When Procedural Fairness Requires a Fairness Letter

One of the most complicated topics in immigration law is determining when procedural fairness will require an immigration officer who is assessing an application to seek clarification in the form of a fairness letter or interview.

As the Supreme Court of Canada noted in Baker v. Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration) the the concept of procedural fairness is eminently variable and its content is to be decided in the specific context of each case. When a visa officer does not rely on third party extrinsic evidence to make a decision it can often appear unclear when exactly it is necessary for an officer to afford an applicant an interview or a right to respond to the officer’s concerns.  However, there will be a right  to respond under certain circumstances.

Requirement to Provide Complete Applications

Visa officers do not have any legal responsibility to advise applicants of incomplete or inadequate applications.

In Kaur v. Canada (Citizenship and Immigration), 2010 FC 758, for example, the Federal Court dismissed a judicial review application of a visa officer’s refusal of an applicant under the Federal Skilled Worker Program. A visa officer determined that the application was deficient as it failed to include required information regarding the applicant’s salary and benefits. The applicant argued that the Canadian embassy should have told the applicant that this information was missing, and given her a chance to provide what was missing. However, the Court noted that there is no duty to advise an applicant of a deficient application. As Justice Mandamin noted, the process is clear. An applicant must provide a complete application.

As such, and to reiterate, visa officers do not have the obligation to notify applicants of inadequacies in their applications nor in the supporting documents. They do not have to seek clarification or additional documentation, nor provide an applicant with an opportunity to address concerns, when the material provided in support of an application is unclear, incomplete or insufficient to show that someone meets legislative program requirements.

Credibility Concerns

A duty may exist, however, to provide an applicant with the opportunity to respond to a visa officer’s concerns when the officer is concerned with the credibility, the veracity, or the authenticity of the documentation provided by an applicant as opposed to the sufficiency of the evidence provided.

In Sandhu v. Canada (Citizenship and Immigration), 2010 FC 759,  for example, an application was complete.  However, the visa officer rejected the application because he did not believe the genuineness of one of the applicant’s answers on the application. The Court acknowledged that the duty of procedural fairness in the decisions of visa officers [is] at the low end of the spectrum. However, Justice Mandamin, the same Justice as above, also noted that where the application is adequate, but the officer nevertheless entertains a doubt on the evidence, there remains a duty to clarify the information. The judge thus allowed the judicial review.

Grewal v. Canada (Citizenship and Immigration), 2011 FC 167 provides another example of this principle. There, an application was rejected because of a poor IELTs score.  In brief, the applicant had arranged employment in Canada as a Retail Trade Manager, but the visa officer determined that she would be unable to perform the required duties  of the arranged employment because of her poor IELTS marks. The visa officer refused the application without providing the applicant with an opportunity to respond to this concern.

Justice Noel noted numerous factors that resulted in the officer having a duty to seek additional information from the applicant, including 1) that immigration guidelines specified that additional information would be required for doubts over Arranged Employment Offers, 2) that the language proficiency concern derailed the individual’s entire claim for permanent residence, and 3) that the applicant’s consultant had thoroughly explained the reason for the poor test and had stated that another would be forthcoming.  Accordingly, Justice Noel determined that procedural fairness dictated that a fairness letter or interview be provided.

Singh v. Canada, 2010 FC 1306 is a final example.  There, an officer rejected a work permit application because the only documents which the applicant provided to support her claimed employment experience as a Ragi were reference letters.  The officer stated that she saw “many such letters which turn out to be fictitious”, and that she required “more than letters, for instance, newspaper cut outs, photos of them practicing or letters of reference, to properly corroborate claims of training, knowledge, and experience.”  The Federal Court, however, overturned this decision, noting that the applicant was not put on notice that the officer was concerned with the veracity of letters, and did not request further documentation.


In 2011, Justice O’Keefe in Kaur v. Canada, 2011 FC 219 provided  an excellent articulation of the current jurisprudence, and what should be the starting basis for any analysis of whether procedural fairness required the providing of the applicant with an opportunity to respond to a given concern.  The Court stated that:

An officer is not under a duty to inform the applicant about any concerns regarding the application which arise directly from the requirements of the legislation or regulations (see Hassani v. Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration), 2006 FC 1283, [2007] 3 F.C.R. 501 at paragraphs 23 and 24).

The onus was on the applicant to satisfy the officer of all parts of her application and the officer was under no obligation to ask for additional information where the applicant’s material was insufficient (see Madan v. Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration) (1999), 172 F.T.R. 262 (F.C.T.D.), [1999] F.C.J. No. 1198 (QL) at paragraph 6).

