Tag Archives: facts

Commissioner pushed too far to rule on private ruling – Hacon

Efforts by a $35 million pastoral dynasty to get tax certainty over their plans to restructure its farming holdings have come to an end with the Full Federal Court upholding the Commissioner of Taxation’s appeal and allowing the Commissioner to decline to rule on the applicants’ private ruling application.

Must the Commissioner rule on anything?

In theory, with enough information, the Commissioner can provide any private ruling on the way in which the Commissioner considers a tax law applies or would apply to any set of current or future facts and circumstances to a private ruling applicant. Does this afford scope for a determined taxpayer to base an extravagant application for a private ruling on a favourable but not necessarily realistic matrix of circumstances, which are yet to occur, particularly in an anti-avoidance context? Is this matrix really “information” which the private ruling must reflect?

Under the private ruling regime in Schedule 1 of the Taxation Administration Act 1953 (“Sch 1 TAA”) there are two competing limitations on the issue of private rulings:

  • If the Commissioner finds that further information is needed to make a private ruling then the Commissioner must request the applicant for that information – the Commissioner can only decline to rule if the applicant does not provide the information requested within a reasonable time: section 357-105 of Sch 1 TAA.
  • If correctness of a private ruling depends on an assumptions about a future event or other matter the Commissioner may either decline to rule or make assumptions that the Commissioner considers most appropriate: section 357-110 of Sch 1 TAA.

Info&Assumptions

Commissioner of Taxation v Hacon Pty. Ltd.

In Commissioner of Taxation v Hacon Pty. Ltd. [2017] FCAFC 181 the applicants sought a private ruling over whether the general anti-avoidance provisions in Part IVA of the Income Tax Assessment Act 1936 would apply to a proposed demerger of assets in their farming group which included a routing of the assets, by way of dividends on redeemable preference shares, to a new series of trusts.

The applicants asserted that the matters on which the Commissioner declined to rule, which were expressly listed as assumptions about future events, could have been satiated by information which the Commissioner could and should have sought from the applicants as required by section 357-105. The applicants successfully contended this at first instance in the Federal Court. However the Full Federal Court on appeal by the Commissioner, comprising Robertson, Pagone and Derrington JJ., took a different view. The Court, at paragraph 8 of the joint judgment, observed that:

The word “information” is an ordinary English word apt to cover a large range of facts and circumstances including events yet to occur and assumptions about future events.

and found that the matters set out in the Commissioner’s letter, although satiable by information, did indeed require assumptions about future events or other matters so that declining to rule, without seeking explanation by way of information from the applicant, was an option available to the Commissioner under section 357-110.

Assumptions give scope to the Commissioner to opt out

It follows from the decision of the Full Federal Court in Commissioner of Taxation v Hacon Pty. Ltd. that, if the Commissioner needs to make assumptions about future events in order to rule in a private ruling application, the Commissioner can opt not to rule rather than being obliged to make assumptions which are not appropriate in the Commissioner’s estimation. That view can be apposite for future events where the information an applicant provides about them may not be convincing.

Are electronic records OK for tax?

They’re OK.

 

electronic paper-shredder

It’s clear on the ATO website that electronic storage of paper records is acceptable:

This article from Addisons explains the big picture:

  1. including in the context of record keeping obligations of companies under the Corporations Act 2001; and
  2. refers to the general requirement that taxpayers keep their (Commonwealth) tax related documents for five years.

ATO record keeping requirements in detail are in Practice Statement Law Administration PS LA 2005/2. PS LA 2005/2 shows that the period for keeping records referred to in the article can be longer than five years in certain cases. Records of documents going back to when an asset was acquired, even if prior to the introduction of capital gains tax in 1985, need to be kept for five years after the CGT asset is disposed of. It is also apparent under PS LA 2005/2 that the ATO can impose a range of penalties for failure to keep records including referring cases for criminal prosecution to the DPP where they perceive deliberate falsifications of records.

The article shows how ATO record keeping requirements reflect the Electronic Transactions Act (C’th) 1999. In essence, section 12 states that electronic records of paper documents required to be kept under Commonwealth law are OK if the electronic system is capable of conveniently and adequately reproducing the paper record. That section is referred to and is in line with Taxation Ruling TR 2005/9 Income tax: record keeping – electronic records.

Implementing electronic tax records

A taxpayer fails these requirements, and risks penalty, if electronic records are lost. Using a backup system is critical whatever electronic system is being used. Moreover electronic records have ease of duplication and filing advantages that make electronic records preferable to paper records.

There are other risks of loss of electronic records that should be borne in mind. Export to other formats from legacy or crippleware systems is an imperative when the records can no longer be retrieved from computer software say because the software becomes, over time, no longer licensed, no longer runs in the taxpayer’s operating system environment or the software itself has inherent restraints on its archiving capability. Many modern bookkeeping systems have easy to use export features which can be worthwhile using as a failsafe to ensure compliance with record keeping obligations.

Is a tax invoice that is only electronic OK?

