Tax & ATO News Australia

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Analysing the Systemic Issues Within the ATO

Those of you who have read my rants (blog) know by now my thoughts on the systemic problems within the ATO, but in light of the recent reports by ABC News and Fairfax Media about alleged abusive practices by the ATO, I thought it might be a good time to reiterate.

The alleged abusive practices that are currently in the spot light are not a universal problem, but it is definitely cultural, not an isolated occurrence. There are many officers in the ATO who are reasonable, understanding and work tirelessly to ensure the correct amount of tax is levied and collected. Unfortunately, there are also a significant number of ATO officers who have an institutional bias against tax payers, calling them crooks and cheats, and assuming facts before they are proved.

Regrettably, over many years, I have seen that once a preliminary view is formed, the ATO do not have good systems for reversing that view. The true separation of objection officers from auditors has been successful, in my view, but regrettably debt collection is an entirely separate issue. I have had many matters, including very recent matters, where aggressive debt collection has proceeded (including departure prohibition orders, supreme court proceedings and garnishees) despite there being clear and undisputed evidence that the debt being chased was well in excess of what was genuinely owed.

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.

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 statement made in the Sydney Morning Herald article, that the ATO targets small businesses more than larger ones because the latter have more money to fight back, certainly has a grain of truth to it. There is no doubt that big business has a greater ability to negotiate favourable payment terms compared with small business. The ATO is open about this – they identify the risk of recovery as being a major factor in aggressively pursuing debt collection. The difficultly is that when combined with the conclusive presumption that an assessment is correct, notwithstanding there being genuine grounds to dispute it, a perceived risk of recovery of an incorrect assessment means that small business taxpayers are frequently pursued for debts that are ultimately proved to be wrong. This does not happen at the big end of town.

When analysing the systemic problems at the ATO, there seems to be two things that can be done to set things right;

  • (1) no debt should be pursued while there is a genuine challenge to the validity of the debt; and
  • (2) if a taxpayer incurs costs in setting the record straight because of ATO errors, 100% of the taxpayer’s costs must be reimbursed.

Taxpayers by and large try to do the right thing. Australians are not tax cheats. Tax laws are horrible complex and even the ATO frequently changes its position on issues. Too easily differences in opinion, or even reliance on old ATO’s views, are considered to be ‘tax avoidance’. By all means the ATO should chase those who deliberately flout tax laws with the full force of the law, but don’t call small business owners tax cheats when they are trying their best to interpret on the fly laws which are neither simple nor well explained. If a mistake occurs, or there is a difference in interpretation, give small business owners the benefit of the doubt and the opportunity to sort through the issues without the threat of aggressive debt collection and financial destruction. 

Posted in: Tax & ATO News Australia at 10 April 18

VPRX and Commissioner of Taxation (Taxation) [2017] AATA 2156

The Applicant sold a website to a US buyer and received payment in instalments throughout the 2010 financial year, and further payments in the 2012 financial year. As the Applicant did not lodge a tax return for either year, the Commissioner issued default assessments with a 75% shortfall penalty based on amounts documented by AUSTRAC. The tax payable and penalties were reduced after the Applicant objected to the decision, and one payment was treated as capital.

The Applicant submitted that all of the documentation relating to the sale had been lost except for some emails. For the 2010 financial year payments, he contended that it was difficult to secure a fixed price during the GFC so the amounts received were ‘revenue payments’, consideration from the buyer based on their calculated profit, and were not income. He claims he was entitled to deductions for expenses in earning his ordinary income. With regard to the 2012 financial year payments, he contended that the penalty was unjust in circumstances where he was unable to locate the sale agreement. Indeed, the applicant was inefficient in producing evidence and failed to do so on several occasions.

The tribunal accepted the emails as evidence of a sale agreement but in the absence of its details, particularly the basis on which payments were calculated, treated the payments as income rather than capital. Regarding the penalty, the tribunal found that the Applicant’s inability to produce documents was no justification for concession and that, although he was not grossly careless, there was no justification for reducing the penalty in the circumstances. The tribunal reiterated that the onus is on the Applicant to establish that the assessments are excessive, and concluded that the Applicant was unable to discharge this burden. There were no submissions on the matter of capital gains tax.


 

Posted in: Tax & ATO News Australia at 28 November 17

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

ATO communication improving? Fingers crossed.

I recently attended a meeting between a number of ATO officers and representatives from the legal profession around Australia.  The meeting was billed as a high level communication exercise, as the ATO is eager to improve relationships with lawyers generally.


Surprisingly, the meeting was very positive.  Representatives of the ATO, right up to the Assistant and Deputy Commissioner level appeared genuinely committed to a new process.  Hopefully this will translate into real changes on the ground.  From past experience, this has not happened.

 

One of the major focuses over the next twelve months for the ATO is debt disputes (that is, where debt matters end up in court for recovery action).  I raised as some length my experiences, some of which I have shared previously, of debt recovery matters where there is a real dispute that the tax debt is wrong and there are appeals on foot.  The ATO (at a high level) were adamant that the ATO did not take debt recovery action when there was a genuine appeal. 

 

I told them they were wrong and gave an example of a taxpayer who sold her house at the height of the GFC because of the pressure she was under from the ATO debt collection department.  She not only had lodged an appeal, but we eventually won with all assessments set aside.  This was cold comfort to her, as she had lost a fortune selling her house in a fire sale in a depressed market.

 

The ATO is keen to hear more examples of these sort of thing happening.  Hopefully they are genuine.  I hope to bombard them with examples.  I have several, but I am hoping that if anyone has a story of debt collection gone horrible wrong, that they could share it with me (anonymously) so that I can start to collate some feedback from the ATO.

 

You can reply below, or email my personal assistant confidentially at abermingham@smh.net.au

Posted in: Tax & ATO News Australia at 24 February 14

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Author: David Hughes

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