J Hicks – Discovery Case Won by Taxpayer

The scope of HMRC’s powers in relation to raising discovery assessments outside of the normal enquiry window has been a contentious issue in recent years and a number of cases seem to have eroded the position of the taxpayer (see our earlier blog post for example).

A recent First-Tier Tribunal case, J Hicks v HMRC, seems to have taken a more reasonable approach and may therefore give hope to taxpayers for a more balanced approach in the future.

The taxpayer in this case took part in a tax avoidance scheme which was marketed by a firm specialising in such schemes.  The scheme in question was marketed at derivatives traders, which the taxpayer was.  Having taken part in the scheme it was reported on his 2008/09 tax return, with the relevant avoidance scheme reference included.  He had losses carried forward, which he claimed on his 2009/10 and 2010/11 returns, which were both filed in late January before the filing deadlines for each year.

HMRC opened a standard enquiry into the 2008/09 return, and this enquiry was ongoing when the later tax returns were filed.  However, HMRC did not open enquiries into 2009/10 or 2010/11.

In March 2015, HMRC issued discovery assessments for 2009/10 and 2010/11, which Mr Hicks appealed.  HMRC argued they could issue an assessment under either TMA 1970, s29(4), that the insufficiency was a result of careless behaviour, or under TMA 1970, s29(5) that a hypothetical officer could not have been aware of the deficiency within the normal time limits.

The tribunal found that a hypothetical officer should have had enough information by the end of the normal window to raise an enquiry, with the Judge noting that, “I do not consider that subsection (5) allows or is intended to allow HMRC to issue assessments which ignore the normal time limits while they spend further time in polishing a justifiable assessment as at the closure of the enquiry window into a knockout case.”

He also points out that these rules should not be seen as giving HMRC “carte blanche […] to omit to open an enquiry—whether intentionally or by omission—and then simply rely on subsection (5) in every case to issue assessments which would otherwise be out of time. The statutory time limits for assessments are a critically important safeguard for the taxpayer, just as the onus of disclosure on the taxpayer, and the duty not to act carelessly or deliberately, are a protection for HMRC where those limits are not met.”

It is interesting to note the Judge acknowledging that taxpayers deserve rights and safeguards from HMRC, particularly in light of HMRC’s continued attempts to obtain ever greater powers.

Looking at the matter of carelessness, the Tribunal found that reliance on the scheme provider for information included in the return was not careless, nor is the use of a tax avoidance scheme automatically careless.  The key point was whether careless behaviour led to the deficiency of tax.  In this case, it was found not to be careless.

The taxpayer’s appeal therefore allowed.

Beware New Rules on Liquidations – HMRC Refuse to Give Clearance

As you may be aware, new rules are being introduced with effect from April 2016 as part of the Finance Act 2016.  These relate to distributions in a winding-up/liquidation and are designed to target certain company distributions in respect of share capital in a winding-up. Where a distribution from a winding-up is caught, it is chargeable to income tax rather than capital gains tax.

The rules apply where the following conditions are met:

  1. The company being wound up was a close company (or was within the two years prior to winding-up)
  2. The individual held at least a 5% interest in the company (ordinary share capital and voting rights).
  3. The individual continues to carry on the same or a similar trade or activity to that carried on by the wound-up company within the two years following the distribution
  4. It is reasonable to assume, having regard to all of the circumstances that there is a main purpose of obtaining a tax advantage.

Whether or not Conditions C or D are triggered could be a cause for some contention, and so HMRC note that they have received a number of clearance applications relating to these new rules.

In the absence of a statutory clearance procedure under the new legislation, HMRC have clarified that it is not their general practice to offer clearances on recently introduced legislation with a purpose test.  They have instead sent out a standard reply providing some examples of how they think the rules will apply.

Clearly this is a developing area and HMRC’s reaction is somewhat disappointing as taxpayers often require certainty before carrying out commercial transactions which could be caught.  HMRC have stated that further guidance will be published, however in the meantime we advise that care be taken, and seeking professional advice, as always, may save time and costs in the long run.

