Elbrook (Cash and Carry) Ltd – Payment of VAT Assessment Would Cause Hardship

Arguments are inevitable between taxpayers and HMRC over interpretations of key phrases in the legislation. These often revolve around penalties, appeals and what constitutes ‘reasonable’. In a recent case, the Revenue lost on the grounds that the taxpayer would have suffered ‘hardship’ if required to pay a VAT assessment before appealing it (as according to VATA 1994, s.84 one of the conditions for appealing is that the tax must be paid).

The taxpayer had won the case at the First-Tier Tribunal, and the Upper Tribunal noted that it could only overturn the finding in that case if they had made an error in law.

The Upper Tribunal noted that the test had to consider not just the ability to pay, but “the capacity to pay without financial hardship”. It was felt the possibility of obtaining new finance should be ignored in the circumstances (which seems to go against standard HMRC practice in cases regarding difficulty paying). It was only if other sources were likely to become available they should be considered. The judge agreed with the First-Tier Tribunal that approaching their bankers would not have been suitable as it could have caused further financial difficulties through the bank becoming concerned.

Overall, the judge agreed with the conclusions of the First-Tier Tribunal, even though the decision could perhaps have been worded better. The case highlights that it can be worth challenging HMRC interpretation. They are Civil Servants, not the judiciary, so there are independent arbiters of the rules!

Please contact us if you have any concerns about HMRC practices. We have extensive experience in such matters. Often HMRC are right, but not always. They will only be kept to high standards by rigorous, independent review. This is in the best interests of everyone, including HMRC.

The Dog Ate My….

The Dog Ate My [Homework] Tax Return

crocodile

There has been much publicity recently regarding the funny [!?] HMRC Press Release regarding failed excuses for failing to file Tax Returns on time. Generally, the ‘joke’ seems to be that they are such poor excuses that they are on a par, or even worse claims that ‘The Dog Ate My Tax Return’. This shows the poor standard of education and lack of discipline in our schools. Anyone who has failed with that excuse at school should have at least graduated to ‘A Crocodile Ate My Tax Return’ with an invitation to the Tax Officer to go and retrieve it(!).

No doubt HMRC have much to put up with, and lousy excuses will inevitably test their patience. However, they are Civil servants who should be courteous and sympathetic to all tax payers – not just those they like because of them being ‘compliant’. With this in mind, I refer to the cases of P. Miller and Coomber. Case law shows HMRC are not always correct in their views on penalties. Advisors should always consider whether a penalty being charged is correct, proportional, or could even be suspended.

In the recent case of P. Miller the Courts held that HMRC were wrong in dismissing an application for a penalty to be suspended. The Judge followed the case of Hackett in focussing on the general obligations for all tax payers (rather than the narrow, specific facts of the tax payer’s own mistake) in deciding that there were sensible suspension conditions which could encourage him to avoid a future careless mistake. Thus the immediate imposition of a penalty liability could be avoided. No doubt good news for the tax payer.

HMRC had more success in the case of Coomber, where the Judge rejected a suggestion that a tax payer had a reasonable excuse for late payment when the tax cheque he had written was unexpectedly dishonoured by his bank. Reading the case in detail, it appears to be an object lesson in presenting all relevant evidence and ensuring it is correct in detail. Quoting from Clean Car Co Ltd, the Judge said, ‘The test of whether or not there is a reasonable excuse is an objective one … Was what the tax payer did a reasonable thing for a responsible trader, conscious of and intending to comply with his obligations regarding tax, but having the experience and other relevant attributes of the tax payer, and placed in the situation the taxpayer found himself at the relevant time a reasonable thing to do?’

From the Judge’s comments it may have proved better for the tax payer if he had produced evidence of why the bank dishonoured the cheque (any why it was unexpected) plus better documentary evidence as to the precise dates of events. It is plain details can affect the Judge’s view as to the strength of a case. In this new era of quasi-automatic penalties advisors need to be on alert for sensible mitigating circumstances. Reasonable excuses do go beyond ‘Disaster, death and disease’, to quote the HMRC general view, but throw the excuse ‘A Crocodile Ate My Tax Return’ on the fire!

What are advisors current experiences of penalties and mitigation?

Private Residence Relief Denied – A Oliver

The tax law surrounding the sale of residences and Private Residence Relief continues to cause disputes between taxpayers and HMRC.  With the disparity between capital gains tax rates on most assets and the higher rate now applicable to sales of residential property, this is only likely to continue.

