Tax & ATO News Australia

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Walsh and Commissioner of Taxation [2018] AATA 235

In the decision of Walsh v Commissioner of Taxation, the Administrative Appeals Tribunal examines an applicant for review by a taxpayer of a decision of the Commissioner not to revoke a Departure Prohibition Order issued. Deputy President Molloy ordered that the Departure Prohibition Order be revoked on the basis its continuation did not serve the intended purpose and intrusion imposed on the taxpayer outweighed the protection of revenue.

 

Following an audit of the taxpayer’s affairs conducted by the Australian Taxation Office, the Deputy Commissioner of Taxation (‘DCT’) issued amended assessments and notices of assessments of administrative penalties for the financial years ended 2003, 2004, 2005, 2007 and 2008, on the basis that:

 

  • a sham arrangement existed between an Australian resident company and a company registered in Vanuatu, and monies transferred were the taxpayer’s assessable income; and
  • amounts credited in the loan account of the Australian resident company were deemed dividends and thus assessable income.


On 30 November 2010, the taxpayer objected to the assessment and on 10 August 2012 the Commissioner affirmed its decision. Accordingly, the taxpayer sought review of the decision on 9 October 2012, which was subsequently withdrawn and dismissed.


On 20 August 2015, the Commissioner issued a Departure Prohibition Order (‘DPO’) on the basis the taxpayer had a tax liability of $1,692,445.73, and that he failed to make an arrangement to pay his tax liability and there was a risk to revenue.


Subsequently, the DCT initiated proceedings in the Queensland Supreme Court to recover the tax liability and obtained a default judgement against the taxpayer.


On 2 December 2015, the taxpayer applied for revocation of the DPO, but the information provided by the taxpayer was not to the satisfaction of the Commissioner of Taxation (‘Commissioner’) to allow the revocation.


On 4 January 2017, pursuant to debtor’s petition, trustees of the taxpayer’s bankrupt estate were appointed.
The taxpayer sought to have the Tribunal review the Commissioner’s decision not to revoke the DPO on the basis of three grounds.

 

The DPO was no longer lawful


It was contended by the taxpayer that pursuant to the Bankruptcy Act 1966 the taxpayer could not be subject to the DPO as a creditor cannot enforce any remedy against a bankrupt person in respect of a provable debt.


Conversely, the Commissioner contended the notion that no bankrupt who was at the time of the bankruptcy in debt to the Commissioner could ever be subject to a DPO had been rejected by the Federal Court in Edelsten v Federal Commissioner of Taxation.


Ultimately, the Tribunal was not satisfied that the DPO was rendered unlawful by virtue of the taxpayer’s bankruptcy.

 

Continuation of the DPO does not serve the purpose


The Tribunal observed that the central purpose of Part IVA of the Taxation Administration Act 1953 (‘TAA’) is the prevention of persons with tax liability leaving Australia, where in the Commissioner’s belief reasonably arrived at, the recovery would or might thereby be impaired.


It was observed that the DPO had been in place for two years, over that time no contributions to revenue were made and the taxpayer did not have assets to pay the tax debt. Additionally, even if the DPO was set aside, the trustees would still control possession of the taxpayer’s passport and his ability to depart Australia.


In all the circumstances, the Tribunal was not satisfied the departure of the taxpayer from Australia would make it less likely that his tax liability will be discharged in either whole or part, or that the Commissioner’s ability to recover the tax would be impaired. Accordingly, the Tribunal found that the purpose of the legislation would not be met by the continuation of the DPO.

 

Freedom of movement


The Tribunal referred to Poletti v Commissioner of Taxation, where the Full Federal Court commented that the ‘severe intrusion’ of a DPO upon an individual’s ‘liberty, privacy and freedom of movement’ must be balanced against the protection of the revenue.


As the taxpayer’s principal place of resident was in the United States of America with his wife and young daughter, the Tribunal accepted the DPO operated as a particularly severe intrusion on his freedom of movement.


