HMRC: Reasonable Excuses and Suspended Penalties

Many years ago, as a young Inspector of Taxes, my District Inspector taught me not to take a harsh line on “late” submissions on behalf of the Inland Revenue.  His policy was that it was not the job of the Government to fine or penalise citizens if they were broadly trying to comply with their tax obligations but were slightly late in doing so.  The thinking behind this idea was that people were far more likely to be co-operative and compliant – factors key in having a capable and cost effective tax system – if citizens felt they were dealing with people who were reasonable and flexible, rather than hide bound by bureaucratic rules.

Perhaps as a result of such benevolent views, Accountants rarely thought about questions of Revenue powers and procedures, trusting the administrative reasonableness of the ‘Powers that be’.  It appears to me that such flexibility and judgement has been eroded from the Revenue lexicon.  This may be because of a desire to be more consistent, but in any event Accountants should help clients by considering carefully whether penalties have been correctly and legally levied or whether they can be eliminated or mitigated via concepts such as reasonable excuse or the use of suspended penalties.

Examples of cases where the Revenue line taken to the courts could appear harsh include;-

Cotter, where the Revenue sought to deny a taxpayer the right to claim a stand over of collection of tax which was in dispute pending resolution of the appeal.  The taxpayer won in the Court of Appeal, but HMRC are now taking it to the Supreme Court, demonstrating their effective limitless resources compared to individual taxpayers.

Business Women’s Coaching, where the taxpayer was fined for filing a return due by 31 December on 11 February.  The return in question was updated as originally it had been submitted on 9 December, but was then rejected as being incomplete.  The taxpayers did not advance a ‘reasonable excuse’ so their appeal was rejected, but would taxpayers consider HMRC’s behaviour as reasonable and proportionate in imposing a fine on being just 6 weeks late in adding extra material to a return originally submitted in time?

F Weerasinghe, where an accountant had lost the client’s papers and HMRC then rejected updated figures from a new accountant on the basis that they were too late.  The taxpayer won on a technicality because the tribunal held the time limits did not apply, because HMRC had not issued a formal demand for the Return in question.  They also found that the taxpayers figures appeared more reliable than those calculated by HMRC.

Hard cases make bad law and HMRC have a very difficult job to do.  It is a question of balance but perhaps it may be worth reflecting on the original responsibility of the Inland Revenue for the “care and management” of the tax system in Section 1 of the Taxes Management act 1970.  This was changed in 2005 to “collection and management”.  Maybe a little more “care” to mitigate pure “collection” may pay dividends in keeping taxpayers happy and compliant?

The other lesson is that accountants should be helping their clients by seeking to identify circumstances winthin the scope of “reasonable excuse” or the regime for suspending penalties.

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One Response to HMRC: Reasonable Excuses and Suspended Penalties

  1. Bill says:

    Of course HMRC’s requirements for reasonable excuse has also been shown to be unecessarily harsh in recent times by the Tribunal judges

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