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WLQC and Commissioner of Taxation [2018] AATA 14

 In WLQC and Commissioner of Taxation Deputy President McCabe examines an application for review brought by a series of Applicants in relation to a number of assessments raised by the Commissioner for a nil amount follow the Commissioner’s refusal to recognise the Applicants as a consolidated group.
 

The Applicants sought to apply for review by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (‘AAT’) of a series of objection decision made to uphold assessments of nil for the 2004, 2005 and subsequent financial years as the Commissioner refused to treat the Applicants as a consolidated group.
 

Deputy President McCabe examined whether the nil assessments issued in 2004, 2005 and subsequent years provided the Applicants with a right of review pursuant to Part IVC of the Taxation Administration Act 1953.

2004 nil assessments:

With respect to the nil assessments in the 2004 financial year, section 175A of the Income Tax Assessment Act 1936 (‘ITAA36’) at the relevant time provided that:


“A taxpayer who is dissatisfied with an assessment made in relation to the taxpayer may object against it in the manner set out in Part IVC of the Taxation Administration Act 1953”

 

Further, section 6 of the ITAA36 at the relevant time defined assessment as:


(a) the ascertainment of:
      i. the amount of taxable income

 

The Commissioner contended that the language of these provisions make it tolerably clear that references to specific amounts of taxable income and a determination of the amount the taxpayer was liable to pay were essential features of an assessment at that relevant time.
 

In support of this position the Commissioner relied upon Batagol v Commissioner of Taxation [1963] HCA 51, which concluded an assessment within the means of the ITAA36 must ascertain an actual amount of tax being due and payable.
 

Conversely, the Applicants relied upon the Full Federal Court’s finding in Commissioner of Taxation v Ryan (1998) 82 FCR 345 that a nil assessment can be made under the ITAA36. However, the decision was overturned by the High Court on appeal on another point.
 

Ultimately, Deputy President McCabe found he was inclined to accept he was bound by the authorities, thus accepted that the nil assessments issued for the 2004 financial year were not valid, and that there is no right of review with respect to those decisions under Part IVC.

 

2005 and subsequent nil assessments:

 

Deputy President McCabe considered the assessments issued with respect to the 2005 and subsequent financial years separately, as the Tax Laws Amendment (Improvements to Self-Assessment) Act (No. 2) 2005 amended sections 6 and 175A of the ITAA36. Following the amendments sub-section 175A(2) was included, which reads:

 

(2) A taxpayer cannot object under sub-section 175A(1) against an assessment ascertaining that
     (a) the taxpayer has no taxable income; or
     (b) the taxpayer has an amount of taxable income and no tax is payable

Unless the taxpayer is seeking an increase in the taxpayer’s liability

 

The Applicants were unable to confirm whether any particular Applicant with a nil assessment was seeking an increase in liability as it would require further analysis of other companies in the corporate group.
 

On this basis, Deputy President McCabe found that section 175A(2) of the ITAA36 could not be satisfied by the Applicants’ merely foreshadowing the possibility of an increase.


Jurisdiction:


With respect to jurisdiction the Applicants argued that the Tribunal should not focus on whether the assessments were invalid, it should concern itself instead with whether the assessments were excessive.
 

In rejecting this argument the Deputy President McCabe found that:
 

“if there is no assessment – and I am constrained to accept there is no assessment in the 2004 year of income where the taxpayers have received a nil assessment – or if the legislation specifically limits the right of review as it has done in s175A(2), the Tribunal has no jurisdiction to review what has been decided”.

 

Co-authored with Ben Caratti
 

Posted in: Tax & ATO News Australia at 29 January 18

NZBG and Commissioner of Taxation (Taxation) [2017] AATA 2784

 The applicant, who currently lives in New Zealand, sought a review of the Commissioner’s refusal to a request for the release of a tax debt. The applicant tendered some written materials and made submissions by telephone at the hearing. The issues in review were whether the tax debt of $92,671.44 and general interest charge of $338,184.38 ought be released, in whole or in part, under s 340-10 of Schedule 1 to the Tax Administration Act 1953 (Cth).

 

The tribunal found that the applicant discharged his onus of proof. The tribunal was not satisfied that the applicant disclosed all of his assets and liabilities, asserting he had no assets other than monies in the bank, for which he failed to put current evidence. The tribunal was neither satisfied that the applicant had no other income besides his New Zealand pension. Statements by New Zealand residents that the applicant filed in relation to the Commissioner’s assertions of other possible assets and income sources were unable to be tested because those persons did not attend the hearing. For those reasons, the tribunal affirmed the Commissioner’s decision.
 