We would be delighted to assist if you think you may be affected by these rules and have any queries.

A Camel, a Horse or a Spaceship – Tax Law

The Law is not an ass.  It is a quadruped, designed by a committee, who, over many years and many different committee members, cannot quite recall whether they were designing a camel, a horse or a spaceship.

  1. Hands up all those who believe the Rule of Law is important?
  1. Hands up (in Magna Carta year) all those who think the Law should be applied consistently?
  1. Hands up all those who believe that professional tax advice should be clear and based on proper interpretation of the Law?

Hopefully, I have everyone’s hands up for each question?  At least mentally?  Those too embarrassed to react or having a quiet lunch snooze should, I hope, still have made a genuine twitch towards acceptance.  If not, please say.  I genuinely would be interested to know why.

I now move on to the recent cases of Gemsupa and Trigg.  They would make a superb exam question in terms of ‘compare and contrast’.

In Gemsupa, the Courts agreed with the taxpayer that the CGT legislation was so clear that, even though various steps were taken for tax avoidance purposes, this did not meant that they were ineffective legally (the case was pre-GAAR so query whether those new rules may have an impact?)

And Compare:

Trigg(onometry) and Lawyers

The Trigg case heard in the First Tier Tribunal concerned the definition of Qualifying Corporate Bonds for tax purposes.  This may sound esoteric and technical, but in fact they raise some very interesting issues.  [Remember ‘Tax is Fun’].

Amongst the reasons the case is interesting is that it may have an impact on both future and historic Commercial, Corporate Sale and Purchase agreements where some of the consideration is deferred in the form of loan notes.  As will be generally known, (at least in esoteric tax and legal circles) the loan note form of deferred consideration makes a profound different on the way it is taxed.

In Trigg, HMRC lost, which seems to have widened the definition of QCBs.  This could have a profound impact on Sales and Purchase Agreements so Solicitors need to beware!

Having reviewed many Sales and Purchase agreements over the years, I fear that sometimes matters may be glossed over.  Perhaps so because of infrequent HMRC review of the detailed documentation?  This is understandable, from a commercial perspective.  A precedent has worked in the past, so just tweak it?

The ‘purposive’ approach in Trigg contrasts with the legalistic interpretation adopted by Gemsupa.  Which is correct?  Which ought to be correct?  Bearing in mind most of us just wish to get commercial deals done to help business people achieve their commercial objectives, how many professionals believe the objectives suggested in 1-3 above are being achieved?

As they used to say in exam questions – Discuss!

Fishing for A Commercial Rationale – Avoidance Motive in A Fisher, S Fisher, P Fisher  v HMRC

A recent case was heard at the First-Tier Tribunal regarding the conflict between commercial decisions and tax avoidance motives (A Fisher, S Fisher, P Fisher  v HMRC).  It can clearly be seen that legally reducing a tax liability could be a commercially sensible decision, but it was previously assumed that this would not be enough to override the anti-avoidance provisions that apply where there is a tax avoidance motive.

The case in question involved a family bookmaking business, who took the decision to move the business to Gibraltar in the 1999/2000 take year, in order to obtain more favourable treatment regarding betting duties than applied in the UK.

HMRC took issue with this and challenged the, under the anti-avoidance provisions on the transfer of assets abroad.  They raised assessments charging income tax the years 2000/01 to 2007/08 under the rules in force during those years.

The taxpayers appealed claiming that there was no avoidance as they had moved the business to Gibraltar as a commercial decision in order to compete with other bookmakers.  Saving tax was therefore a side effect and not the reason for relocating.

The First-tier Tribunal did not agree, finding that the transfer would not have gone ahead if it were not for the lower betting duty in Gibraltar.  This did not conflict with the decision to move being made for sound commercial reasons, however this did not prevent there being a tax avoidance motive.

