Interpretation of Double Tax Treaty – Meaning of “Subject to Tax” TC02178

In the recent case of Paul Weiser v HMRC (TC02178) the first tier tribunal considered the interpretation of the double tax treaty between the UK and Israel and in particular the meaning of the phrase “subject to tax”.

Article XI of the UK-Israel double tax treaty provides that UK source pensions will not be subject to UK tax where they are received by a resident of Israel and subject to Israel tax in respect thereof. However under Israeli tax rules, UK pension income is excluded from tax in Israel during the first 10 years of residence.

HM Revenue and Customs therefore argued that because the pension income was exempt from tax in Israel it could not be said to be subject to tax.

On the other hand, the taxpayer claimed that he is within the charge to tax in Israel by virtue of living there even though Israel does not levy tax on his UK pension income because of the exemption.

Following the decision in Bayfine UK v HMRC (STS 717) the tribunal found that the double tax treaty should be interpreted using a purposive rather than a literal approach. The primary purpose of the double tax treaty is to eliminate double tax and prevent the avoidance of tax, the purpose is not therefore to enable the double non taxation of income.

The case therefore centred around the meaning of the phrase “subject to tax” and the difference in international tax treaties between this phrase and the phrase “liable to tax”.

HM Revenue and Customs presented various examples of case law from other countries and academic articles that examine the distinctions between the two phrases. The tribunal noted that whilst such authorities are not determinative they are relevant.

In HM Revenue and Custom’s view, the distinction between the two phrases is that the expression “liable to tax” requires only an abstract liability to tax (i.e. a person is within the scope of tax generally irrespective of whether the country actually exercises the right to tax) and therefore has a much broader meaning than the phrase “subject to tax” which requires that tax is actually levied on the income.

The first tier tribunal decided the case in favour of HM Revenue and Customs such that relief was not available under the UK-Israel tax treaty to exempt the pension from UK tax because the pension was not subjected to tax in Israel.

The tribunal’s interpretation of the UK-Israel double tax treaty and meaning of “subject to tax” will be of interest to taxpayers relying on double tax treaties and those practitioners who advise on double tax treaties.

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