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.

Manuel alive and well and working in Whitehall – Tax Avoidance Deterrents

After the recent tragic death of Andrew Sachs, there are rumours that his spirit for competence lives on in our legislation.

 TAX AVOIDANCE DETERRENTS

An open question for the above.  How do the current proposals (published on 5 December 2016 as Sanctions and Deterrents) fit with The Rule of Law?

I believe in the vital importance of the Rule of Law.

I believe it can only work with;

a) Clarity

b) Independent Judgement

c) Consent

Naively; having been trained as an Inspector of Taxes, I believe that the intention of Parliament was as set out in the words they enacted.  There is a lot of case law which supports this.

With 17,000+ pages of legislation the situation is complex.  There may be a dispute as to interpretation.  That arises, almost certainly, through lack of clarity (see (a) above).  The disputing parties are then dependent upon ‘independent judgement’ which hopefully they can both trust – effectively the Rule of Law (cf Tom Bingham).

If they do not trust the independent judgement then (c) Consent is lost.  That is dangerous.

Probably with good intentions (I am told they pave the Road to Hell) HMRC are saying that certain professionals need their behaviour modifying.  To quote the ‘Strengthening Tax Avoidance Sanctions and Deterrents in their paragraph 5.4:-

The government noted the views and responses provided. It recognises that the avoidance market is not static but is constantly evolving. HMRC will further develop the options set out in Chapter 5 of the discussion document to supplement the important work undertaken in this area to date, whilst looking at new and emerging threats in the avoidance market. Alongside this, HMRC will continue to explore ways to further discourage tax avoidance by:

  • working collaboratively with businesses, individuals, industry and representative bodies to identify opportunities to further shrink the avoidance market
  • exploring how behavioural change techniques can positively affect decisions and choices for enablers and users
  • tailoring communications and engagement with users to support them to make the right choices and decisions including outlining the risks and consequences of entering into these kinds of arrangements
  • meeting the challenges and opportunities that current and proposed legislation, HMRC’s Making Tax Digital Programme and other cross-sector initiatives may present

In paragraph 5.5 they go on to say:

The government will continue to take decisive and necessary steps to ensure that those who seek an unfair tax advantage, or provide services that enable it, should bear the real risks and consequences for their actions.

So that is clear now?

Quite apart from their appalling grammar, and resulting lack of clarity, the proposed result of this appears to be:

i) An advisor may introduce a client to (say) a Queens Counsel who suggests a course of action he believes to be legal.

ii) Sometime – [likelihood, at least 10 years from final date of action bearing in mind current complex litigation process] – advice and action may be proven correct.  End of story.

iii) Alternatively, in the litigation lottery of the Courts (talk to lawyers!) the advice may prove to be incorrect.  In this case penalties would be sought against the person who introduced the QC, in all good faith!  Is asking for professional advice to be subject to a penalty?

iv) The proposed legislation encompasses virtually all commercial arrangements, not just ‘artificial’ ones.  ‘Tax Avoidance’ is not properly defined.  It rests on ‘losing’ under untested legislation.  There is no safe harbour.

v) The level of penalties (see time line) may be after the advisor retired.  If the professional involved advised clients wealthier than him, which I am sure the majority do, then they could result in severe financial embarrassment, perhaps even bankruptcy, of said pensioner.

The tone of the HMRC document of 5 December 2005 suggests that would be [perhaps in Chairman Mao’s words?] a good behavioural adjustment.

vi) Maybe?  In contrast, if the advisor had introduced his client say to a robber or a drug dealer, rather than a (presumably respectable) Queens Counsel, then these sanctions would not apply.  In considering this, what is ‘the Clear Intention of Parliament’ to quote a phrase.