The Commissioner in relying on Troughton v Deputy Commissioner of Taxation (‘Troughton’) submitted that the factors concerning the personal hardship on the taxpayer and his family do not justify the revocation, but a consideration relevant for a Departure Authorisation Certificate under s 14U TAA.


However, the Tribunal found the comments in Troughton were directed to the facts and circumstances of that case and not made with the intention of laying down any principle of general application.


The Tribunal noted that the discretion to under s 14T(2) TAA to revoke a DPO is wide in terms. Accordingly, the Tribunal found it unlikely that the legislative intention behind exercising that discretion would allow the decision maker to ignore the impact the continuation of the DPO would have on the taxpayer and his family.


On this basis, the Tribunal found that the taxpayer’s family circumstances would weigh heavily in favour and against the continuation of the DPO.

 

Co-authored with Ben Caratti
 

Posted in: Tax & ATO News Australia at 28 February 18

MedAid Pty Ltd and Commissioner of Taxation [2018] AATA 170

In the recent decision of MedAid and Commissioner of Taxation, the Administrative Appeals Tribunal examines a joinder application brought by an individual purporting to be a creditor and member of a taxpayer, being deregistered company.

MedAid Pty Ltd (‘MedAid’), the taxpayer, commenced two separate proceedings seeking review of objection decisions made by the Commissioner of Taxation (‘Commissioner’). MedAid was subsequently deregistered on 2 August 2015.
 

Accordingly, the Commissioner requested that the proceedings be dismissed, as the taxpayer ceased to exist. Deputy President McCabe was satisfied with the Commissioner’s request, but agreed to consider whether Mr Arnold, a purported representative of MedAid should be joined to the proceedings, on the basis his interests were affected by the decision under review within the meaning of s 30 the Administrative Appeals Tribunal Act 1975 (‘AAT Act’).
 

By operation of section 14ZZD of the Taxation Administration Act 1953, section 30(1A) AAT Act is modified to be read as:
 

If an application has been made by a person to the Tribunal for the review of a reviewable decision or an extension of time refusal decision:


(a) any other person whose interest are affected by the decision may apply, in writing, to the Tribunal to be made a party to the proceeding; and
(b) the Tribunal may, in its discretion, by order, if it is satisfied that the person making the application consents to the order, make that person a party to the proceeding.

 

The Commissioner contended that Mr Arnold’s application for joinder would fail because:


(1) his interests are not affected by the decision in the sense intended by the legislation;
(2) the applicant cannot obtain the consent from MedAid required by s30(1A)(b) AAT Act; and
(3) the Tribunal should not exercise the discretion in Mr Arnold’s favour.


Are the interest of a creditor and a member sufficient to be joined?
 

Mr Arnold sought to claim an economic interest, arising from his position as both a creditor and member of MedAid.
 

The Commissioner doubted whether the debts were real and submitted that the invoices provided by Mr Arnold were self-serving evidence that the Tribunal should disregard. McCabe DP found that even if the debts were accepted as real, the Tribunal was not satisfied the economic interest of a creditor was sufficiently distinguishable from the interests of other individuals for the purposes of section 30(1A)(a) AAT Act.
 

Further, McCabe DP found that the interest flowing from membership in a company in the present circumstances would rise to the level where an order could be made under section 30(1A).
 

Who consents to the joinder? Can a deregistered company consent?

McCabe DP found that reference to a ‘person’ in section 30(1A)(b) refers to the taxpayer and as the taxpayer no longer exists, as it is ‘legally dead’, it cannot give consent to the joinder.
 

Accordingly, the Tribunal dismissed the application made by Mr Arnold to be joined as a party to review proceedings.

Co-authored with Ben Caratti
 

Posted in: Tax & ATO News Australia at 27 February 18

Webb v Deputy Commissioner of Taxation [2017] FCA 1520

In this recent decision of the Federal Court, O’Callaghan J examines a self-represented taxpayers’ application for an extension of time to appeal from the Federal Circuit Court. This decision shows the importance of complying with the appropriate procedures in lodging an appeal and having an application with sufficient merits. With the greatest respect to Mr Webb this case demonstrates the difficulty of representing yourself in the Federal Court.