In a recent case at the First-Tier Tribunal (A Oliver, TC5521), the taxpayer purchased a flat in January 2007 and then sold it in April 2007.  He claimed he purchased it following a trial separation from his partner (which was recommended by their counselling sessions).  However, the flat had a relatively short time remaining on its lease which made it difficult to sell.  Mr Oliver asked the vendor to begin the process to extend the lease before exchange of contracts; otherwise he would have had to wait two years before he could make the application following completion.

The extension of the lease resulted in a substantial increase to the flat’s value, and HMRC argued that Private Residence Relief (PRR) should not apply, on the basis that he had been ‘engaging in adventure in the nature of a trade’.  The rules state at TCGA 1992, Section 224(3) that PRR should not apply where a property is acquired with “the purposes of realising a gain from the disposal of it”.

Interestingly, the Tribunal agreed that Mr Oliverʼs actions did not amount to a venture in the nature of a trade and that he did not have an intention to sell the flat when he first acquired it.  However, they instead considered whether the taxpayer’s presence in the flat was sufficient for it to qualify as his main residence.  They found that there were inconsistencies in his evidence and ultimately concluded that the quality of occupation lacked any degree of permanence or expectation of continuity.

Mr Oliver’s appeal was therefore dismissed.  Had Mr Oliver made a more convincing witness, and perhaps been able to demonstrate his intent to reside in the property more permanently he may have succeeded.  In cases such as this, taking advice in advance would help to avoid problems arising later.  We would be delighted to hear from you if you or your clients might be caught by these rules.

HMRC Fail in Toothless Attack

HMRC use Eric Morecombe tactics according to judge. “Playing all the notes but not necessarily in the right order”

HMRC use Eric Morecombe tactics according to judge.
“Playing all the notes but not necessarily in the right order”

Readers of our blogs will know we are always interested in cases analysing the extent of HMRC powers and how they should be used. The recent case of Raymond Tooth and the Commissioners for Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs demonstrates (again) that HMRC powers are not infinite. It also brings out some highly topical points:

1) In Raymond Tooth the taxpayer filed a tax claim which HMRC later decided to challenge. They had though missed their normal time limit on raising an enquiry, so had to raise a ‘discovery assessment’.

2) The definition of a ‘discovery’ made by HMRC is confirmed to be very wide in scope and may include “a change of opinion or correction of an oversight” by the Inspector of Taxes raising the discovery assessment.

3) The general points in Cotter are good law and emphasise the requirements for good disclosure by taxpayers and a clear explanation of how they have computed their self-assessment.

4) The burden is on HMRC to demonstrate that their extended time limits for assessments under ‘discovery’ may be used only where they are saying that the loss of tax was brought about ‘deliberately’. Deliberately means intentionally or knowingly (Duckitt v Farrand).

5) All praise to John Brookes (Tribunal Judge in this case). He basically eviscerated the HMRC case. He said with regard to the issue of extended time limits,

“In my judgment this [assessment] cannot be right. The deliberate (or indeed careless) conduct necessary to enable the issue of a discovery assessment and extend the time limits for doing so must involve more than the completion of a tax return which, in itself, is a deliberate act. As a person completing a return must do so intentionally or knowingly, and can hardly do so accidentally, HMRC’s argument effectively eliminates any distinction between ‘careless’ and ‘deliberate’…[their] attempt to argue otherwise, saying that if the wrong figures were entered in the right boxes it might be careless but if the right figures were entered in the wrong boxes it would be deliberate, was somewhat reminiscent of, and about as convincing as, Eric Morecambe’s riposte to Andre Previn about “playing all the notes, but not necessarily in the right order.”

6) The case can also be linked to current concerns about ‘Making Tax Digital’ (MTD).

Evidence was presented about the problems created by a computer glitch on how the alleged loss claim should be shown. The computer system adopted was a respectable one, approved by HMRC. However, apparently it would not cope with the proposed claim. The advice given to the taxpayer – to fit in with electronic filing, was thus to use a computer ‘work around’. As most people with appreciate, this is quite a common suggested solution, because computer programming is never perfect. The work around meant the loss claim went in the ‘wrong’ data input box, but the taxpayer described this in the ‘white space’ on the Return and the final answer came to what he believed was the correct net tax liability. Despite this, HMRC when they wished to dispute the loss claim, accused him of ‘deliberately’ causing an underpayment of tax. Whilst HMRC lost in this case, it is easy to imagine the dangers of accidental non-compliance caused by seeking to meet tight computer deadlines for making tax digital. Then it appears from cases such as this that such computer errors may be seen as something more sinister by HMRC. I believe this emphasises the risks of making such a system compulsory, before it is thoroughly field tested and people are familiar with it.

I am pleased to see that most commentary from the profession seems to agree with this line.

