The lawyer for a Nanaimo, B.C., couple who won a groundbreaking award for damages because of malicious prosecution by the Canada Revenue Agency says the minister of national revenue owes his clients an apology.
Steven Kelliher also said that, while Tony and Helen Samaroo have been acquitted of tax evasion in criminal court and awarded $1.7 million for mistreatment in civil court, the CRA still appears bent on pursuing them in tax court.
"What does it take? What does it take to tell these people they made a mistake and move on? This is all about them being right and a bit of vengeance thrown in," he said to CBC News.
"It's relentless persecution and someone in the CRA ought to have the judgment to be able to discontinue this action."
In a blistering 70-page judgment issued on Monday, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Robert Punnett called the CRA's conduct "high-handed, reprehensible and malicious."
He found that the agency had mis-stated and suppressed evidence in its zeal to prove the Samaroos had skimmed money from their restaurant; a case that started in 2006.
The provincial court judge who acquitted the Samaroos in 2011 said an analysis of the their net worth was based on "completely inaccurate assumptions."
Discredited witness, theory
Kelliher says he can't see how the CRA can hope to win in tax court. A separate tax court proceeding has yet to be fully heard.
"We're now 12 years into it. Ten years in court and they still are prosecuting these people on the same set of facts, the same discredited witness and theory," he said.
Both the CRA and Revenue Minister Diane Lebouthillier declined to comment on the decision, which is still within a 30-day window for appeal.
In his mandate letter to Lebouthillier, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he wants "people who interact with the CRA [to] feel like valued clients, not just taxpayers."
Kelliher said Punnett's ruling and the public sentiment it provoked makes clear that the CRA has a long way to go before achieving that goal.
"That letter strikes me as profoundly uninformed as to the operating ethos of the CRA," he said. "Don't forget, they advertise and brag about the number of years that they imprison Canadian citizens for breaching the tax laws."
Lightning strikes twice
The Samaroo decision is the second time Kelliher has made headlines taking on the CRA.
In 2009, he represented Hal Neumann, a Saanich, B.C., man awarded $1.3 million by a jury which decided his Charter rights had been breached when CRA investigators showed up at his home with a search warrant, unannounced and accompanied by police officers.
Neumann, who was born in East Germany, had been cooperating with the audit of a business contact.
He claimed he was terrified and humiliated in front of his neighbours and was later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Besides the money, the jury also said he was owed a personal apology from then-Minister of National Revenue Jean-Pierre Blackburn. But the decision was overturned on appeal.
"With the Neumann case, when [CRA was] asked: 'Would you do it again?' They said: 'Absolutely,'" Kelliher said. "They just don't care."
The Samaroos testified in the civil case that they no longer live together. Their health has been affected and their daughter said she stopped using their last name out of embarrassment from the publicity.
Dozens of emails
The provincial court judge also found Tony Samaroo credible in his explanation for the appearance of the large sum of money in his bank account that triggered the investigation.
An immigrant from Trinidad, he claimed he didn't trust banks and kept decades' worth of savings in safety deposit boxes instead. Out of fear modern financial institutions would no longer accept old bills, he decided to transfer the cash.
Kelliher said the couple made an easy target, and that the case was fuelled by the prejudicial "subtext" that immigrants don't pay their taxes.
"[But] these are people who work 15, 16 hours a day and save every nickel."
Beyond the legal precedent of Punnett's decision, the case has also struck a chord with taxpayers. Kelliher said his phone has been ringing off the hook.
"There's fear out there and there's desperation… People who are joyous at what they see as the CRA getting comeuppance but are happy to see that the Samaroos have prevailed."