Tag Archives: AAT

Small business now has its own dedicated taxation division of the AAT

To give effect to a bi-partisan initiative, changes aimed at making it easier, cheaper and quicker for small businesses to appeal to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) against decisions by the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) commenced on 1 March 2019. Small business taxpayers contemplating a tax appeal to the AAT with scant legal knowledge or representation will benefit most from the changes. Represented small business taxpayers too can benefit from the easier, cheaper and quicker AAT tax appeals and may improve their prospects of obtaining funding by the ATO of legal representation costs of their appeal.

Under the changes small business taxpayers can appeal adverse tax objection decisions to the new Small Business Taxation Division (SBTD) of the AAT. The Small Business Concierge Service (SBCS) within the office of the Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman (ASBFEO) also commenced on 1 March 2019 to assist small business taxpayers with appeals to the SBTD.

Tax and related review by the AAT

The AAT can review decisions on objections against tax assessments and other specified decisions made by the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) in the ATO domain on appeal under the Taxation Administration Act (C’th) 1953 viz decisions on:

  1. Commonwealth taxes: income tax, goods and services tax, excise, fringe benefits tax, luxury car tax, resource rent taxes (petroleum and minerals) and wine equalisation tax;
  2. Australian Business Numbers, fuel schemes, fuel tax credits, the ATO’s superannuation administration; and
  3. penalties and interest relating to a. and b.

The SBTD can review these decisions where the taxpayer/applicant is a small business entity under section 328-110 of the Income Tax Assessment Act (C’th) 1997.  A small business entity is an entity carrying on business with an aggregated turnover of less than $10 million in the current income year.

Cheaper – fees for AAT review

The ordinary filing fee for review of (appeal against) a reviewable decision by the ATO in the Taxation & Commercial Division of the AAT is $920 as at 1 March 2019. A single fee can apply if there are related multiple decisions in relation to the same appellant. A concessional fee of $91 applies for disadvantaged appellants: https://is.gd/1s5Vtt

The ordinary filing fee for review by the SBTD is a reduced $500. AAT regulations apply so that a SBTD taxpayer/applicant who the AAT finds is not a small business entity must pay an uplift to the ordinary $920 fee and their appeal will transfer to the Taxation & Commercial Division of the AAT.

Easier – Small Business Concierge Service

The SBCS of the ASBFEO assists a small business taxpayer with the SBTD appeal process and with advice about the appeal or prospective appeal to the SBTD the small business taxpayer plans. Although the SBCS is within the office of the ASBFEO and does not itself give legal advice, the SBCS:

  • offers a one hour consultation with an experienced small business tax lawyer to an unrepresented small business taxpayer prior to the appeal so the lawyer can review the facts pertaining to the ATO decision and provide advice on prospects of success of the appeal. In arranging a pre-appeal consultation the taxpayer needs to be aware of the 60 day time limit that generally applies for making appeals to the AAT on these decisions. A co-payment of $100 for the consultation is required from the small business taxpayer and the balance of the small business tax lawyer’s fee for the consultation is paid by ASBFEO;
  • assigns an ASBFEO case manager (not to be confused with the AAT case manager who will manage the appeals for the AAT) to help the small business to compile the relevant documents to maximise the benefit of the one hour pre-appeal legal consultation;
  • assists with the appeal to the SBTD if the small business chooses to go ahead with the appeal. The ASBFEO case manager assists with the applications and submissions to the SBTD and with engagement by the small business taxpayer with the AAT process; and
  • offers a second one hour consultation with an experienced small business tax lawyer to an unrepresented small business taxpayer after the appeal commences with the cost of the second consultation met by the ASBFEO without a co-payment.

Even if an unrepresented small business taxpayer utilises both hours of consultation with the assistance of the ASBFEO case manager it is still cheaper for the small business taxpayer to commence their appeal to the AAT for $600 in the SBTD, including the $100 co-payment, than to commence for $920 in the Taxation & Commercial Division.