Following a sequestration order made on 30 May 2017 by the Federal Circuit Court, the taxpayer filed a notice of appeal on 19 September 2017, outside of the 21 day period provided under Rule 36.03 of the Federal Court Rules.

O’Callaghan J in his decision reiterated the well-established principles for allowing an extension of time, which include:

  • whether the applicant has an acceptable explanation for the delay;
  • whether the respondent would suffer prejudice in light of the delay should an extension be granted; and
  • the merits of the substantial application.

In the present case, O’Callaghan J found the taxpayer’s argument that the incorrect form was filed did not demonstrate an acceptable explanation for the delay.

Furthermore, O’Callaghan J found that there was no reasonable prospect of success of the appeal as the contentions outlined in the taxpayer’s affidavit were “self-evidently misconceived”. In the taxpayer’s affidavit, he contended that:

  • the Registrar of the Federal Circuit Court did not have authority to adjudicate the matter;
  • the Deputy Commissioner of Taxation did not have the authority to prosecute the matter;
  • the Registrar had given undue weight to the Income Tax Assessment Act 1936 as it has not been lawfully enacted, as it does not have a proclamation certificate prescribed by the Constitution;
  • the Australian Taxation Office was not a legal entity;
  • the Deputy Commissioner of Taxation did not have standing;
  • the Federal Court did not have jurisdiction to proceed without a trial by jury;
  • the “Voice of the Australian Constitution” is relevant.

 

Co-authored with Ben Caratti
 

Posted in: Tax & ATO News Australia at 08 January 18

Deputy Commissioner of Taxation v Ma [2017] FCA 1317

In the recent decision of Deputy Commissioner of Taxation v Ma, the Federal Court has examined an application by the Deputy Commissioner seeking interlocutory relief by way of freezing order against three respondents.

The relief sought by the Deputy Commissioner, is followed by separate proceedings by the Deputy Commissioner to recover accrued tax liabilities owed by the respondents to the New Zealand Commissioner for Inland Revenue as provided by Article 27 of the Australia New Zealand Double Taxation Agreement.

Pursuant to s 263-30 of the Taxation Administration Act 1953, upon registration of a foreign revenue claim, the amounts owed to a foreign revenue authority become pecuniary liability to the Commonwealth of Australia. In the present case, the tax debt were correctly registered and the required notice was given to the respondents.

Mortimer J in granting the interim relief sought by the Deputy Commissioner discussed the necessary elements for the Court to exercise its discretion. Each element and the relevant findings were as follows:

1. The Applicant must have a reasonably arguable case, both on the law and facts.

Mortimer J was satisfied that the evidence clearly showed that the Deputy Commissioner had a reasonably arguable case as the debt owed to the New Zealand Commissioner of Inland Revenue was duly registered. Thus, the Deputy Commissioner was entitled to the debt. 

2. A danger that a prospective judgement will be wholly or partially unsatisfied because the assets of the prospective judgement debtor will be removed from Australia or disposed, dealt with or diminished in value.

Each debt registered against the three respondents were of significant value. Although there was no evidence of a positive intention on the part of any of the respondents to frustrate the judgement of the Court, Mortimer J was satisfied that from the evidence an inference can be drawn that there is a real risk or danger that the respondent might attempt.

In drawing such an inference, Mortimer J examined several categories of evidence that demonstrated a real risk of deliberate dissipation existed, which are discussed below:

  • (a) On the evidence, the first respondent conducted serious transactions as an authorised person to an account owned by a Chinese national. On these facts, Mortimer J found “the first respondent appears to be concealing his financial activities behind the façade of another person through the use of this bank account.”
  • (b) After the first and second respondent were notified of their tax debt they proceeded to put their Australian properties, either owned personally or through a corporation (under their control) on the market for sale.
  • (c) Following the Deputy Commissioner notifying the first and second respondent of the foreign revenue claim and subsequent garnishee notices, they transferred substantial funds from Australia to China.
  • (d) Other dishonest behaviour exhibited by the first and third respondents as directors of companies that have claimed and been paid large amounts of Goods and Services Tax credits, which they were not entitled to.