The taxpayers made a further argument regarding the EU rights of freedom of establishment and freedom of movement of capital applied, but the tribunal determined that the rules were not relevant for movements between the UK and Gibraltar.  They did, however, apply to one family member who was an Irish national.

The taxpayers also made a claim that HMRC’s assessments were not valid, under the discovery provisions in TMA 1970, s 29, as the tax officer should have been aware of the relevant information as a result of responses to their enquiries.  The tribunal agreed that the conditions for making a discovery assessment were not satisfied for 2005/06 and 2006/07.  The appeals for the remaining years were dismissed.

Whilst the Tribunal confirmed that a tax avoidance motive could also be part of a commercial decision, it is clear that the anti-avoidance provisions are drafted widely enough to catch such situations.  This is because the existence of commercial reasoning does not overrule the fact that there was a tax avoidance motive as well which was inextricably linked.

Courts Find Against Another Avoidance Scheme – Do HMRC Really Need More Powers?

The courts continue to find in favour of HMRC in cases involving avoidance schemes, with the most recent example being Vaccine Research Limited Partnership and another v CRC at the Upper Tribunal.

With so many cases going against such scheme providers, questions are raised as to whether the various new powers that HMRC is seeking on avoidance and other matters are really necessary?  Perhaps using the existing HMRC powers to more effectively challenge such schemes is all that is really needed.

Vaccine Research Limited Partnership and another v CRC

The case in question concerned an R&D avoidance scheme, with a partnership being established in Jersey. The taxpayer partnership entered into an agreement whereby it paid another entity, Numology Ltd, £193m to purportedly carry out research and development (R&D).

Numology paid a very small proportion of this (£14m) to a subcontractor, PepTCell, who actually undertook the work and then contributed £86m to the taxpayer business itself.  The partners claimed for a loss of £193m in respect of R&D capital allowances.

The Upper Tribunal unheld the First-Tier Tribunal’s decision, finding that the funds were put into an artificial loop and effectively only the £14m paid to the subcontractor was genuinely incurred for R&D.  The Tribunal noted that the FTT was right to conclude “that Numology Ltd’s contribution represented funds put into a loop as part of a tax avoidance scheme, and [was] not in reality spent on research and development”.

The evidence of recent case law suggests that the existing provisions available to HMRC are sufficient to close down avoidance schemes and yet they continue to seek new powers in the name of cracking down on tax avoidance.  It is concerning that HMRC continue to amass new powers, such as attempting to take funds directly from bank accounts and issuing non-appealable tax demands, on the premise that they are needed when it appears that they are not.  Please feel free to share your own thoughts below.

Film partnership avoidance scheme was mis-sold – Horner v Allison

A recent case was heard at the High Court (Horner v Allison) concerning the sale of a film partnership avoindance scheme.

In this case, the Claimant, was Mr Horner who was a chartered accountant as a managing director at Atos KPMG Consulting Ltd.

On recommendation by a colleague (whom received commission for the recommendation), Mr Horner attended a presentation by Taipan Creative LLP.  The scheme was described as ‘a unique low risk high return investment proposition’.  One of the directors, Miss Allison called herself a specialist in film tax investment schemes and led him to beleive that the scheme had been approved by HMRC.

Under the scheme, Mr Horner initially received a refund from HMRC which was paid over to Taipan who deducted 80% of the refund as their fee before paying it over to Mr Horner.  A tax refund of £168,756.30 was received and Mr Horner was given his 20% by the defendants (£33,750).

HMRC investigated the scheme and, found that the scheme failed to meet the necessary requirements for the relief for film patnerships. Mr Horner therefore faced a demand to repay the whole tax rebate with interest and penalties;  at a total of £207,000. There had been no HMRC approval of the scheme.

The court found in favour of Mr Horner, finding that Miss Allison had made representations which she knew to be untrue and as a result was liable to Mr Horner in deceit. Mr Horner was entitled to recover damages from Miss Horner amounting to £185,832.25.  However it appears unlikely that Miss Allison will be able to pay over the sum.