Quicker – 28 day turnaround of reasons for decision

Decisions of the SBTD are to be “fast tracked” so that reasons for decisions will be given to the small business taxpayer usually within twenty-eight days of the hearing where the appeal goes that far. Where practicable an oral decision is to be given at the end of SBTD hearings.

Cheaper – further support for legal costs for SBTD appellants

Although the AAT, and the SBTD and the Taxation & Commercial Division in particular:

  • is not a court;
  • does not make cost orders;
  • isn’t bound by the legal rules of evidence; and
  • of itself, imposes no imperative to have legal representation;

the reality is that, where significant tax is in dispute in an appeal to the AAT, most informed appellants are legally represented and present their case in conformity with rules of evidence as if the AAT was a court. The ATO, too, selectively attends the AAT with external legal representation and, if not, ATO officers who conduct cases and appear at the AAT for the ATO are likely to have legal skills and experience. AAT decisions are reported/published and are used as legal precedent. Appellants can, though, more readily request and obtain anonymity from the AAT in tax cases than they can in courts which operate on the principle that justice is to be done in public.

The SBTD initiative partly synchronises the legal representation choice of a small business taxpayer and the ATO in a SBTD case. The ATO has transparent policy positions on when the ATO will use external legal representation in the AAT. The ATO’s position generally is that the ATO will use external legal representation where the case has high legal or factual complexity or where the case has implications for other taxpayers. Where the ATO is to engage legal representation in the SBTD then the ATO:

  • must inform the appellant that it proposes to engage external legal representation; and;
  • may meet the legal costs of the legal representation of the small business appellant that do not exceed the ATO’s legal costs of its own external legal representation. That is a possibly contentious integer as the ATO has and uses its leverage, which a small business doesn’t have, to negotiate lower fees from legal counsel with expectation of more ATO briefs.

Cheaper – greater opportunity for ATO litigation funding

This opportunity for a small business taxpayer to obtain the assistance of the ATO with their costs of legal representation in the SBTD dovetails with the test case funding policy of the ATO. Like under that policy the decision to assist a small business taxpayer with its legal costs of a SBTD appeal is with the ATO. Where the case has implications for other taxpayers then it is more likely that the ATO will both seek its own external representation and will fund the small business taxpayer’s legal costs up to the same level. Although time will tell, a small business taxpayer appears to be in an enhanced position to obtain ATO assistance with their legal representation costs in the SBTD as compared to taxpayers generally who appeal to the Taxation & Commercial Division of the AAT or who appeal directly to the Federal Court which involves significantly greater costs.

Unlike the Federal Court, the AAT does not order costs. That means that the legal fees and costs of a small business taxpayer running an appeal in the SBTD will only come from the ATO SBDT case funding or ATO test case funding, if not self funded, as legal costs won’t be awarded by the AAT even where the small business taxpayer is successful in a tax appeal case.

ASBFEO already acts as a gateway and assists small businesses to access funding for small business disputes. It is understood that the SBCS will be similarly resourced to act as a gateway to assist small businesses to obtain legal representation funding under both SBTD or ATO test case funding guidelines.

Getting tax advice to take the 50% recklessness penalty out of play

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Self-assessment

Under Australia’s self-assessment system taxes including, notably, income tax and the goods and services tax, are based on returns by each taxpayer where responsibility is on the taxpayer to ensure statements and representations made to the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) reflected in those returns are true and correct.

Penalties when returns are not true and correct

When a taxpayer departs from true and correct disclosure to the ATO, penalties, including base penalties, for false and misleading statements to the ATO, unarguable tax positions and tax schemes are imposed by Division 284 of Schedule 1 of the Taxation Administration Act (C’th) 1953.

To understand the base penalty regime in Division 284 it is helpful to consider simplified categories of a taxpayer’s disclosures relevant to their return viz:

  1. those items that are straight forward where the taxpayer understands how the item should be returned and its impact on the taxpayer’s tax liability, and
  2. those items which are more complex or difficult where the taxpayer does not fully understand how the item should be returned and its impact on the taxpayer’s tax liability.

