CRA service issues are systemic, says taxpayers' ombudsman

CRA service issues are systemic, says taxpayers' ombudsman

Canada's ombudsman for taxpayers says service issues at the Canada Revenue Agency are systemic and the increase in complaints to the ombudsman's office each year suggests the problems are not getting better.

Ombudsman Sherra Profit's team received almost 1,500 complaints about the CRA last year. 

Profit, who was appointed to the ombudsman role in 2015, said she was happy to see a recent report from the auditor general highlight two issues she's also documented: the struggle many Canadians have getting through to the CRA call centre, and the inconsistent and incorrect information call centre agents give to taxpayers over the phone.

But Profit said there are other deeply rooted problems at the agency as well.

The CRA does not always share information on a taxpayer from one branch of the agency to another. The tax agency says one reason is privacy rules, but the result can create a burden for taxpayers who are then asked to submit the same documents over and over again.

"Some of the silos within the CRA make it very difficult for taxpayers when they have to provide the same documentation repeatedly," she told CBC News. "If somebody feels that they're being targeted or they've repeatedly been asked for the same documentation that they feel they've already provided, contact us."

'Here we go again'

That's the kind of situation Jade Dolliver, a single parent to three boys, finds herself in.

For the second year in a row, Dolliver, who lives in Shelburne, N.S., is being asked to prove she has custody of her children in order to hold on to her child benefits and taxes.

"When I got the letter, the first words that came out of my mouth were 'Here we go again'," she said.

When the CRA first reviewed her file a year ago, it rejected the proof she sent in as insufficient, but reversed that decision once she appealed, she said.  But this fall she got another letter, starting the whole process over again.

In the meantime, she said her child benefits have been slashed to about $35 per child, each month, a total of just over $100. She said she used to get $1,700.

"I've had to haul the children out of extracurricular activities, after-school programs and for the second year in a row we're at risk of losing our house," said Dolliver, adding she has also had to rely on the local food bank.

No explanation why proof is insufficient

According to the ombudsman, another issue with the CRA is that it doesn't provide much of an explanation as to why it is rejecting documentation. The agency then goes ahead with cutting or freezing benefits while taxpayers scramble to find other proof that might satisfy.

Kim Roberts, a single parent in Toronto, sent in a court order to prove the details of the custody arrangement for her seven-year-old son only to have the CRA say that wasn't enough, even though a court order had been on the list the agency sent her of suggested documents.

"Here's a letter, it's been signed by a Superior Court justice, this should be sufficient, but it wasn't," said Roberts, adding the letter from the CRA didn't say why it wasn't sufficient.

"It just listed three documents that I would have to prove, one of which listed, again, a court order."

Roberts said she thinks the CRA needs to revise its letters to give more detail and instruction, or simply start accepting what people send in. In the meantime, the government has ordered her to pay back more than $2,300 in past benefits by Dec. 27. Roberts said to her, it feels like the CRA is targeting single parents.

"I get that there are people out there that are trying to do things funny," she said. "But in this case, there's a lot of single parents out there who are just trying to get by and are trying to navigate going through a separation or divorce and on top of all this, having to deal with the CRA."

CBC News has received more than 100 emails from people describing their struggles with the agency. Profit, the ombudsman, said issues around validating eligibility for benefits and tax credits are among the top complaints she receives.

Political intervention

Many MPs say a good chunk of their constituent work is helping people sort matters out with the CRA.

Conservative MP Dan Albas recently got action from the minister of national revenue after he raised a constituent's battle with the CRA in the House of Commons.

He said it shouldn't take that level of political intervention to get results.

"It should not have to be that way. The agency should not be withholding benefits from single moms and saying, 'prove us wrong,'" he told CBC News.

"The agency needs to start believing people."

Kamal Khera, parliamentary secretary to the minister of national revenue, said improvements are coming.

"In two years, a lot of work has been done. A lot of work has to be done, but the CRA is going through a transformational phase at this time and we will be having some really good announcements coming."​