There is an interesting contrast in the apparent view of HMRC on a balanced system, in that the proposals suggest taxpayers are to be given a compulsory deadline for compliance every three months, whereas if they get it wrong HMRC should be entitled to a time limit of 20 years to challenge it.

Compliance is a delicate flower, worth preserving. If the proposals are brought in, how many businesses will simply drop off the radar if they get behind for a couple of returns and then fear they have neither the time nor resources to catch up again?

Do people believe the MTD and new penalty proposals are fair? If not please lobby to try to get them amended. If computer filing is going to be so popular, as claimed by HMRC, there should be no need for compulsion. Penalties should be levied on people committing deliberate wrongdoing, not mere bystanders.

The Importance of Advanced Planning – VAT Registration

A recent case at the First-Tier Tribunal, DJ Butler v HMRC, highlighted again the benefits of taking professional advice in good time. The taxpayer operated as a sole-trader working as a decorator, project manager and carpenter.

In the absence of the project management turnover the taxpayer would have been below the VAT registration threshold. After HMRC identified that his turnover was above the limit, the taxpayer argued that the project management was run as a partnership with his wife; however he had always declared it on his individual self-assessment tax returns as sole trader turnover.

The Tribunal considered that the project management work should rightfully be considered an extension of his sole trader activities and that no partnership existed. It did not help that no profits were reported on his wife’s tax returns, and nor were there separate partnership bank accounts or sales invoices raised in its name. The taxpayer’s appeal was therefore dismissed.

It would appear that if the taxpayer had taken steps in advance to create a separate legal entity for the project management, whether a partnership or a company, and followed the correct reporting and legal steps, the planning may have been effective. As it was, it was difficult to argue that self-assessed sole-trader income was in fact from a partnership.

Taking professional advice in advance would have helped this taxpayer, is there anything we can help you with?

Bayliss – HMRC Seek Extra Penalties From Failed Avoidance Scheme

Another week and another case involving a failed tax avoidance scheme.

This time, perhaps more worryingly, HMRC were arguing that the return was submitted fraudulently or negligently by the taxpayer and therefore sought the extra penalties that would be due in such circumstances. This shows a new aspect of the targeting of anti-avoidance schemes and suggests users of schemes could expect the costs of failure to rise higher, whether in penalties or fees for defending them.

Ultimately, the taxpayer won in this case. Of particular interest was the fact that the Tribunal found that relying on the advice of a trusted accountant was helpful in suggesting that he had not acted negligently. It appears the courts confirm that obtaining suitable professional advice is worth paying for in the long run!

Mr Bayliss participated in a scheme marketed by Montpelier Tax Consultants (Montpelier). The scheme involved a Contract for Differences (CFD) and was sold as generating a £539,000 capital loss for Mr Baylis in 2006–07. It was agreed by all the parties that the scheme had failed and additional tax was due, however the taxpayer appealed against penalties raised by HMRC on the basis that ther return was submitted fraudulently or negligently.

The Tribunal determined that in accordance with established case law, in order to prove fraud HMRC had to prove that the appellant did not have an honest belief in the correctness of the return. The Tribunal was persuaded on the basis of the evidence and facts that Mr Bayliss did believe that his tax return was correct and so there was no fraudulent behaviour.

On the question of negligence, the Tribunal felt that the correct test was that set out in Blyth v Birmingham Waterworks Co (1856), that of ‘the omission to do something which a reasonable man, guided upon those considerations which ordinarily regulate the conduct of human affairs, would do, or doing something which a prudent and reasonable man would not do’. They also considered the test in Anderson (decʼd) [2009], ‘to consider what a reasonable taxpayer, exercising reasonable diligence in the completion and submission of the return, would have done’.

HMRC used a number points to support their argument that Mr Baylis was negligent, including that:

  1. the transaction did not stand up to commercial scrutiny and the appellant failed to check the commercial reality;
  2. the appellant had not kept copies of the documentation, whereas a reasonable person would have done so;
  3. It was a complex financial transaction and the appellant should have obtained proper independent financial advice, but he relied on informal advice.

The Tribunal agreed with HMRC that some of the taxpayer’s behaviour could have been deemed to be careless, but on balance found that HMRC had not done enough to prove that the appellant was negligent in filing an incorrect return.

Interestingly, they felt that relying on his accountant was helpful in this respect, stating “We are persuaded that the appellant relied fully on Mr Mall, a chartered accountant on whom he had relied for a number of years, and on what he believed (based on Mr Mallʼs recommendation) to be Montpelierʼs expertise.”

The tribunal allowed the appeal on the basis that HMRC had not proven that Mr Bayliss acted fraudulently or negligently in submitting an incorrect return.