It is expected, or at least hoped, that matters in the first category will greatly outnumber matters in the second category. Still an item in the second category may involve a large liability and there may be a need for the taxpayer to resolve the complexity or difficulty, by taking tax advice or perhaps by obtaining a binding private ruling from the Commissioner of Taxation about that item to ensure the item is correctly returned.

As a general proposition it can be said that, unless other mitigating factors apply, failure to correctly return an item in the first category attracts the 75% “intentional disregard” base penalty and that failure to correctly return an item in the second category attracts the 50% “recklessness” base penalty based on the reasoning below:  

Deceptively understating assessable income or overstating allowable deductions etc.

If a taxpayer omits an item in the first category from an income tax return which understates true and correct taxable income then the highest base penalty of 75% for intentional disregard of a taxation law under the table in section 284-90 can be imposed. This isn’t the only liability that follows from a tax review, audit or investigation of a tax return. In addition to section 284-90 base penalties, the taxpayer will be held separately liable for the tax on the taxable income that should have been returned, medicare levy, and, to reflect the time value of taxes outstanding to the ATO, the shortfall interest charge and the general interest charge, etc when an amended assessment is raised to amend the original assessment which was not true and correct.

Base penalties, including the 75% intentional disregard base penalty, are imposed on a case by case basis. Thus the ATO will infer from the way the return was completed and surrounding facts whether there was intentional disregard of taxation law justifying imposition of a 75% intentional disregard base penalty. Similar considerations as arise as to whether there was fraud or evasion (which impacts on when an amended assessment can be raised) including whether the conduct giving rise to the omission of assessable income or the overstatement of allowable deductions or offsets etc. was deceptive or calculated, or whether the conduct could be explained as some sort of mistake, which attracts a lesser penalty, are relevant.

50% “recklessness” base penalty applied in PSI cases

The recent personal services income (PSI) cases of Douglass v. Commissioner of Taxation [2018] AATA 3729 (3 October 2018) and Fortunatow v. Commissioner of Taxation [2018] AATA 4621 (14 December 2018) illustrate how the 50% “recklessness” base penalty under the table in section 284-90, one rung down from the highest 75% intentional disregard base penalty, can be applied to a taxpayer who fails to correctly apply taxation law to matters in the second category.

Both cases involved the application of the personal services income measures in Part 2-42 of Income Tax Assessment Act (ITAA) 1997 to the income of professionals (an engineer and a business analyst respectively) which was alienated from the respective individual professionals by arrangements using related companies reducing their overall income tax liabilities.

Complex or difficult?

The personal services income measures in Part 2-42 are relatively complex involving multi-tiered considerations of various tests even though the Commissioner of Taxation expressed this view in the objection decision in Douglass (from para 110 of the AAT decision):

The attribution rule of the PSI is not an overly complex area of the relevant law. There was readily available information on the operation of the PSI rules set out on the ATO website. It was also explained in the Partnership tax return instruction and in the Personal Services income schedule instruction that accompanied the tax return guide for company, partnerships and trusts. You did not make further enquiries to check the correct tax treatment of your PSI.

In both cases, the taxpayers primarily relied on the “results test” in section 87-18 of the Income Tax Assessment Act 1997 to establish that, in each case, a personal service business was being carried on so that alienated income for the personal services of the individuals would not be attributed to the individuals under Part 2-42. On the facts of each case, each AAT found that the individual was not engaged to produce a result in accord with section 87-18 and so could not satisfy the “results test”.

Recklessness

Also, in both cases, the AAT was critical of the way in which each taxpayer tried to ascertain their respective liabilities under the personal services income measures. In Douglass the taxpayer did not take a cogent advice on how the PSI measures can apply. In Fortunatow the taxpayer had received an advice on asset protection considerations from a tax lawyer which inferred that PSI advice should be taken. But that PSI tax advice was not taken by the taxpayer in Fortunatow.