Accordingly, on the basis of the evidence discussed Mortimer J recognised that their behaviour gave rise to an inference that there is a real and not fanciful risk that each of the respondents may seek to dissipate or dispose assets should the orders not be made.

3. The balance of convenience favours granting of the freezing order

Mortimer J was satisfied the balance of convenience favours making the freezing order, accounting for the undertakings proffered by the Deputy Commissioner.

In granting the freezing order sought by the Deputy Commissioner, Mortimer J found that providing an exception for the respondents to deal with or dispose of assets in the ordinary court of business was not appropriate in the present context. In light of the risks demonstrated on the evidence, the respondents may use the exception improperly and inappropriately. 

Posted in: Tax & ATO News Australia at 22 November 17

Shord v Commissioner of Taxation

 The case is reasonably unremarkable for any legal or factual analysis, but it does provide a good insight into the attitude of the ATO towards acting as a uncompromising litigant, which makes the most of every possible procedural point, as opposed to a model litigant as they are required.

Justice Logan from Qld made some fantastic comments (with respect);

 

The standard of fair play expected of the Crown and its officers in litigation is a standard in keeping both with the avoidance of behaviours that, in an extreme form, led to the civil war and with the later constitutional settlement. Once this heritage is understood, the requirement for its observance is, or should be, as Griffith CJ stated, “elementary”.

 

I note that Robert Gottleibsen also discussed this case and raised these comments in yesterday’s Australian.

 

Shord v Commissioner of Taxation [2017] FCAFC 167


Between 2006 and 2011, Mr Shord worked on various overseas assignments as a supervisor for foreign companies in the oil and gas industry. He did not lodge tax returns for that period, believing he was a non-resident. The Commissioner believed otherwise and issued amended assessments including all Mr Shord’s foreign income. The Commissioner disallowed Mr Shord’s objection.

The Tribunal found in favour of the Commissioner. The Tribunal found Mr Shord was a resident and, in particular, that his income was not exempt pursuant to s 23AG of the ITAA36. This provision exempts income of residents engaged in foreign services for a continuous period of not less than 91 days.

At the onset of the hearing, counsel for the Commissioner withdrew a contention that Mr Shord’s circumstances failed to meet the legislation’s definition of ‘foreign services’. The Tribunal nonetheless found that Mr Shord did not meet this definition. Fletcher v FCT is authority that a taxpayer is denied procedural fairness when a Tribunal makes a decision on the basis not argued by any party.

Procedural fairness was not raised on appeal to the Federal Court. Instead, the first two questions of law related to the proper application of s 23AG. These hinged on the third question which was whether the Tribunal had jurisdiction to decide whether Mr Shord was engaged in ‘foreign services’. The fourth question was whether Mr Shord was entitled to offsets for foreign taxes paid. The primary judge found against Mr Shord on the third and fourth question and did not therefore consider the first two.

On appeal to the Full Federal Court, procedural fairness was finally raised by Mr Shord as the first ground in an amended notice of appeal. The Commissioner initially objected to the amendment but eventually conceded the ground to Mr Shord. The Full Court thus remitted the matter to the Federal Court to decide the two questions about s 23AG. Unlike the majority, Justice Logan reprimanded the Commissioner, as a representative of the Commonwealth, for its failure to act as a model litigant and raise the crucial issue earlier.

The second ground related to Mr Shord’s entitlement to tax offsets. The Full Court found that Mr Shord did not produce any evidence as to what, when and how much foreign tax he paid, and that neither the Tribunal nor the Commissioner had an obligation to help him adduce evidence to the contrary.
 

Posted in: Tax & ATO News Australia at 01 November 17

In Pursuit of a Fairer System

 The Federal opposition seems to be searching hard for the glib soundbites. The latest attack is on expensive accountants, who only the uber-rich can afford, who use their superior accounting skills at high cost, to manipulate their clients’ affairs to pay no tax.


