentages that have since changed. Sometimes, paying less tax is illegal and will send you to jail. Other times, reducing the amount of tax you pay is completely expected, and the line between the two scenarios is not entirely clear. There is an entire Court dedicated only to tax. Worst of all, it’s political – every election, politicians try to change the code.
It’s enough to make a law student drop Tax and sign up for Family Law, or maybe Land Transactions, and then hire an accountant. Unfortunately, tax is an insidious concept, and affects almost every transaction or type of law. Even if you aren’t planning on becoming a practicing tax lawyer, you will pay taxes, and tax law will likely affect your practice. With that in mind, let’s talk about tax, and tax law, and what you might learn about it at Queen’s.
Yes, Tax involves math – but not very much. Taking Taxation Law at Queen’s Law is not like taking an accounting course. There will be addition. There will be subtraction. There will even be the use of percentages. But in a typical Tax exam, you will not touch your calculator, as Professors Cockfield and Lahey use very round numbers. Tax lawyers are not called in to do tax returns – they are called in to understand how legislation, case law, policy, and principles interact. The numbers matter, but tax lawyers are not accountants. When it comes to tax, accountants will deal with compliance and tax planning. Tax lawyers, meanwhile, deal with litigation and tax planning. Each profession has its own specialities, and brings a different perspective to the tax planning side.
Tax litigators either appeal decisions made by the Minister of National Revenue (in your textbook, that’s MNR) or work in the Department of Justice, defending the CRA’s decisions. Tax gets its own Court in Ottawa, the aptly named Tax Court. If you’re an aspiring tax litigator, you might consider applying for the twelve clerkships that they offer every year.
Tax planners create ways to legally reduce the tax burden of taxpayers, through complex corporate structures and agreements that move income in the most tax-efficient way possible. Tax lawyers and accountants often work together on cases, and the Big Four accounting firms all have affiliated tax law firms – KPMG Law, Deloitte Tax Law, Wilson & Partners (affiliated with PwC) and Couzin Taylor (affiliated with EY). Other highly respected tax firms include Blakes, Davies, and Osler, as well as the tax boutiques Thorsteinssons and Felesky Flynn.
As with all types of law, law school will only teach you the basics. That said, Queen’s offers an impressive repertoire of tax courses. It is important to remember that there are three major components to tax – policy, principles and law. While Taxation (aka Baby Tax) teaches a bit of each of these, emphasizing some more than others depending on the professor, the higher level tax courses tend to focus on a specific component.
Tax Policy, taught by Professor Lahey, looks at the policy behind the law; it explores why the tax code says what it says. This is very important because policy considerations are always relevant to the interpretation of every section, in both planning and in litigation. In International Tax, Professor Cockfield focuses largely on the principles of tax. Tax treaties differ with every country, so an understanding of the underlying principles, like source taxation or permanent establishments, is a necessary starting point in any international planning. In Corporate Tax, Queen’s students have the unique experience of dealing directly with the Income Tax Act, looking at the legislation itself instead of case law. You should note, however, that Corporate Tax is only offered every two years, generally in the Winter semester. So you have one chance to take it.
If a particular topic is not covered in a class, ISPs are a great way to expand your knowledge of a small area of tax. And if you’re interested in mooting, the Bowman Tax moot might be up your alley. In addition to providing an excellent experience in writing, oral advocacy, and teamwork, the moot also offers the opportunity to really get to know how to use Taxfind and Taxnetpro, two tax research tools. Ultimately, no matter where you end up, tax law will be relevant to your life. Explore the plethora of Queen’s courses and you may just discover that tax isn’t so scary after all.
Carl Petersen Deeprose (3L) is a contributor to Juris Diction. He has taken a total of 18 credits in tax law courses.