In each case the AAT referred to BRK (Bris) Pty Ltd v Commissioner of Taxation (2001) ATC 4111 where Cooper J. at p.4129 considered “recklessness”:

Recklessness in this context means to include in a tax statement material upon which the Act or regulations are to operate, knowing that there is a real, as opposed to a fanciful risk, that the material may be incorrect, or be grossly indifferent as to whether or not the material is true and correct, and that a reasonable person in the position of the statement-maker would see there was a real risk that the Act and regulations may not operate correctly to lead to the assessment of the proper tax payable because of the content of the tax statement. So understood, the proscribed conduct is more than mere negligence and must amount to gross carelessness.

It was unhelpful to the case of the taxpayer in Fortunatow that the taxpayer had been made aware by his tax advice that the PSI measures had potential application to him and that there was a real risk that he was not correctly complying with tax laws. The tax advice he received went no further than saying that income would not be attributed under the PSI measures if there was a personal services business but the taxpayer could not show that he had been advised that he had been carrying on a personal services business.

Obligation on the taxpayer to be correct

These AAT decisions leave little doubt that the responsibility on a taxpayer to correctly address and resolve complex or difficult tax questions in completing their tax returns is serious and far reaching. Ordinarily this means that a taxpayer will need a cogent tax advice or will need to take other steps to demonstrate that the taxpayer has adequately addressed each question to mitigate the “real risk” that the taxpayer’s position on a complex question in a tax return is incorrect to avoid “recklessness”.

Interaction with other base penalties and where taking cogent tax advice is desirable

This removes the opportunity to shirk a complex question or issue in a tax return and to rely on the difficulty or character of the question or issue to assert that some lesser base penalty, such as the 25% base penalties under Division 284 either for failure:

  1. to take reasonable care; or
  2. to take a reasonably arguable position;

is applicable.

Base penalties under Division 284 of Schedule 1 of the Taxation Administration Act (C’th) 1953 apply on the basis that the highest base penalty applies to the exclusion of the other applicable base penalties.

Complex PSI cases demonstrate how self-assessment works

The above personal service income cases provide good case studies of how base penalties under Division 284 are likely to apply in cases where a category 2 complex issue arises and a taxpayer fails to adequately address the issue in their return to the ATO.

Although the ATO cannot apply a 75% intentional disregard base penalty where the taxpayer was without intent to disregard taxation law which was or may have been too complex for the taxpayer to appreciate; the 50% recklessness base penalty, on the next rung down, can nevertheless be applied because of the taxpayer’s failure to deal with that complexity. Complexity is dealt with by taking cogent tax advice from a professional tax adviser for example. It can be seen that the 50% recklessness base penalty is thus integral to taxpayers taking responsibility for true and correct disclosure to the ATO under the self-assessment system.

Rights to object to a tax assessment lost when waived under a deed to settle a tax dispute

separateIn EE&C Pty Ltd as Trustee for the Tarcisio Cremasco Family Trust v. Commissioner of Taxation (Taxation) [2018] AATA 4093 (30 October 2018) the taxpayer, after concluding a minute of terms of agreement with the Commissioner of Taxation (the Commissioner) on 18 January 2011, entered into a deed to settle a tax dispute with the Commissioner for the 1999 to 2005 years of income on 23 March 2011 (the Deed of Settlement).

Assessments in line with settlement

On 2 June 2011 the Commissioner issued a series of assessments for those years primarily increasing, and in some income years reducing, the taxable income of the taxpayer in line with the Deed of Settlement.

Under the contractual terms of the Deed of Settlement the taxpayer was precluded from objecting against the assessments which issued as negotiated and set out in the terms.

Despite that the taxpayer had its lawyers prepare and lodge “objections” against the 2 June 2011 assessments on 4 June 2014.

Right conferred by statute overrides the terms to settle?

Apparently the lawyer had explained to the taxpayer that the taxpayer’s right to object against a taxation assessment, or more precisely a “taxation decision” under Part IVC of the Taxation Administration Act (C’th) 1953 (the TAA), is a statutory right which had lead the taxpayer to understand that their right to object persisted despite the apparent waiver of their right to object against the assessments in the Deed of Settlement.

