Taxpayer awarded costs over HMRC’s unreasonable conduct

A recent VAT case heard by the First-Tier Tribunal (Gekko & Company Ltd v HMRC (TC06029)) highlighted worrying aspects of HMRC’s handling of the case and even awarded costs against HMRC. The Tribunal clearly felt strongly about the case, with the decision stretching over 29 pages for a case involving an assessment to VAT of £69 and three assessments of penalties of £780, £8.85 and £10.35 respectively.

The decision begins by stating that it , “is a great deal longer than we would ordinarily write in a case involving such small amounts: this is because there are a number of disturbing features about the way the case has been conducted by the respondents (HMRC).”

The case involved a property developer company who HMRC claimed had made errors on their VAT returns, with the biggest one being an omission of £5,200 of output tax (which the Tribunal later found to actually be £4,880).

The penalty notices were found to be invalid because the original assessments had been withdrawn and new ones had not in fact been issued. The tribunal found that, even if they had been valid, the penalty of £780 should have been reduced to nil as the behaviour was careless but the disclosure was unprompted and that the other two penalties should be cancelled as there was no inaccuracy.

In deciding to award costs to the taxpayers, the Tribunal were particularly critical of HMRC. We enclose a passage from this below regarding HMRC’s change of opinion from an unprompted to prompted disclosure:

“We consider, having thought about this long and hard, that there are two possible explanations for this volte face. One is that there was incompetence on a grand scale. The other is that there was a deliberate decision to keep the dispute alive, when on the basis of the reviewing officer’s remarks it would have been discontinued, by seeking to revisit the “prompted” issue. The facts that have caused us not to dismiss this possibility include the minimal information about the change with no explanation and the hopelessly muddled response with its spurious justification that Miss Pearce sent when the appellant spotted the change. Of course we have had no evidence from those involved and do not intend in this decision to make any findings about the matter. But it is something we have to take into account in deciding whether HMRC’s conduct in this case was unreasonable.”

The Tribunal cancelled the VAT and penalties and awarded costs to the taxpayer.

Overall, this case seems to echo our recent experiences with HMRC and shows a worrying trend in decreasing quality of HMRC case handling and emphasis on winning at all costs, regardless of the merits of individual cases.

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.

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.

Make Sure HMRC Notices are Valid! – Technicalities and Human Rights Law

Recent cases have emphasised the importance of that European Human rights laws have on the UK tax system; however the cases and our own recent experiences suggest that HMRC do not take these implications seriously.

The recent Tribunal case of PML Accounting Ltd v HMRC [2015] considered a number of issues, including one relating to Human Rights.  The case involved an HMRC Notice requiring information from PML Accounting and the firm’s appeal against a penalty for failing to provide the information on time.

The Tribunal found that the information notice had not been complied with and that the taxpayer did not have a reasonable excuse for the failure.  However, they also determined that the Notice was invalid as it had been issued under the wrong piece of legislation.

The notice was issued under FA 2008 Sch 36, para 1 as part of a review of the company’s position under the Managed Service Company Legislation.

The Tribunal determined that there had been suggestion that any investigation under the MSC legislation would lead to a charge on PML.  As a result, the information notice should have been issued under paragraph 2 (third-party notices) instead of paragraph 1.

The Tribunal also concluded that the Notice breached the human rights of PML’s clients as it had been issued under the wrong paragraph.  A paragraph 2 notice relating to third-parties provides a level of protection for the taxpayers involved as they may not be issued without either the taxpayer’s prior consent or the tribunal’s approval.

There have also been a number of other cases highlighting the inadequacy of HMRC’s approach to human rights law.  For example, in Bluu Solutions Ltd v RCC [2015], the Tribunal confirmed that a tax penalty, which is meant to be punitive and to deter, is “criminal” for the purposes of Article 6 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.  This provides taxpayers subject to HMRC penalties with additional protection stating that taxpayers have the right to a fair trial and requires that the taxpayer is presumed innocent, with the burden of proof on HMRC.  Also proceedings have to be brought within a reasonable time, and the taxpayer must have enough resources and time to defend against the penalty.

Further protection is provided by Article 7 which requires that any penalty should have a clear basis in law and therefore where there is genuine uncertainty as to the underlying tax law, it could potentially be a breach of Article 7 to impose penalties based on non-payment.

These points all provide extra protection that advisors should bear in mind when assisting clients faced with HMRC investigations.  If you have any concerns over HMRC’s approach then please contact us and we will be delighted to assist.

Out of Time Appeal Allowed – C Davison v HMRC

A recent case concerned an application for an appeal relating to years that would normally be outside of the appeal window.

Background and Facts

The taxpayer’s returns for 1997/98 and 1998/99 were amended by HMRC after she had left the UK to live in Spain.  HMRC were informed of her departure (after the enquiries were raised) but continued attempting to contact the taxpayer at her old address for the next three years.

Assessments were also raised by HMRC for 2000/01 and 2001/02, and having located Mrs Davison’s details in Spain were able to deduct funds from her Spanish bank account.  In 2008, she telephoned HMRC receiving confirmation that the tax due on the assessments for those two years had been incorrectly raised and that the tax was not due.

Mrs Davison therefore asked for a refund of the tax, however HMRC said this was not possible as tax was still due on the earlier assessments for the years 1997/98 and 1998/99. This was the first she had heard of the earlier year assessments as they had not been sent to her in Spain.

The representative for HMRC indicated that if she wanted a repayment they would seek payment for the tax due and she might lose the case. As a result, she believed that by not pursuing the matter further it would be resolved (as suggested by HMRC).  This was confirmed by HMRC’s internal notes, which stated they “now consider this case closed”.

She applied for a repayment in 2012 having returned to the UK but this was refused by HMRC because of the outstanding 1997/98 and 1998/99 liabilities.

She therefore sought to appeal the assessments which HMRC claimed were now out of time.

Decision

In making its decision the Tribunal noted that HMRC could have confirmed the assessments for 1997/98 and 1998/99 were still due at any point from 2001 until 2011 but had not done so.

Mrs Davison was reasonable in her belief that the assessments had been vacated, and therefore would have had no reason to think she needed to appeal.

The application for the right to appeal out of time was allowed.

The case shows the importance of taxpayers asserting their rights and challenging HMRC’s occasionally draconian application of the rules on appeals.  It is worth remembering that out of time appeals can be sought in suitable circumstances.

Hok Ltd v HMRC – HMRC Wins Appeal

HMRC have successfully appealed against the decision of the first tier tribunal in the case of Hok Ltd v HMRC.

In the original case (see our blog http://wp.me/p2JyHb-7i), Hok Ltd claimed that HMRC’s practice of delaying sending out penalty notices for the late submission of form P35 (PAYE end of year return) by 4 months was unfair as they had already built up penalties of £500 before they knew they had to submit the return.

Following the decision in Hok Ltd and a number of similar cases being found against them, HMRC changed their practice such that employers will now receive earlier correspondence regarding the late submission and penalties.

The upper tier tribunal found that the first tier tribunal erred in its judgement on the basis that the company (Hok Ltd) did not deny that the return was late nor attempt to argue that they had a reasonable excuse, as such the first tier tribunal did not have the jurisdiction to mitigate the penalty.

The upper tier tribunal considered that the first tier tribunal has no statutory power discharge or adjust a penalty because of a perception that it is unfair. Thus in the absence of a statutory route of appeal, the only option available to the taxpayer is to seek a judicial review.