Employers Beware! – PAYE Penalties

Typically, PAYE has been described as an ‘approximate’ method of collecting tax due, which remained the ultimate liability of the employee.

Recent judgements, including the case of Paringdon Sports Club, suggest more of the risk may fall on the employer.

In addition the risk may be worse with the current HMRC penchant for penalties. Many advisors will be familiar with their tendency to seek around 15% extra tax for relatively minor ‘careless’ errors. This represents increased risk for business and their advisors.

There are methods related to potentially mitigating or suspending such penalties.

To avoid embarrassment and excessive cost a prudent review may seem sensible?

Whilst most businesses operate routine PAYE relatively easily with the backing of software, experience suggests that ‘unusual’ or one off events can cause problems.

These days such errors can lead to expensive penalties, so procedures should be put in place to check the correct treatment on one off matters and if necessary take advice.

On the penalty front the case of P Steady shows that it can be worth appealing against a penalty imposition. In that recent case the taxpayer managed to get a penalty suspended where, by oversight he had put down bank interest earned in incorrect years. The Tribunal said ‘The mere fact that this is an error in a tax return does not mean that a taxpayer has been careless’. They went on to say, ‘To levy a penalty on a taxpayer who hereto has had a good compliance record over many years and then refuse to consider suspension of those penalties does not reflect well on HMRC’.

As always thinking of the correct technical position makes sense.

Law, Interpretation and Common Sense

Here is a conundrum.

A long, long time ago … in a galaxy far, far away (a.k.a. York, England 1981) I was a newly created Inspector of Taxes.

I was taught that the tax rules were strict and should be followed to the letter. However, that should not mean artificial impositions and ridiculous decisions. In those days (what is now HMRC) had ‘care and management’ of the Tax System.

Hence, my training was that, if during a Tax Investigation (of which I did quite a few!) I ‘discovered’ (see S29 TMA 1970) that some profits from one year, really ought to have been taxed in a different year, I should adjust it accordingly – but on both sides. So, in adding the profit to one year (per the correct accounting) I should then deduct the profit from the year I have moved it from. I should not seek to tax it twice, because that would be blatantly unfair!

A recent case [Ignatius Fessal v HMRC] reached the same conclusion, albeit using complex legal arguments concerning the European Human Rights Act. In this case the question was one of interpretation. In analysing it the Tribunal have resorted to the Human Rights Act to get to a fair conclusion. In other (older) leading cases, Justice Rowlatt, said that there was no ‘Equity’ in tax, you just read the words stated by Parliament and interpreted them strictly. However, the fact that there was no ‘Equity’, did not mean there should be no fairness. It was simply a method of how best to analyse the statute, bearing in mind the underlying fundamental principle that no Government would wish to impose double taxation.

So the answer should be – No Double Tax.

That truly should be the end of the story.

BUT NO!

In the Fessal case (which as Andrew Hubbard rightly says is complex in the 19 May issue of the leading professional magazine, Taxation) the First Tribunal spent 36 rather closely argued and difficult pages, including analysing a key issue as to whether the ‘European Human Rights Act’ should apply?

To be fair to the Tribunal, they gave detailed legal analysis, which is impressive in scope and response. However, should it have been necessary to invoke such complexity on what surely should have been determined as a simple question of fairness? As certain Old-Fashioned English Common Law Chaps might have concluded – You cannot tax a person twice on the same profits!

To use the current jargon “End of …”

Would the Revenue in the days of their duties for ‘care and management of the tax system’ objected to this ‘as a matter of law?’ It would be hoped not.

In present times though – they did. As the Court pointed out, the way HMRC handled the matter put the taxpayer in a worse position than if they had not made a Tax Return at all! Surely, this could not be just and would (fairly quickly) lead the tax system into disrepute? This would cost HMRC far more in lost goodwill and compliance.

In addition, the Fessal case does raise rather interesting issues as to the impact of Double Tax Treaties, where maybe they do not work as well as anticipated. Could the Human Rights principle established against Double Taxation assist in cases where there is effective Double Taxation not strictly protected by a Double Tax Treaty? (See the Anson case?)

Moving on, business needs certainty. If the system is to be strictly on a ‘rules basis’ then surely that should be the same for both sides – taxpayer and HMRC. This brings us on to the latest Finance Bill proposals for penalties under GAAR. Are these well thought out and balanced?

Taxpayers who have indulged in tax avoidance have obeyed the law, by definition. Otherwise they would be guilty of tax evasion – a criminal offence.