Commissioner relied on the taxpayer’s waiver in the Deed of Settlement

The Commissioner took a contrary view and refused to treat the 4 June 2014 “objections” as valid objections.

Waiver did impact the statutory right to object

The AAT found that the Commissioner was correct in his approach. Deputy President Forgie of the AAT concluded that, as the 4 June 2014 “objections” were invalid, the AAT had no jurisdiction to review how the Commissioner dealt with them under the TAA and the Administration Appeals Tribunal Act (C’th) 1975.

Capability to waive right to object/appeal an imperative in settling tax disputes

At paragraph 89 of the AAT decision, Deputy President Forgie described a functional imperative that a taxpayer can waive their statutory right to object or appeal to settle Part IVC review and appeal proceedings:

The authorities of Cox, Grofam, Fowles and Precision Pools all support the Commissioner’s reaching a settlement with the taxpayer.  The taxpayer must be permitted to forego his rights of objection and review or appeal just as the Commissioner may fulfil his obligation to decide the objection and respond to the review or appeal in terms that do so but are reached by way of agreement with the taxpayer rather than by, for example, imposition of a decision of the Tribunal or judgment of the Court.  Agreement may be reached before a taxpayer engages in the formal processes of taxation objection leading to an objection decision and on to review or appeal or at some point during the process.

Why a Part IVC right to object or appeal is a type of right that can be waived

The AAT drew a distinction between a statutory right that can be waived under a contract and a statutory right that cannot. At paragraph 90, Deputy President Forgie referred to the general rule, expressed by Higgins J. in Davies v. Davies [1919] HCA 17; (1919) 26 CLR 348, at p 362:

Anyone is at liberty to renounce a right conferred by law for his own sole benefit; but he cannot renounce a right conferred for the benefit of society.

and gave examples of other statutory rights where the recipient of the right may abandon the right or not pursue the right. It follows that as a taxpayer is the sole recipient of the legal right to object under Part IVC, the taxpayer is able to renounce that right in the course of settlement of a Part IVC dispute.

Trouble objecting to a tax assessment again

ObjectionIn an earlier blog post we observed that the practical way and thus the only way to challenge Federal and State tax assessments is by objecting against the assessment with an objection.

The Taxation Office raises the tax assessment & decides the objection!

Like the decision to issue a tax assessment, the objection to that assessment, if any, is decided by the (office of the) relevant Federal or State Commissioner of Taxation too. The Commissioner will usually require that the objection is decided by an objections officer other than the officer who raised the tax assessment.

Still, even if that process is followed, an objections officer will be inclined to support the position of their colleague unless the taxpayer can show, with the objection, that the assessment is wrong. The burden of showing it is wrong is on the taxpayer. So the objection needs to make out a convincing case before the tax liability in the tax assessment raised by a colleague will be reduced by the objections officer.

Objection – a one off chance

Where the Taxpayer has given the Taxation Office a hastily prepared document objecting against an assessment, the objection right is used up. If the objections officer disallows the objection then the tax law doesn’t give the taxpayer any further right to object against that assessment again.

After an objection against an income tax assessment is disallowed the taxpayer faces the generally expensive option of appeal to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal or the always expensive option of appeal to the Federal Court. Either way the taxpayer is usually required to appeal within sixty days of the disallowance and will generally be limited to the grounds and arguments raised in the objection unless the taxpayer can convince the tribunal or the court that there are reasons why further grounds not set out in the objection that should be taken into account.

Had the taxpayer known this then he or she may have been more wary about rushing to lodge an objection – in the case of a disputed original income tax assessment, the taxpayer will have either two years or four years following the original notice of assessment to lodge an objection.

It is important that the taxpayer uses this time advisedly to ensure an objection (only one per disputed tax assessment) is prepared which:

  1. demonstates that the tax assessment is wrong; and
  2. establishes grounds of objection rigorous and comprehensive enough to be used in a tribunal or court appeal should the objection be disallowed.