Posted in: Tax & ATO News Australia at 25 January 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

Ham and Tax Practitioners Board (Taxation) [2017] AATA 1642

An appeal has been lodged by the applicant tax agent against the decision of Ham and Tax Practitioners Board, whereby the AAT affirmed the decision of the Tax Practitioners Board (TPB) to reject Mr Ham’s application for renewal of registration, on the basis he is not a ‘fit and proper person’ within the meaning of the Tax Agent Services Act 2009 (TAS Act). 

The TPB’s refusal to renew Mr Ham’s registration arose following the decision of Themis Holdings Pty Ltd v Canehire Pty Ltd & Anor [2014] QSC and the subsequent appeal. In summary, Philippides J found Mr Ham, as the sole director of Canhire Pty Ltd, knowingly breached his fiduciary duties and acted dishonestly in paying away proceeds of a sale, which lawfully belonged to beneficiaries of a trust.

Accordingly, on the basis of Mr Ham’s conduct following the Supreme Court decision, the TPD rejected Mr Ham’s application to renewal on the grounds he was not a ‘fit and proper person’.

Subsequently, Mr Ham sought to have the TPD’s decision reviewed by the AAT.

In determining whether Mr Ham satisfied the definition of a ‘fit and proper person’ for the purposes of the TAS Act, the Tribunal held that it was entitled to rely on the findings of the Philippides J in the Supreme Court judgement as evidence for its own findings.

The Tribunal in concluding it was entitled to rely on the findings of the Supreme Court referred to s33(1)(c) of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal Act 1975 (AAT Act), which provides ‘the Tribunal may inform itself on any matter in such a manner as it thinks it appropriate’.

Accordingly, in conjunction with the Tribunal’s objectives in section 2A of the AAT Act, and present case it concluded that:

  • the most expeditors and efficient means by which the Tribunal can inform itself is by reference to the Supreme Court findings;
  • it would be too costly and time consuming to effectively conduct a re-hearing; and
  • the potential unfairness to Mr Ham was reduced as he was represented in both proceedings and had the opportunity to lead further evidence.


With regard to the question of whether Mr Ham is a fit and proper person, the Tribunal considered Mr Ham’s conduct ‘inconsistent, not only with the qualities of strong moral principle, uprightness and honestly, but also with the atmosphere of mutual trust, that underpins a tax agent’s relationship with his or her clients, the ATO and the Tax Practitioners Board’.

The Tribunal further recognised that Mr Ham failed to take steps to redress his actions, despite having ample opportunity to do so.

Mr Ham sought to argue that he is a ‘fit and proper person’ as he has expressed insight and contrition. However, the Tribunal was not persuaded for the following reasons:

  • Mr Ham’s contrition was late, his letter to the Tax Practitioners Board contained no expression of contrition or remorse;
  • It was inconsistent for Mr Ham to state he “unreservedly” accepts the Supreme Court’s decision, yet he continues to maintain his own version of event;
  • It was inconsistent for Mr Ham to realise the unethical nature of his conduct yet contest it at future disciplinary proceedings; and
  • Mr Ham’s proposed systems to prevent future misconduct demonstrated an oversimplified of the conduct found by the Supreme Court

At the hearing, Mr Ham indicated he would be prepared to abide by two conditions should his registration be renewed:

  • furnish a written report to the TPB at the end of each month for 12 months identifying any transactions he or his associated entities entered into; and
  • undertaking a Professional Development Business Ethics Training Course.

The Tribunal in response to the restrictions proposed by Mr Ham, found that ‘the imposition of conditions is not intended to be an alternative avenue for an applicant who fails to satisfy the standard of fitness and proprietary’.

Posted in: Tax & ATO News Australia at 16 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 Annual Report

On 1 December 2015, the ATO released its annual report for 2014-15. The report provides statistics, details and commentary on the ATO’s performance across a number of key areas. It also showcases the ATO’s reinvention and recent switch to a more commercial approach to interaction with taxpayers, with a view to achieving better and more sensible outcomes. At the outset of the report, Commissioner Chris Jordan summarises this new way of thinking in his personal review:


“With the intent of building community trust and confidence, we shifted the way we interact with clients and stakeholders to be more collaborative, more relationship-oriented, more outcome and future-focused.”


The report goes on to list significant achievements of the past year, including improvements to the ATO’s dispute resolution process with early engagement, use of independent facilitators, increased alternative dispute resolution, and new settlement guidelines. Continuing to improve results in prevention and early resolution of disputes is also listed as an ATO goal looking ahead. Indeed, this is reflected in a number of statistics made available in the report:

 

  • The ATO settled over 1,000 cases in the 2014-15 year, compared to around 390 the year before. 84% of these were settled prior to litigation, compared to 77% in the 2013-14 year.
  • Then, in litigious cases, the ATO also settled 80% of all court cases prior to any hearing.