I came across a recent article in Accountants Daily which reported:


Last week, Bill Shorten delivered the opposition’s federal budget reply speech in which he proposed a cap on the amount individuals can claim as a tax deduction for the management of their tax affairs.


“In 2014-15, 48 Australians earned more than $1 million and paid no tax at all. Not even the Medicare levy. Instead, using clever tax lawyers, they deducted their income down from an average of nearly $2.5 million … to below the tax-free threshold,” Mr Shorten said.


“One of the biggest deductions claimed was the money they paid to their accountants, averaging over $1 million. That’s why a Labor government will cap the amount individuals can deduct for the management of their tax affairs at $3,000.”


The article goes on to make a point about “individuals potentially getting penalised for simply having to deal with a complex tax system and ever increasing requirements of the Tax Office”. I agree with this, and think that this policy is one of the most stupid ideas I have ever heard. Who advises these people?


I strongly doubt that anyone is paying north of $1m for annual tax advice, no matter how complex their tax affairs, or brilliant their advisor's advice.
What is much more likely is that these people have been involved in complex and aggressive audits, and have had to fight to prove their case against a huge team comprising the Commissioner of Taxation's in-house lawyers, external lawyers, junior barristers and silk.


Defending yourself in the face of this is incredibly expensive, particularly when you as a taxpayer bear the onus of proof. What most people don't realise is that barristers charge taxpayers a much higher rate than they charge the ATO. In circumstances where the ATO's audits are often little more than guesswork, debt recovery proceedings commence immediately, and the courts have continually maintained that the onus is on the taxpayer to prove their case and their correct tax position, then of course the cost of fighting the ATO is going to be huge.


To make this not tax deductible is simply ridiculous.


I will give you an example of how ridiculous and expensive audits can be: a few years ago, one of my colleagues was selected for audit. He had been doing alot of driving in a particular year, and the resultant (high) deduction triggered an audit. Fair enough. But the audit quickly blew into a full investigation of every item of income and expenditure this taxpayer had incurred. It took months. The accountant was of great assistance, and because absolutely everything was done correctly, the auditor eventually signed off without a single disallowance.


The accountant had done a huge amount of work and did it very well and efficiently. The bill was, none-the-less, eyewatering. My colleague paid happily in consideration of a job well done.


Guess what happened the following year? My colleague was again selected for an audit. Why? Because he had claimed so much the year before as a deduction for managing his tax affairs.


You would laugh if it wasn’t so frustrating.


Here's a better idea - limit the tax deduction for managing tax affairs by all means, but if the ATO starts an audit, provide the taxpayer a voucher for use on the accountant or lawyer of their choice, equivalent to the ATO's cost of the audit and any appeals (including external lawyers as well as the ATO wages and oncosts). In reality it should be much higher to factor in overheads and the Commissioner's disproportionate purchasing power, but even at only 100% of the ATO’s costs that will be a significantly higher figure than the corresponding deduction.


Or better yet, why don’t we limit the ATO budget for each auditto no more than $3,000, including overheads and a share of fixed costs.

Posted in: Tax & ATO News Australia at 23 May 17

Uber BV v The Commissioner of Taxation

Last Friday, the Federal Court held that services supplied under the uberX service constitute “taxi travel” within the meaning of s 144-5 (1) of the A New Tax System (Goods and Services Tax) Act 1999 (Cth).

 

To give context to this dispute, following the rise in popularity of the ride sharing platform the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) announced in 2015 that Uber drivers will have to register and pay GST, regardless of turnover. The general rule regarding registration is that an enterprise with a turnover of less than $75,000 is not required to register for GST. An exception to this rule is Section 144-5(1) which requires a person who is carrying on an enterprise of supplying ‘taxi travel’ to be registered for GST regardless of turnover. Section 195-1 of the GST Act goes on to define ‘taxi travel’ as ‘travel that involves transporting passenger, by taxi or limousine, for fares’.

 

The Australian Taxation Office (ATO) took the position that the Uber platform fell within this exception. However Uber disagreed with this position and sought a declaration from the Federal Court that the services provided by UberX drivers did not constitute taxi travel.