However, the officer was obligated to inform the applicant of any concerns related to the veracity of documents that formed part of the application and the officer was required to make further inquires in such a situation (see Hassani above, at paragraph 24).

The message from the courts seems clear. Visa applicants have one shot, and they should ensure that the effort that they put forward is their best, because if they do, procedural fairness will require that immigration officers provide them with the opportunity to address concerns.

If they don’t put their best foot forward, however, then their applications will be rejected outright.

Showing that the Visa Officer or IRB Member or CBSA Officer Was Biased

Many individuals think that either a visa officer, a Canada Border Services Agency (“CBSA”) officer or an Immigration and Refugee Board member is biased against them.

This is not an argument to make lightly.

The Supreme Court of Canada has held that in order for an individual to demonstrate that a government decision maker is biased, then:

the apprehension of bias must be a reasonable one, held by reasonable and right minded persons, applying themselves to the question and obtaining thereon the required information. [T]hat test is “what would an informed person, viewing the matter realistically and practically — and having thought the matter through — conclude.  Would he think that it is more likely than not that [the decision-maker], whether consciously or unconsciously, would not decide fairly.

As well, the Supreme Court of Canada has also noted that:

Regardless of the precise words used to describe the test, the object of the different formulations is to emphasize that the threshold for a finding of real or perceived bias is high. It is a finding that must be carefully considered since it calls into question an element of judicial integrity. Indeed an allegation of reasonable apprehension of bias calls into question not simply the personal integrity of the judge, but the integrity of the entire administration of justice. Where reasonable grounds to make such an allegation arise, counsel must be free to fearlessly raise such allegations. Yet, this is a serious step that should not be undertaken lightly.

As the Supreme Court of Canada stated, an accusation of bias is not something that should be undertaken lightly, and in the overwhelming majority of cases the Federal Court of Canada has dismissed such accusations.  The most common accusation that individuals often make is that an individual is biased because of their race.  The Federal Court of Canada has categorically rejected such race based allegations, and held that individuals are not entitled to decide who adjudicates their matter, but can only expect that they will be treated fairly.  In my experience, the race and gender of an adjudicator is completely, and thankfully, irrelevant in Canada’s immigration system.

There are, however, instances where the Federal Court did find that a reasonable apprehension of bias existed.

In Guemache v. Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration), the allegation of bias involved the following exchanges and statements between an Immigration and Refugee Board member and an appellant:

Chairperson: I don’t put anybody in jail, I don’t condemn anyone to death, so rest assured, that’s already settled.

Chairperson: You see, I speak quite loudly – not in an attempt to intimidate you, Sir, but so that you understand me . . .

Chairperson.             Okay. And what happened?

R.             I came out to go take the bus, on my way, the distance . . . between the police station . . . the bus stop was . . . is a little bit far from . . . the police station. I was walking on my way and suddenly a car stopped, four people got out from . . . the vehicle, they came toward me, they insulted me, they hit me on the head, they told me that I was . . . what do you call it, a informant for the police.

Q.             And these people, did you know them?

A.             No.

Q.             Had you seen them before?

A.             No.

Q.             Did they say anything to you other than that you were a police informant?

A.             They said to me “You must stop doing this work.”

Q.             Did they . . .

A.             “And don’t think that we’ll . . .we’ll leave you in peace, we’ll get you.

BY THE CHAIRPERSON (addressing the claimant)

Q.             Why did . . . why didn’t they kill you right away, Sir?

A.             I don’t know, maybe I was . . . I was lucky.

. . .

BY THE COUNSELOR (addressing the Chairperson)

Q.             And can I ask a question?

A.             Yes, yes, yes.

BY THE COUNSELOR (addressing the claimant)

Q.             Why did you stay home?


Excellent question.

So, Sir, if you gave your passport to your brother on February 7, 8 or 10, 2002, to get a visa, can you explain to me how your brother gave this to someone, then, at some point, the visa was issued on January 28, 2002. So, if it’s a genuine visa, then, there’s like a problem, Sir. How can you give a passport to your brother without a visa on February 7, 8 or 10 and have a visa in your passport dated January 28, 2002

. . .

BY THE CHAIRPERSON (addressing the claimant)

Q.             Sir, does . . . “internal asylum” ring a bell?

The Federal Court ruled that the Member completely overstepped his boundaries, and that the applicant was denied the ability to present his case.  It described the member’s comments as  “gratuitous and uncalled for”.