 

This not only reflects the ATO’s new commercial approach to dispute resolution, but also a more measured approach to litigation, and the cases the ATO is prepared to contest. Critically, this saves time and money for all parties, where previously a dispute may have spiralled out of control until a Tribunal or Court decision.

We are involved in many negotiated disputes and applaud the ATO’s reinvention in this respect. However, while the ATO grapples with this transition, remnants of the old ATO mindset remain. This is particularly evident in the continuing aggressive and inappropriate use of wide debt recovery powers, and gung-ho auditors looking to make a good impression.

Ultimately, the 2014-15 annual report shows the ATO is taking steps in the right direction at the executive level, but on the front lines, there is still plenty of work to be done.

            

Posted in: Tax & ATO News Australia at 03 December 15

New Powers For ATO

I'm sure by now you have seen the recent press releases by the Tax Commissioner and the Assistant Treasurer announcing the Government's intention to provide the Commissioner with a statutory remedial power that will allow for resolution of certain unforeseen or unintended outcomes in taxation and superannuation law. If not, here is the original media release by the office of the Assistant Treasurer;

The Government is committed to providing more certainty and better outcomes for taxpayers and reducing the regulatory burden on individuals, business and community organisations. The complexity of Australia’s tax law, combined with evolving business practices, has increasingly led to unintended outcomes. Even though the Commissioner of Taxation endeavours to interpret the law to give effect to its purpose or object, there are instances where this is not possible.

To address this, the Government will provide the Commissioner with a statutory remedial power to allow for a more timely resolution of certain unforeseen or unintended outcomes in the taxation and superannuation law.This will allow the Commissioner to make a disallowable legislative instrument that will have the effect of modifying the operation of the taxation and superannuation law to ensure the law can be administered to achieve its purpose or object.

There are similar legislative instruments making powers in Commonwealth law currently granted to the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority (APRA) and also the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC). The power will be appropriately limited in its application and will only apply to the extent that it has a beneficial outcome for taxpayers. It will only be available where the modification is not inconsistent with the purpose or object of the law and has no more than a negligible revenue impact. The Commissioner will consult publicly prior to any exercise of the power. This power provides a mechanism to deal with some aspects of complexity in the tax law, and provides more certainty and better outcomes for taxpayers. Josh Frydenberg, Assistant Treasurer.


My perspective on this announcement of new powers for the ATO, and the intention to correct any deficiencies in taxation and superannuation law, is that the law is complex, as we all know, and quite often unintended loopholes operate against taxpayers.

I have been involved in a number of cases, particularly involving superannuation, where it was clear that no mischief was done, but the tax law punished the taxpayer anyway. In most of those cases, the ATO has told me that they would love to help, but their hands are tied because the legislation won’t let them assist. In all cases we worked our way through it, but it was messy and took more time than it should have.

This new legislation will give the ATO power to correct those kind of unintended consequences where the legislation falls down. There are safeguards, thankfully, which require the ATO to only exercise its power to the benefit of taxpayers.

There will be legal purists who will quibble about providing the ATO with powers to make laws, even when those laws are beneficial to taxpayers, as arguable breaching the doctrine of separation of powers between the executive and the legislative arms of government. Overall, however, I think this is a sensible approach and as long as it is closely watched, should only be beneficial to taxpayers. 

Posted in: Tax & ATO News Australia at 04 May 15

ATO Settlements, Part of the restructure?

 As mentioned in a previous article the Commissioner of Taxation announced major changes to the ATO which include a new focus on early resolution of disputes through settlement as an alternative to stressful litigation.

I have recently been involved in a number of significant settlements with the ATO – all of which achieved great outcomes for my clients and reduced their tax bills enormously. Further, the outcomes have avoided the need for us to take the ATO to court which would have been stressful and time consuming for my clients, even if we won.

I enjoy settling my clients’ tax disputes with the ATO without litigation, as it provides far greater certainty, less cost and is an overall better process.

But one issue that definitely needs to be addressed as part of this new process is the interaction between debt recovery and taxation disputes.

Most people do not realize that the ATO treats the resolution of taxation disputes in a completely different department from debt collection and that the processes are entirely unrelated.

The ATO has not yet worked out that to a taxpayer, knowing whether they can afford the repayment of tax debts is of far more importance to the total amount of the debt. Taxpayers, or at least those who are not fabulously wealthy, need time to pay large debts, and without the imposition of high interest rates.