 

Applicant Submissions:


The applicant made submissions on the construction of ‘taxi travel’ claiming:

 

  • ‘Taxi Travel’ was intended to apply only to the taxi industry as the legislature did not seek to deal with this issue in any other industry.

  • The statutory context suggests that the words “taxi” and “limousine” bear a trade or non-legal meaning. Alternatively the ordinary meaning of the words “taxi” and “limousine” was heavily influenced by the underlying regulatory regime.
  • The disjunctive “taxi or limousine” in the definition of s195-1 provides that “taxi” and “limousine” have different meanings.

 

Using the above mentioned arguments on statutory construction, the applicant put forward factual arguments distinguishing Uber from Taxis. The applicant contended that Uber services did not display the essential operational features of a taxi, on the basis that Uber vehicles do not show markings, the access is limited to Uber licensees (App Users), payment systems and calculations differ and Uber drivers are not required to display a fare meter.

 

Respondent Submissions:


The respondent’s made submissions that:

 

  • “Taxi travel” is to be construed as a whole and connotes the transport, by a person driving a private vehicle, for a fare irrespective of whether the fare is calculated by reference to a taximeter.

  • The services supplied by Uber demonstrate the essential features of transport “by taxi” and “by limousine”.
  • The applicant incorrectly relied on the regulatory regimes applying to the taxi industry.

 

The Commissioner in support of its submission on the construction of ‘taxi travel’ used dictionary definitions to help identify the key features of a ‘taxi’ in ordinary understanding.

 

Furthermore the Commissioner made submissions that the difference between a limousine and a taxi was that a limousine is not calculated by reference to a taximeter and will need to be pre-booked. Therefore, “limousine” could apply to any hire car.

 

Decision:


Justice Griffiths “accepted the Commissioner’s submission that the word “taxi” is a vehicle available for hire by the public and which transports a passenger at his or her direction for the payment of a fare that will often, but not always, be calculated by reference to a taximeter”. In reaching this decision, consideration was placed on principles of statutory interpretation. Further to this the dictionary definitions the Commissioner relied upon provided the court with a supporting context of this interpretation.

 

However, Griffiths J rejected the Commissioner’s position that limousine was not confined to luxury cars. Instead the ordinary meaning of limousine “was a private luxurious motor vehicle which is made available for public hire and which transports a passenger at his or her direction for the payment of a fare”. Although the present matter involved a Honda Civic which did not meet this definition, Griffiths J recognised this position may be different in cases of other UberX drivers who do use luxury cars.


Ultimately this decision will impose huge compliance burdens on Uber and its drivers. Particularly Uber drivers will now have to register both an Australian Business Number and register for GST, charge an additional 10%, lodge Business Activity Statements and claim Input Tax Credits.

 

With this being another win for the Commissioner, it can be expected that there will be a crackdown in tax compliance within the ride sharing industry. 

Co-authored with Ben Caratti

Posted in: Tax & ATO News Australia at 09 March 17

Consultation paper September 2016: Proposed changes to penalties for small business and individuals.

The ATO has recently released a consultation paper titled ‘Proposed changes to penalties for small business and individuals.’ More information on the proposed changes can be found on the ATO website.
 

Essentially, under the proposed changes, the ATO will provide ‘one chance’ before applying a penalty in the following circumstances:

  • For certain small businesses and individual clients, the ATO will not apply penalties for false or misleading statements for failure to take reasonable care for errors made in income tax returns and activity statements, and
  • the ATO will not apply failure to lodge on time penalties for late lodgement of income tax returns and activity statements


The ATO is of the opinion that it is open to the Commissioner to exercise his general powers of administration to give effect to these changes, and therefore a law change is not required.

 

The following parameters would apply to this proposal:

  • The one chance policy would be available to small businesses (with turnovers under $2 million) and individuals, subject to some criteria, with eligible taxpayers being informed at the time that the ‘one chance’ opportunity is provided.
  • This policy would not extend to taxpayers who demonstrate reckless or dishonest behaviour, or those who disengage or cease communicating with the ATO during an audit or review
  • Those who receive their one chance will be given a clear explanation of their error, and what they need to do to get things right in the future.
  • After the one chance has been provided, failure to lodge on time penalties would automatically apply if lodgement was not received by the due date.