In Kalkat v. Canada (Citizenship and Immigration Canada), a Citizenship Judge made the following comments to an individual who was requesting a language waiver:

Somebody who does not speak English or French will never be Canadian.

Tomorrow, I will grant citizenship to 800 people who all speak French or English; they all passed the test! Your lawyer has written to us that you cannot be able to learn about our country and language. Unfortunately, we receive this argument from hundreds and thousands of people.

The medical opinion on record was just an opinion of a person not as a doctor because doctors are not linguistic experts.

I am a judge and I apply the law, my first wife was Russian and my second wife was Romanian; they came as immigrants and learned.

During the hearing, I observed that you seem to understand all my questions and that you were able to converse fluently with your interpreter.

Many other people have trouble learning; some work harder at learning and some don’t and you should have learnt with the help of your husband and children.

If a negative decision is rendered, you can go to the Federal Court of Appeal and get an audition.

The Court found that this demonstrated bias, especially the reference to the Citizenship Judge’s ex-wife.

In Dena Hernandez v. Canada (Citizenship and Immigration), Justice Martineau determined that an Immigration and Refugee Board member demonstrated bias through aggressive questioning, and also by implying that twins were not normal.

In Kalombo Kabongo v. Canada (Citizenship and Immigration)Justice Martineau also determined that an Immigration and Refugee Board member demonstrated bias when the member acknowledged that he had pre-written a decision (which the member stressed wasn’t final) so that the member could issue the final written decision quickly.

As is hopefully shown, these examples are particularly blatant and egregious.  Most allegations of bias are unsuccessful because in almost every instance a visa officer, CBSA officer, or IRB member does do their best to maintain impartiality.

Finally, the Federal Court in Delos Santos v. Canada (Citizenship and Immigration) has also ruled that it is not a breach of procedural fairness for the same officer to determine both an applicant’s humanitarian & compassionate (“H&C“) application as well as an applicant’s Pre-Removal Risk Assessment (“PRRA“), and that there was no inherent bias arising from the same officer dealing with both a H&C application and a PRRA application for the same individual.

This decision was based on the Federal Court of Appeal’s (the “FCA“) decision in Oshurova v. Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration) where the FCA answered the following certified question in the negative:

Is there an appearance of bias, in this case, because the same officer decided the application for a visa exemption on humanitarian and compassionate grounds as well as the Pre-Removal Risk Assessment?

Responding to Procedural Fairness Letters

Where an applicant submits a complete application, but an immigration officer nonetheless has concerns regarding the merits of it, the immigration officer will often provide a fairness letter to the applicant.  The failure to adequately respond to a procedural fairness letter is generally the refusal of the application.

Unfortunately, many individuals do not take the time to properly respond to the procedural fairness letter.  Upon review, it is often apparent that the reason for the inadequate response is either because the applicant did not understand the fairness letter, or because they simply did not know how to respond appropriately.

Accordingly, there are several things that applicants should know about responding to procedural fairness letters.

The first thing is perhaps the most obvious, and that is that applicants should address the issues that are raised in the fairness letter.  If a fairness letter asks you to provide detailed information as to what you were doing from 1996-1997, then provide detailed information.  However, it is generally unnecessary to anticipate future issues or questions that could arise but that are not immediately foreseeable, as Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada will usually send another letter if it has concerns.

Vasilyeva v. Canada (Citizenship and Immigration), 2017 FC 551 is an example of where this did not occur, and where the Federal Court determined that the visa officer breached procedural fairness.  This was actually a case that I successfully argued in Federal Court, and so am quite familiar with the legal principles involved.

As Justice Barnes wrote:

The Applicant was seeking permanent residency in Canada. Her spouse’s Russian military service was obviously relevant to the application and the visa officer requested his service book by email dated August 24, 2015. The Applicant provided a copy of her husband’s service book issued in 1992, which was received on September 22, 2015. The dating of this record raised a fresh concern as can be seen from the visa officer’s file notes dated May 12, 2016:

Spouse: career in the Soviet military as an officer. Spouse submitted translated copy of military book: spouse served apparently 10 years, 1982-1992, attending military college for 5 years and then serving as a senior lieutenant in Saint Petersburg: spouse appears to have had no promotions despite formal military education and lengthy service. Spouse’s military booklet was issued in 1992, at the end of his service: this is highly unusual as his Soviet military booklet should have been issued when he was 18 years old (circa 1981), when he would have been called to register for mandatory military service; he should definitely have been issued a military booklet at the beginning of his military career service in 1982. NB that the 1992copy of the military booklet submitted does not indicate that it is a replacement or a duplicate. Original Military Booklet from 1981/1982, Detailed Military History table and Security Screening Required

Because of the above concern, the visa officer requested, within 60 days, the “original military book (confirming your service in the army from 1982 to 1992) and completed, attached form regarding your service in the army along with all details”. A few days later, a more detailed request was sent in the following form:

This is a follow-up message to our email dated 12 May 2016.

