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Judicial watchdog finds no problem with judges attending sponsored cocktail parties

Critic says timid council ruling fails to deliver 'the appropriate signal to the courts'

Posted: July 21, 2017
Last Updated: July 21, 2017

The law firm Dentons, which had accounting firm KPMG as a client, sponsored a cocktail party in Madrid last fall attended by Canadian judges. (CBC)

The Canadian Judicial Council has dismissed complaints against federal judges who attended sponsored cocktail events at an international tax conference in Europe.  

In a statement released Thursday, the council said that complaints related to two Canadian judges, Justice Randall Bocock and Justice Denis Pelletier, are "unfounded" and that "no further action is required."

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CBC's The Fifth Estate and Enquête revealed in March that the two had attended cocktail parties in Madrid during the International Fiscal Association's annual summit last fall. The conference was sponsored in part by the accounting firm KPMG.

Bocock, a member of the Tax Court of Canada, attended a private party on one of the most exclusive terraces in the Spanish capital. A law firm that had provided KPMG with legal advice — validating its controversial Isle of Man tax scheme — picked up the tab.

Justice Randall Bocock attended an exclusive rooftop terrace party paid for by a law firm that provided legal advice to accounting firm KPMG on its controversial Isle of Man tax scheme. (McMaster University)

At the time, Bocock was the case management judge for the only file before the Tax Court regarding the scheme devised by KPMG to allegedly help wealthy Canadians hide their money offshore in the Isle of Man, a tax haven in the Irish Sea. The Canada Revenue Agency has described the scheme as a "sham" that "intended to deceive" tax authorities.  

Bocock recused himself from the case following CBC's reports in March.  

During the judicial council's investigation, Bocock told the council that "prudence and best practice would suggest that, in future, refraining from attending such off-site sponsored conference receptions is a better and wiser choice."

"I certainly intend to follow this prudent conduct in the future," he said.

The council concluded that no further examination is warranted in light of Bocock's comments and the fact that he is no longer in charge of the Isle of Man file.

Federal Court judge at Prado party

The council also dismissed the complaint against Justice Denis Pelletier of the Federal Court of Appeal. Pelletier also appeared at social gatherings in Madrid, such as an evening at the famed Prado Museum.

University Laval tax law professor André Lareau was critical of the council's decision to dismiss the complaints. (CBC)

"The two social events attended by Justice Pelletier were organized by the IFA and were included in the conference's social program," wrote Norman Sabourin, executive director of the council. "All participants were invited to those events."

The council's statement also noted that "no dispute involving KPMG is or was pending before the Federal Court of Appeal in the days or months preceding the conference."

Yet the accounting giant was the subject of Federal Court proceedings previously brought forward by the Canada Revenue Agency to obtain a list of clients who had used the Isle of Man scheme. This case could have been brought before the Court of Appeal at any time.

'We will have wine and lots of it'

A third complaint against the chief justice of Canada's tax court, Justice Eugene Rossiter, was also dismissed.

Justice Eugene Rossiter made controversial remarks to industry accountants and academics at a tax conference in Calgary last November. (Tax Court of Canada)

Rossiter made controversial remarks at a tax conference in Calgary last November. Speaking before hundreds of tax accountants and lawyers at the Canadian Tax Foundation's annual meeting, Rossiter said judges do not lead a "monastic" life and that they have a responsibility to "interact" with the public.

"We will have pizza and we will have wine and lots of it," Rossiter said.

Justice J. Michael MacDonald conducted the complaint review for the judicial council. He found Rossiter's comments about pizza and wine to be "regrettable," but that no further investigation is necessary.

"His controversial remarks were meant as a joke as part of his address on accessibility and involvement of judges in public events," the council said.

Ruling 'too timid'

The Canadian Judicial Council itself authorized the participation of Canadian judges at the Madrid conference. According to the entity, it is up to each judge to ensure that he or she is not in a situation of actual or perceived conflict of interest.

The University of Laval's professor of tax law, André Lareau, believes that the council should have told judges that they must refrain from participating in sponsored cocktail parties at all costs because of their duty of reserve.

He felt that the council's reaction was far too timid.

"It's a decision that does not deliver the appropriate signal to the courts," Lareau said.

"The judicial council should have used this situation to set the benchmarks that may not be clear enough for some judges."

If you have any tips on this story please email investigations@cbc.ca or phone Harvey Cashore at 416-526-4704.