Withdrawal

Sometimes a hastily or inadequately drawn objection doesn’t raise valid grounds at all. The Australian Taxation Office has been known to invite taxpayers to withdraw their objection in these cases. Then they no longer have to decide to disallow the objection. In that situation it may be possible to object again, with better grounds, but it is open to the ATO to contend that the taxpayer has used up their right to object.

It’s clearly best objecting with rigour first time.

Pleading grounds in a tax objection

We have mentioned how facts and evidence in dispute should be systematically presented in an objection in a considered and rigorous way.

Restriction on grounds that can be argued in a tax case

If an income tax objection is disallowed by the commissioner of taxation then the taxpayer is generally restricted to the grounds set out in the objection on appeal to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal or to the Federal Court. The grounds so set out become the equivalent of “pleadings” in a court claim or writ commencing litigation.

The law changed in 1986, to allow a limited discretion to the tribunal or the court, to alter the grounds of an objection on which an appeal could be based. The Treasurer then stated in the explanatory memorandum to the changes:

It is expected that, in exercising the discretion, the general principles on which courts have permitted amendments of pleadings in other areas of the law will generally be applied. For example, the discretion is likely to be exercised where the need for an amendment of the grounds of objection arises as a result of the Commissioner relying on arguments in defence of an assessment where the particular basis was not adverted to in the adjustment sheet accompanying the notice of assessment.

Lawyer-prepared pleading can be worthwhile

So we recommend legal input in to the preparation of a tax case at the objection stage:

  • where the case is of importance to the taxpayer; or
  • particularly where the taxpayer wants to be able to appeal the case if the objection is disallowed by the commissioner of taxation.

If a taxpayer has used a simple objection letter that does not adequately plead the taxpayer’s case, prospects of success on grounds not pleaded are diminished. Trained tax lawyers like The Tax Objection can prepare or review an objection with legal “pleadings” method to prevent loss of prospects of success on appeal like that.

Save dispute costs by getting your objection right

Usually a tax objection is the only feasible way to dispute a tax assessment.

One time opportunity

That said, an objection is a valuable and relatively low cost opportunity to put a case to a commissioner that an assessment needs to be corrected.

Don’t miss it

Costs ratchet up where a taxpayer still wants to dispute the assessment once the objection is disallowed. The objection opportunity should be taken. Assistance from a tax disputes legal professional, like The Tax Objection, can be valuable. The right lawyer can draft objection documents, or review documents already prepared, suggest a strategy and let you know the prospects of success of the proposed objection.

Appeal after disallowance of a tax objection

If an income tax objection is disallowed by the commissioner then the taxpayer has sixty days from the issue of the disallowance to appeal to either of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (“AAT”) or the Federal Court of Australia. So time is a factor as well as cost if an objection is disallowed.

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Administrative Appeals Tribunal

The AAT is a lower cost dispute resolution forum than the Federal Court. Generally the AAT will not award costs meaning that if a taxpayer loses an appeal to the AAT then the taxpayer will not have to meet the legal costs of the commissioner. Although the AAT is not a court and the AAT is not bound by the rules of evidence, the AAT is essentially a quasi-court in tax appeals and appellants will be at a disadvantage if the implications of the rules of evidence are not understood.

To commence an appeal in the AAT a fee of $861 usually applies. The AAT offers alternative dispute resolution services before a case moves to a hearing in the AAT. If a case in the AAT does not resolve and it proceeds to hearing a barrister will usually be required for the taxpayer. Legal costs will exceed $50,000 in many cases that reach the full hearing stage.

Federal Court

The Federal Court option is a more expensive alternative and, if the taxpayer loses, an order to meet the costs of the commissioner usually follows. Running a case in the Federal Court usually involves six figure legal costs.

Try to win at the objection stage

In that context making the most of the objection stage to a dispute a tax assessment before it reaches the pressing and expensive appeal stage does make sense.