The ATO claims that this policy is designed to benefit the taxpayer, as the taxpayer will save time and money by, for example, avoiding the need to research penalty information, lodge objections, and of course, release from the penalties that would otherwise be imposed.

 

However, those with a more cynical eye, or those who have more experience in dealing with the ATO, will likely have a different idea about the ATO’s motives, as well as the possible effects of the proposed changes.
 

Firstly, it is possible that these new rules may encourage overzealous auditors to circumvent the one chance policy by pursuing taxpayers for the 50% penalty rate for reckless or dishonest behaviour where they would not have previously.
 

There are also areas of uncertainty which have not yet been addressed by the ATO. Say, for example, that a taxpayer has not lodged their returns for the 2012, 2013, and 2014 financial years. In light of an audit, would the one chance rule apply to all three years, or just to the first year, with penalties then being automatically assessed for the following years?
 

The ATO’s intentions surrounding future penalties after one chance has been given are also cause for concern, particularly in light of the ATO’s statement that,

‘After the one chance opportunity has been provided, failure to lodge on time would automatically apply if lodgement was not received by the due date.’

Whilst according to the legislation penalties do indeed automatically apply, the current opportunity to contact the ATO to explain the reasons for delay seeking an exercise of the Commissioner’s discretion to remit the penalty seems to be closed to a taxpayer who has been given ‘one chance’.
 

A taxpayer with good grounds to be treated leniently would have to pursue more formal legal avenues, which would likely mean greater costs and more time, a result that is antithetical to the ATO’s supposed intentions.
 

While these proposed changes may appear good natured and well-intentioned at first glance, it remains to be seen whether the likely results of the changes will result in a net positive for the taxpayers of Australia.
 

Posted in: Tax & ATO News Australia at 10 October 16

Freezing Orders and Disputed Debts: The Least of All Evils

Tax is a notoriously perplexing area of law.

However, few things are more perplexing than the inconsistent administration of the ATO’s disputed debt recovery policies.

Strictly speaking, the Commissioner is free to take whatever steps whenever he pleases, regardless of the existence of a dispute – in fact, sections 14ZZM and 14ZZR of the Taxation Administration Act 1953 are explicit that liability to pay assessed tax is not suspended because of pending reviews or appeals. This means, once assessments are issued, the Commissioner is entitled to do what is necessary to recover. This is what makes PS LA 2011/4 so important – taxpayers need certainty on what they can expect when an assessment is issued and have a genuine dispute, because the ATO does get it wrong, often with disastrous results.

The ATO’s practice statement PS LA 2011/4 attempts, with very limited success, to define and clarify the circumstances in which the ATO will seek to collect and recover disputed debts. Relevantly, paragraph 43 of PS LA 2011/4 provides the Commissioner of Taxation will agree to deferral of recovery action where the Commissioner considers that a genuine dispute exists in regard to the assessability of an amount, but it is unclear on what terms the Commissioner will agree to do so. The practice statement talks variously about 50/50 arrangements (payments of 50% of the underlying debt) and security, but does not make clear the circumstances in which these will be considered.

Regrettably, I have been involved in many cases where a taxpayer has a genuine dispute, and is later exonerated at the conclusion of legal proceedings, but the Commissioner nevertheless proceeds with one of the many debt recovery options available to him in the interim. These include, for example:

  • Bankruptcy. This ultimately achieves little in the way of recovering revenue, and can be fatal to a taxpayer’s legal challenge to the assessments the Commissioner relies upon to bankrupt the taxpayer, as the taxpayer’s rights to seek review typically vest with the trustee, or liquidator or administrator of a corporate taxpayer.
  • Garnishee notices. These are issued by the Commissioner to third party debtors of the taxpayer, which require the debtors to make payments directly to the Commissioner in lieu of the taxpayer to discharge the taxpayer’s debt. Notices can be issued to a myriad of third parties, including banks and companies. This can severely impact the taxpayer by diverting business profits, proceeds from the sale of real estate, and any number of other debts a taxpayer may rely on for their business and personal use.
  • Departure Prohibition Orders (or DPOs), which prohibit a tax debtor from leaving Australia, regardless of whether or not they intend to return, and can be issued where the Commissioner holds a belief on reasonable grounds that it is desirable to do so.