The position with tax invoices is clear. In para 12 of Goods and Services Tax Ruling 2013/1 the ATO states:

Tax invoices in electronic form
  1. A document in electronic form that meets the requirements of subsection 29-70(1) (and if applicable, subsections 48-57(1) and 54-50(1)), will be in the approved form for a tax invoice. [Footnote 9 – This record must be in English or readily accessible and easily convertible to English as required by subsection 382-5(8) of Schedule 1 to the TAA 1953.]

Getting ready to object – the analysis

A key stage in objecting to an assessment is analysing it. The notice of objection is then based on the key numbers drawn from the analysis (see numbers in bold in the analysis in What an analysis might look like below).

The Tax Objection prepares these analyses but is always helpful if the tax agent of the taxpayer prepares an analysis too to give further insight into and understanding, as a comparative, about the tax liabilities assessed.

Example – amended assessments received by a resident individual

You have received two notices of amended assessment for a resident individual from the Australian Taxation Office which show a hike in taxable income for the 2014 and 2015 years and an increase in tax liability. Not only has taxable income increased but there is an increase in medicare levy (that goes up with taxable income), and shortfall penalty and shortfall interest have been imposed.

The notices have scant information about why assessable income and allowable deductions numbers for these years have been amended, explain how and by when the amended assessment needs to be paid and remind the taxpayer of the right to object if dissatisfied with the amended assessment.

Amendments by the Commissioner are disputed

You don’t accept that the amendments have been correctly made in the notices and you believe the original assessments, which were based on the income tax returns you prepared, remain correct.

If an objection to the amended assessments is viable, then we can do the analysis of the amended assessments to identify:

  • whether there really is a dispute justifying an objection;
  • what that dispute is, or what they are; and
  • the tax dollars hanging on what is in dispute.

We can then understand the importance of the relevant arguments and facts and their impact on the possible tax dollar outcomes. Disputing an assessment has a cost so the viability of the objection turns on there being reasonable prospects that the objection can decrease the assessment liability by more than that cost.

What an analysis might look like

The analysis can be done in a number of ways. A spreadsheet is a very useful tool in performing the analysis. For example:

ObjectionAnalysis

The analysis is an insight in to the amended assessments and the reasoning behind the amended assessments giving understanding of them as a whole numerically and in context.

The analysis reveals if the taxpayer has a case

In the above example, it can be seen that the amended assessments arise from specific increases in assessable income and specific disallowances of allowable deductions. It is those specific increases and disallowances that need to be carefully considered to understand whether the taxpayer can gather the facts and evidence needed to ground a challenge to the amended assessments. It could be that the taxpayer only has reasonable prospects of success in relation to some of the adjustments made by the Commissioner and so that should be reflected in the analysis and  taken into account in working out whether an objection is feasible.

 

The burden of proof in a tax objection

The onus or requirement of proof differs in different kinds of disputes in Australia. The most familiar is the burden or onus on a prosecution in a criminal court to establish a case beyond reasonable doubt. In civil court cases the burden or onus is on a claimant to prove a case on the balance of probabilities. In those kinds of cases the defendant may not need to prove anything.

Burden of proof in tax cases

In tax cases a reverse burden or onus applies. A tax assessment is taken to be right unless the taxpayer can prove otherwise.

Why is that? The answer is probably more practical than philosophical. In any case, it’s a bad idea not to return income and to wait for the commissioner to do the task because the commissioner’s findings will be hard to rebut if the commissioner is taken to be right to begin with.

Either in the case of a decision on an income tax objection:

the burden of proving that the assessment is excessive or is otherwise incorrect and of proving what the assessment should have been is on the taxpayer under the Taxation Administration Act (C’th) 1953. Similar state laws putting the burden of proof on to taxpayers apply to state taxes.

How is a tax objection form done?

An objection:

Be convincing

The grounds on which the taxpayer relies, i.e. the contentions and arguments, should be robust and conclusive to convince the commissioner to allow the objection. In most cases, contentions and arguments alone will not be convincing and the objection submission should show:

  • the facts supporting the grounds; and
  • the evidence which supports the facts.

GroundFactsEvidence

Presentation of grounds, facts and evidence

How grounds, facts and evidence should be presented varies case by case. Where facts or evidence are open to dispute then they need to be presented in the objection in a considered and rigorous way.

We advocate systematic organisation of grounds, facts and evidence in cases where facts and evidence supporting grounds are voluminous or complex.

If facts and evidence are presented wrongly then the credibility of the taxpayer and the contentions are undermined. It is also possible that:

  • the taxpayer may make unnecessary or unhelpful admissions;
  • the commissioner will:
    • draw adverse inferences;
    • further investigate the facts; or
    • impose a penalty tax for a false or misleading statement; or
  • in the event of an appeal, the taxpayer and witnesses could be cross-examined about matters contained in the objection.

The not so helpful ATO objection forms

The Australian Taxation Office (“ATO”) has a generic and a “Professionals” version of its objection form to complete and send as paper or online. However:

a form of objection that does not mimic the ATO forms can be prepared for a taxpayer and submitted to the ATO in a number of ways including:

  • using the tax agent portal – although a “correspondence” rather than an “objection” gateway must be used so that the objection is not corralled to the ATO form and style of objection;
  • by post;
  • by delivery of the objection in person to an ATO shopfront – this way can be useful if the taxpayer needs to ensure and prove submission within the time limit.