I would be grateful if any of the parties to whom this is addressed could explain to me how it fits in with the idea of any penalty fitting in with the criteria proposed in HMRC’s 2015 penalties discussion document:

  • The penalty regime should be designed from the customer perspective, primarily to encourage compliance and prevent non-compliance.  Penalties are not to be applied with the objective of raising revenues.
  • Penalties should be proportionate to the failure and may take into account past behaviour.
  • Penalties must be applied fairly, ensuring that compliant customers are (and are seen to be) in a better position than the non-compliant.
  • Penalties must provide a credible threat.  If there is a penalty, we must have the operational capability and capacity to raise it accurately, and if we raise it, we must be able to collect it in a cost-efficient manner.
  • Customers should see a consistent and standardised approach.  Variations will be those necessary to take into account customer behaviours and particular taxes.

From an initial review, the proposed penalties fail all counts.  Specifically, they do not seem

1)     Fair

2)     Proportionate, nor even remotely consistent.

They are potentially an invite for state bullying.

An easy way around the problem is the one which worked for many years historically.  It was for independent, disinterested advice with proper, well-resourced HMRC review.  In such a case ‘reasonable care’ all round could be provided by someone, properly qualified, who was not rewarded as to outcome and gave independent advice as to the law, with subsequent full disclosure of any relevant arrangements.

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?

Comments on Strengthening Tax Avoidance Sanctions and Deterrents Consultation

This Blog is addressed to All Accountants.  The majority of you will give ‘tax advice’, but would you care to pay your clients’ tax bill if it proves to be technically incorrect?  [Under the proposals discussed below the client will pay the newly imposed bill as well so there is at least ‘double jeopardy’].  My worry is a conceptual one.  Should there really be multiple punishments for the same purported ‘offence’?  Would this not be disproportionate?  I do not know if the words are meant to be forceful and intimidating but the ‘deterrent’ seems to envisage liabilities which could lead to the bankruptcy of professional accountants who were merely part of the ‘supply chain’.  Concerned yet?  Read on.

In due course, I hope to give intelligent feedback to HMRC on their Consultative Document; Strengthening Tax Avoidance Sanctions and Deterrents.  In the meantime, I would like opinions from professionals (and others) to the proposals.  I have an open mind, and certainly do not approve of dishonest behaviour = evasion.

However, when I was an Inspector of Taxes the next level up on the spectrum – avoidance was legal.

Initial thoughts for discussion:-

 

  1. Logically, people indulging in ‘avoidance’ are obeying the law.  Why should they be punished in that case?  Even if incorrect on a technicality there is no ‘mems rea’.

 

  1. The definition of ‘tax avoidance’ seems very vague.  It is also the subject of post event review in that a court will judge – probably some years later.  This makes it difficult to judge at the time of giving advice.  Surely, HMRC should be encouraging independent professional advice, not discouraging it.  If clients know the ‘safe harbour’ for accountants is always to advise against a tax saver, they will know they are not getting independent advice.  (See HMRC document on protection against penalties).

 

  1. Should it really encompass ‘any transaction’ as suggested by the discussion document?

 

  1. Should advisors really be subject to such harsh penalties, which may well be orders of magnitude above their fees for client behaviour (not the accountants behaviour) which, after complex litigation, the Courts have found ‘unreasonable’ under GAAR.  This means the behaviour was determined to be technically flawed but probably not illegal?  This is deterrence, but deterrent to giving advice to key entrepreneurs and wealth creators in a highly complex area.

 

  1. Again, initial thoughts for discussion, if the HMRC target is (as stated) a ‘small minority’.  Why try to affect the general economics of professional advice?  Surely, the penalty risk could have a profound impact on PI insurance costs?

 

  1. Could not the HMRC objectives be achieved by:-

a) Stating that a protection from penalties (not tax) may be achieved by getting a written opinion from an appropriately qualified professional (to be defined – but relevant professional qualifications).

b) Stating that a person/firm receiving a monetary benefit/commission based on the scheme may not qualify as ‘independent’.

 

Surely this would be easier and more proportionate.

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.

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?