Of course, all are inevitably hotly contested by the taxpayers involved. This simply creates ancillary and costly legal proceedings that can cripple a taxpayer without contributing to the resolution of the underlying dispute. Wasting scarce resources on contested debt recovery proceedings is not in the interest of the Commonwealth or taxpayers.

If the ATO’s true concern is that the debt may not be recovered at all, and that objection proceedings are just delaying the inevitable, then surely the ATO must accept that something that preserves the status quo addresses all of their concerns. Freezing orders are a way of achieving this.

In my view, rather than bankruptcy, garnishee notices, DPOs, or other such irreversible actions, freezing orders are a far better way of addressing the ATO’s concerns that assets may be dissipated, while still allowing the taxpayer to prosecute their case. Instead of depleting the taxpayer’s assets and depriving them of their means to contest their tax liabilities, freezing orders simply preserve the status quo for a period defined by the court to mitigate the dissipation of assets pending a final determination and judgment. Such orders were employed in the recent case of Deputy Commissioner of Taxation v Greenfield Electrical Services Pty Ltd [2016] FCA 653, as well as a sequence of related proceedings in Deputy Commissioner of Taxation v Chemical Trustee Limited (No 4) [2012] FCA 1064 and Deputy Commissioner of Taxation v Hua Wang Bank Berhad [2010] FCA 1014.

Ultimately though, within the current scheme of the tax law, we rely on the good graces of the Commissioner in such matters, and much of the way a matter progresses through review and court processes depends on the attitude of the Commissioner of the day.

My view is that PS LA 2011/4 would benefit enormously from a safe harbour approach, and in my respectful suggestion, the taxpayer should always be within that safe harbour wherever there was a genuine dispute. Such an approach would reflect the ATO’s reinvention, as perhaps would an overarching statement that the purpose of debt recovery is to collect the correct amount of revenue - and, more often than not, reasonable minds will differ as to what that correct amount is.

Written in collaboration with Nicholas Dodds.

Posted in: Tax & ATO News Australia at 08 June 16

External Scrutiny Into the ATO

The house of representatives committee on taxation is currently accepting submissions into the external scrutiny of the ATO. This is after recent comments from the Commissioner of Taxation, Chis Jordan that there is too much scrutiny of the ATO. 

Encouragingly, Liberal Senator, Bronwyn Bishop, has resisted this call, saying that given the ATO’s role is to collect money and this has the potential to effect peoples’ lives, parliamentary scrutiny should remain.

More critically, the power that the ATO has to collect money is virtually unlimited, as I have written about before. This power, coupled with a culture that oscillates between rabidly aggressive (at worst) to uncompromising (at best), means that there is always a real risk that an individual ATO officer will go too far and destroy someone’s life in the meantime. This has happened, and I have personally been involved in many such cases, including cases that are deserving of compensation, so badly has the ATO behaved.

The Inspector General of Taxation, Mr Ali Naroozi, does an excellent job of scrutinizing the ATO, with limited resources. Mr Naroozi is a sensible and appropriately skeptical watchdog and needs more scope to review what the ATO does, not less. It would be an absolute disaster if the parliament was convinced that the ATO should be unsupervised.

If parliament agreed with the Commissioner of Taxation in this regard, the result will only be worse for taxpayers, including in particular those many taxpayers who are ultimately showed to have done nothing wrong. There must be consequences if the Commissioner’s actions cause an individual who has not avoided tax at all to lose their business, their house or worse. This has happened, and must not happen again.
 

Posted in: Tax & ATO News Australia at 22 March 16

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Author: David Hughes

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