Please note that a copy of Vladimir Serdyuk’s military book is already on file; however, this military book was issued in 1992, at the end of Vladimir Serdyuk’s military career. In addition to the documentation requested in our 12 May 2016 email, please submit a certified translated copy of Vladimir Serdyuk’s military book that was issued to him in either 1981-1982, when he turned 18 and began his military service. If Vladimir Serdyuk does not have a military book issued in 1981-1982, please provide a detailed explanation as to why he does not have a military book dating from the beginning of his military service.

Please comply with our request within 60 days, otherwise your application for permanent residence in Canada will be assessed based on the documentation on file and may be refused.

Ms. Vasilyeva was unable to provide the 1981-1982 military book, and instead re-submitted the 1992 military book, along with a an explanation (which apparently was not received by the visa officer).

As the Federal Court decision then notes:

What happened next is the crux of the matter at hand. Instead of simply rejecting the application for failing to perfect the record, the visa officer identified an entirely new problem. He expressed a concern about the authenticity of the service book that had been submitted. This concern is reflected in the following passage from the visa officer’s file notes:

On 02 June 2016, applicant submitted an explanation letter, the original military book issued in 1992, and aDetails of Military Service table. I note that the military book looks brand new (no wrinkles, folds or wear & tear) even though it was issued 24 years ago. I also note that the corners of the military book submitted are not die-cut (as one would expect with a government-issued booklet) but rather appear to have been round-cut with scissors. These two factors call into question its authenticity.

Without informing the Applicant of the above credibility concern, the visa officer proceeded to refuse the application. This decision prompted a request for reconsideration which was also rejected.

As Justice Barnes found, this new credibility concern that arose as a result of Ms. Vasilyeva’s response to the procedural fairness letter constituted an entirely new issue that necessitated a new procedural fairness letter.

As well, an applicant can generally assume that they only need to respond to the concerns raised in the fairness letter.  The Federal Court has repeatedly determined that it is a breach of procedural fairness for officers to engage in a “bait-and-switch.” In Jin v. Canada (Citizenship and Immigration), 2014 FC 612 for example, Justice Roy held that:

[Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada] raised a very specific concern in the fairness letter: will the applicant reside in the Province of Quebec. That is the matter that is addressed squarely in the response. There is no further discussion of the credibility or authenticity of that information. Rather, a completely different issue, the return to Canada altogether, becomes the reason for the refusal. Black’s Law Dictionary (West Group, 7th ed) defines “bait and switch” as “A sales practice whereby a merchant advertises a low-priced product to lure customers into the store only to induce them to buy a higher-priced product.” Although most analogies are somewhat defective, this one illustrates the point in that the applicant is lured into thinking that the issue is one thing, to be told that it is something else of an even higher order.

Finally, if you are unable to include all the information that you require in a response to a fairness letter, but you would like to submit missing information a short period later, then make sure that your first response indicates that there is more information coming.  For example, if IRCC requests five documents, and you only provide three, it is important to indicate that the other two documents will be provided shortly, and by when.


Secret Evidence Used Against Me? (On Extrinsic Evidence) [Updated]

Where immigration officers have extrinsic evidence particular to an applicant, and that applicant is unaware that the immigration officer has that evidence, then procedural fairness requires that immigration officers disclose this evidence to the applicant.
Continue reading →

Presenting The Customs Enforcement Manual

The Canada Border Services Agency is responsible for the detection and prevention of border-related offences such as smuggling, fraud, and wilful non-compliance with immigration, trade, and tax law.  The CBSA Enforcement Manual, also known as the Customs Enforcement Manual, serves as the guide for CBSA officers in the execution of their enforcement related responsibilities.  It has been relied upon in several court challenges.

To the best of my knowledge, the CBSA Enforcement Manual is not publicly available.  However, we have obtained a copy of it through an Access to Information and Privacy Act request and have made it available for purchase on this blog.   The price for this document, which is a massive 1,274 pages, is $4.95.  Our goal in providing the CBSA Enforcement Manual is to help you save valuable research time, and to provide you with a comprehensive understanding of how the CBSA operates.