I hold no brief for artificial tax schemes. In my experience, many of them fail either because they do not meet the underlying commercial requirements, or in truth they depend upon a sham. Some are correct under the law though. Surely they should not be punished severely because the opinion of a bureaucrat finds them objectionable? The Finance Bill proposal for a tax geared penalty of up to 60% may seem disproportionate? Could this be challenged as a breach of ‘Human Rights’?

My opinion is that to protect Government Revenue, HMRC do not need greater powers, nor heavier penalties. They need more, better trained personnel, so that cases can be dealt with and if necessary investigated properly.

I believe the issue is an administrative one – not one for even more legislation.

Opinions please?

Entrepreneurs’ relief – What is an ordinary share?

We have written in previous blogs about the need to take care over Entrepreneurs’ relief (ER) and preference shares (see Entrepreneurs’ Relief – 5% Test and Preference Shares) and a recent case heard by the First-Tier Tribunal has shed more light on how the rules are to be interpreted.

One of the conditions for ER is that the taxpayer must hold at least of 5% of the company’s ordinary share capital and voting rights. For these purposes, ordinary share capital is defined as all share capital excluding fixed rate preference shares.

However, in the recent case of M & E McQuillan v HMRC [2016] TC05074 redeemable non-voting shares which did not carry rights to dividends were found to not constitute ordinary shares for ER purposes.  It was found that shares with no rights to dividends could be considered as having a right to a fixed rate of 0% and therefore could be excluded from the calculation of ordinary share capital.

In this case, this provided the right outcome for the taxpayers as they were selling their ‘ordinary’ shares in the company, of which they had 33% each.  Another couple had made a loan of £30,000 which had been converted into the 30,000 preference shares which were redeemable non-voting share capital with no rights to dividends.

Had the 30,000 extra shares have been treated as ordinary share capital, the taxpayers would not have had the required 5% holding.

The case highlights the importance of checking through all the details before making a sale of shares in your company.  In this case, the taxpayers were successful but others will not be so fortunate.  Eaves and Co have extensive experience advising on share sales and Entrepreneurs’ relief and would be delighted to hear from you if you are considering a sale in the near future.

What happens when laws collide?

Here is a case which emphasises points about pre-planning for tax purposes.  It may also be one for legal philosophers!

In the recent case of G4S Cash Solutions (UK) Ltd v CIR, the Courts followed the old case of CIR v Alexander von Glehn and held that payments of fines should not be allowed as tax deductible.

So far, so good.  It even sounds sensible as public policy: but –isn’t there a ‘but’ in tax matters – the fine in Alexander von Glehn was for ‘collaborating with the enemy in time of war’; maybe many business owners may distinguish this from parking fines incurred by getting armoured cash delivery vans close to shops/banks to protect employees and the public from extra risk of armed robbery, but by doing so infringing parking regulations.  The statutory fines in the G4S case were for parking infringements.

The Courts accepted:-

  1. It made sense (and was accepted by the police) to minimise the time/distance that the person delivering the cash had to spend outside the van.
  1. G4S owed a duty of care to their staff, customers and the general public, so parking close by, even in crowded shopping centres made sense.  Thus, health and safety law was to a degree in conflict.
  1. Parking infringements were not on a par of severity with ‘collaborating with the enemy’.

Nevertheless, the Courts decided that it was inappropriate to grant a tax allowance for the payment of statutory fines, so G4S lost out on a substantial tax relief to what they had generally seen as an occupational hazard.  Interestingly, G4S did ‘advance deals’ with some Councils whereby in exchange for a lump sum in advance, they got an agreement that the parking wardens would not issues tickets for certain G4S parking infringements.  These were agreed to be tax deductible, showing that a different structure can lead to the same commercial end, but in a more tax efficient manner.

In the G4S case the First Tier Tribunal quoted the judge in McKnight v Shepherd as an illustration of how the tax picture may be altered by minor distinctions.  Mr Justin Lightman said, “The authorities reveal what a fine line may need to be drawn between what is within and what is outside the trader’s profit earning activities and there are to be found subtle distinctions not immediately obvious to minds of mere ordinary intelligence”.

Lessons to be drawn:

  1. This case could be a rich earner for HMRC with tax, interest and penalties falling on the multitude of delivery firms set up to provide services in these days of internet shopping.  No doubt a number of them will face similar traffic fines and treat them as an incidental cost of doing business.
  1. Forewarned is forearmed, so checking future accounts for fines etc., and then adding them back, would seem prudent.  This is unlikely to be the outcome desired by the business, but HMRC are getting stricter with imposing penalties on even ‘technical’ mistakes.
  1. Advance thought and planning can help the same commercial ends be achieved – with a better tax outcome.