Tax legislation contains only a few paragraphs regarding SR&ED tax credits. Over the years, case law has completed the legislation by interpreting particular cases where the taxpayer opposed the Crown.
One of the greatest cases in the history of SR&ED is Northwest Hydraulic Consultants Limited v. The Queen, in 1997. One of the arguments bore on what did or did not constitute an eligible SR&ED project. Justice Bowman rendered a decision based on the three criteria (five-question approach) defining SR&ED activity: scientific/technological uncertainty, scientific/technological advancement and the presence of a systematic investigation. This definition of SR&ED, subsequently reused and reconfirmed, has become a cornerstone of the program. Not all cases however have had as much impact as the Northwest Hydraulics case.
Further cases have recently enabled the tax authorities to clarify or confirm certain aspects of the scientific/technological point. We will take a brief look at one of these cases to illustrate the lessons to be learned from case law:
Joel Theatrical Rigging (JTR) Contractors (1980) Ltd. v. The Queen
In this case settled in July 2016, the company contested the CRA’s refusal of its SR&ED projects on the basis that the claims did not meet the scientific eligibility criteria.
One of the projects involved the development of a device comprising a motor that would activate a hydraulic system to control the rate of descent of a theatre’s fire curtain. Current practice in the field consisted in using counterweights to achieve the same function.
The Judge agreed with the CRA’s decision, which stated that the problems involved in attaining the objectives could be resolved by “routine engineering”; the term typically “describes techniques, procedures and data that are generally accessible to competent professionals in the field”.
When analyzing a case, the reasoning and the process used by the Judge are just as important as the ruling itself. From the arguments of this ruling, the following points should be taken into consideration when determining the eligibility of SR&ED activities:
- It was not clear whether the project was carried out by competent professionals in the field: the employees who worked on this project did not have a technical diploma or experience in mechanical or hydraulic design. They also did not have recourse to specialized external resources. “(…) the research teams did not include any professional engineers or researchers who held a university degree in engineering, and as none of the researchers with limited engineering training were called as witnesses (…)”.
- There was no correct formulation of hypotheses on the basis of several tests in the process. The Judge provided a number of definitions taken from various sources and retained a simple one stating that a hypothesis should be formulated as a statement to be tested: “In other words, a hypothesis is a statement to be tested by an experiment or a trial.”
- There was a lack of thoroughness in the experimental process. For example, during trials, the rate of the curtain’s descent was not measured: “It seems to me that, if the scientific method had been used (i.e., if there had been systematic observation, measurement and experiment), Mr. Marineau and his colleagues would have determined the precise weight used in the experiments and would have precisely measured the duration of the descent in each experiment so that they could determine whether, as they moved from one experiment to the next, the duration of the descent was increasing or decreasing.”
With regard to Point 2, it could be assumed that these hypotheses could be implicit for each design iteration, but it is still possible to be able to reconstitute them from the facts and they must be specific and innovative. A good hypothesis at the basis of a trial is what mainly distinguishes a systematic investigation from a “trial and error” process.
Point 3 is an argument rarely used in case law to refute the presence of SR&ED. Note however that, in this particular case, the Judge does not set the bar very high in terms of scientific thoroughness.
Nonetheless, there is a positive aspect resulting from the comments of this ruling: the Judge reiterates that contemporaneous documentation, while beneficial, is not essential for demonstrating the existence of SR&ED: “Although Northwest Hydraulic indicated that one of the criteria of SR&ED is a detailed record of hypotheses, tests and results, some cases have suggested that this particular criterion may not be absolutely essential.”
This case constitutes another situation where SR&ED projects in applied mechanics are difficult to defend. The current practice in this field is quite vague and arguments must be convincing. Also, work must be performed by personnel at the cutting-edge of technology and a thorough development process must be adopted.