We have provided as a free preview the first page of the CBSA Enforcement Manual.  We have also provided an outline of all of the information, policies, and guides which are found in it.

The Customs Enforcement Manual is divided into parts as outlined below.

Continue reading “Presenting The Customs Enforcement Manual”

Understanding the Three Levels of Customs Infractions

When a person has goods (as distinguished from monetary instruments and conveyances  seized at customs, the Canada Border Services Agency (“CBSA“) has established three “levels” or “degrees” of breach for the purpose of determining the penalty.  These levels are described in Part 5 Chapter 2 of the Customs Enforcement Manual.

Level 1

Level 1 applies to violations of lesser culpability.  It will be applied where a person’s efforts to hide something from CBSA were initial and effectual.  It is generally applied to offences of omission rather than commission.

In the context of Non-Report and Inaccurate Information, Level 1 will be applied when:

  • goods are not reported to CBSA or goods are reported to CBSA but inaccurate information is given concerning acquisition, entitlements, or description;
  • the goods are not concealed; and
  • a full disclosure of the true facts concerning the goods is made at the time of discovery.

In the context of Undervaluation, Level 1 is applied when:

  • goods are reported for a value less than their actual transaction value but no falsified documents were presented; and
  • full disclosure is made prior to the discovery of documentary evidence.

Level 2

Level 2 applies to violations where the circumstances demonstrate that the individual actively attempted to breach Canadian customs law.  It is also applicable to people who repeatedly omit information.

In the context of Non-Report and Inaccurate Information, it will be applied when the circumstances are the same as for level 1, but in addition:

  • the goods are concealed or disguised; 
  • inaccurate information is given concerning the goods following their discovery; or
  • the person has been the subject of a previous seizure action.

In the context of Undervaluation, Level 2 is applied when:

  • no falsified documents were presented however documentary evidence is found, revealing the actual value of the goods is more than reported before full disclosure is made; or
  • the person has been the subject of a previous enforcement action.

Level 3

Level 3 applies to circumstances where the evidence exists of a more sophisticated scheme involving devices to facilitate the violation or where the individual has been the subject of a previous seizure.

In the context of Non-Report and Inaccurate Information, it will be applied when the circumstances are the same as for level 2, but in addition:

  • false documents or receipts are presented for the goods; 
  • the goods are concealed within false compartments; or
  • the person has been subject to previous seizure action.

In the context of Undervaluation, Level 3 is applied when:

  • falsified documents were presented in an attempt to support the undervaluation; or
  • the person has been the subject of a previous enforcement action.


The following two tables show the penalty amounts for each level.

Non-Report and Inaccurate Information


Level 1

Level 2

Level 3

Clothing, footwear, textiles, towels, bedding, curtains, carpets, jewelry, and watches

30% of value

50% of value

70% of value

All other goods, except alcohol and tobacco

25% of value

40% of value

55% of value




Level 1

Level 2

Level 3

Clothing, footwear, textiles, towels, bedding, curtains, carpets, jewelry, and watches

30% of undervalued amount

50% of undervalued amount

70% of undervalued amount

All other goods, except alcohol and tobacco

25% of undervalued amount

40% of undervalued amount

55% of undervalued amount

The Customs Enforcement Manual contains several useful examples of undervaluation.

Example A

A traveller declares at primary that he bought a car for $1,000 and does not present a receipt.  At the secondary examination, the officer questions the traveller on the purchase.  The traveller admits that the car is undervalued, and voluntarily discloses that the actual value is $4,000.  This would be a Level 1 violation, and the amount of duty owing (assuming the correct duty had been paid on the $1,000) would be 25% of 3,000.

Example B

A traveller does not declare at secondary that be bought a boat even though it is on the back of his car.  The officer finds a receipt in the car’s dashboard for $418,000.  This would be a Level 2 violation, and the amount of duty owing would be 40% of $418,000.

To the best of my knowledge, the CBSA Enforcement Manual is not publicly available.  However, we have obtained a copy of it through an Access to Information and Privacy Act request and have made it available for purchase on this blog.   The price for this document, which is a massive 1,274 pages, is $32.95.  Our goal in providing the CBSA Enforcement Manual is to help you save valuable research time, and to provide you with a comprehensive understanding of how the CBSA operates.  Please note, however, that this document is current only as of 2012.

© All rights reserved. Canada Border Services Agency. Reproduced with the permission of the Minister of Public Works and Government Services Canada, 2013.