Taxpayers will have no choice but to fight the assessment of unfair tax if the immediate payment of even a reduced tax bill will cripple them financially anyway.

It is critical to the success of the settlement process that the ATO negotiator be authorized to settle the payment terms of any compromise tax position. This is just common sense and hopefully the ATO will see it. 

Posted in: Tax & ATO News Australia at 24 March 15

Reinventing the ATO

The Commissioner of Taxation, Mr Chris Jordan, announced today at the Tax Institute National Convention, that he wishes to reinvent the ATO. Before you roll your eyes and pass this off as a publicity gimmick, take a look at what he has said.

In his words:

"We’re looking to reinvent the ATO, to transform how we go about our cure business, and make the ATO a contemporary and service-oriented organization – to be a leading agency, relevant and response to the expectations of the community and the government.”

Although this sounds like fairly bland, bureaucrat-ese, I have been given the opportunity of some insider perspective through my interactions with the ATO at recent round-table consultations, which has led me to believe that there is a genuine attempt to change the culture, at least at the higher levels of the ATO. Whether (and when) this filters to the level of ATO officers that most commonly deals with my SME and affluent family group clients remains to be seen.

 

The Commissioner, however, must be applauded for these mooted changes, and if it comes off, text books about organizational cultural change will be written on this for years to come.

 

"Everybody has accepted by now that change is unavoidable. But that still implies that change is like death and taxes — it should be postponed as long as possible and no change would be vastly preferable. But in a period of upheaval, such as the one we are living in, change is the norm."
— Peter Drucker, Management Challenges for the 21st Century 

 

In the meantime, however, the most we can safely say is that there has at least been a recognition that the culture at the moment is perceived as:

• Hierarchical
• Siloed
• Bureaucratic
• Risk adverse

Sound familiar? Anyone who has had any interaction with the ATO over the last fifteen years will be nodding in agreement. That the ATO has recognized this is, by itself, a fantastic step in the right direction.

One practical issue that the ATO seems to be firmly embracing is the need for a better settlement process. In the past the ATO has allowed positions to become entrenched resulting in costly and stressful litigation. As our experience shows, the ATO has often got it wrong in the past and we have taken them to court on behalf of our clients on many occasions to prove it.

 

While beating the ATO in court is satisfying at one level, I personally prefer getting practical and worthwhile outcomes for my clients through early settlement. Fortunately the ATO now appears to be recognizing the value in this and has embraced early settlement – at least in principle. I have been involved in many recent settlements with the ATO (one recent one went until 11.00pm at night) and have achieved fantastic results for my clients, without the need to go to Court. Perhaps the ATO is capable of the change it so obviously needs within its cultural mindset, only time will tell but I certainly hope this proposed change in the ATO is genuine and that we can look forward to a lot more early settlements.
 

Posted in: Tax & ATO News Australia at 20 March 15

New Commissioner of Taxation flags changes to the appeal process

Chris Jordan has only been in the top job at the ATO since 1 January 2013 and he has already identified that the current tax appeal process is not independent and needs to be fixed.
 
Tax appeals are currently heard in first instance by ATO officers and this process must be exhausted before an independent body (such as the Administrative Appeals Tribunal or the Federal Court) can hear a tax appeal.  This can take months (even years) and cost the taxpayer enormous amounts of money. There has been significant criticism of this process as it is not independent. There are examples of ATO officers who hear the tax appeal simply rubber stamping the work of the auditor. Worse, there have been allegations that the ATO has benchmarks for this process that require ATO officers to knock back 80% of appeals, rather than judge them on their merits.
 
The current system is clearly broken and needs to be fixed. The new Commissioner has taken a step in the right direction by moving towards an independent division, although it appears that this division will still be within the ATO.  It will be interesting to see whether this new appeals division really will be independent.
 
Small business taxpayers, many of whom I have acted for against the ATO, will rightly point out that this is all very interesting from an administrative law perspective, but how will things change for those taxpayers who have been subjected to the delays, cost and institutional biases of the current system?  Now that the new Commissioner has acknowledged that the current tax appeal process is broken, will there be meaningful compensation paid to those taxpayers whose lives have been financially devastated by it?
 
I am calling on the new Commissioner to relook at all such taxpayers and make it a key priority of his tenure. The only way that confidence in Australia’s tax system can be restored is by ensuring accountability for ATO officers and that means that the ATO must pay adequate compensation to those taxpayers who have unfairly suffered at the hands of the ATO.
 

Posted in: Tax & ATO News Australia at 13 March 13

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Tax & ATO News Australia

Author: David Hughes

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