Advance tax ruling system| Detailed report on what the Supreme Court said

Supreme Court: The bench of SK Kaul and Indu Malhotra, JJ has recommended the Central Government to consider the efficacy of the advance tax ruling system and make it more comprehensive as a tool for settlement of disputes rather than battling it through different tiers, whether private or public sectors are involved. It suggested that a council for Advance Tax Ruling based on the Swedish model and the New Zealand system may be a possible way forward.

Writing two postscripts, the Court said that it was forced to do so on account of the backbreaking dockets which are ever increasing and as a move towards a trust between the Tax Department and the assessee. The Court said that it hoped that both the aspects meet consideration at an appropriate level.

Postscript 1:

The Indian legal system is reeling under a docket explosion. The Government and public authorities are active contributories to this deluge. To top it, a number of litigations arise inter se the Government and its bodies and, thus, the only question, as stated in the beginning, is which pocket of the Government will be benefitted?

The Central Government and the State authorities have been repeatedly emphasising that they have evolved a litigation policy. Our experience is that it is observed more in breach. The approach is one of bringing everything to the highest level before this Court, so that there is no responsibility in the decision-making process – an unfortunate situation which creates unnecessary burden on the judicial system.

“The object appears to be that a certificate for dismissal is obtained from the highest court so that a quietus could be put to the matter in the Government Departments. Undoubtedly, this is complete wastage of judicial time and in various orders of this Court it has been categorized as “certificate cases”, i.e., the purpose of which is only to obtain this certificate of dismissal.”

  • In 1988, the 126th Law Commission of India Report titled ‘Government and Public Sector Undertaking Litigation Policy and Strategies’ debated the Government versus Government matters which weighed heavily on the time of the Courts as well as the public exchequer.
  • In 2010, the National Litigation Policy (for short ‘NLP’) was formulated with the aim of reducing litigation and making the Government an efficient and responsible litigant. Five (5) years later it reportedly saw a revision to increase its efficacy, but it has hardly made an impact.
  • In 2018, the Central Government gave its approval towards strengthening the resolution of commercial disputes of Central Public Sector Enterprises (for short ‘CPSEs’)/ Port Trusts inter se, as well as between CPSEs and other Government Departments/Organisations. The aim was and is to put in place a mechanism within the Government for promoting a speedy resolution of disputes of this kind, however it excluded disputes relating to Railways, Income Tax, Customs and Excise Departments. This now been made applicable to all disputes other than those related to taxation matters.
  • Insofar as non-taxation matters are concerned, the Administrative Mechanism for Resolution of CPSEs Disputes was conceptualised to replace the Permanent Machinery of Arbitration and to promote equity through collective efforts to resolve disputes. It has a two-tiered structure. At the first level, commercial disputes will be referred to the Committee comprising Secretaries of the Administrative Ministries/Departments to which the disputing parties belong and the Secretary, Department of Legal Affairs. In case the two disputing parties belong to the same Ministry/Department, the Committee will comprise Secretary of Administrative Ministry/Department concerned; the Secretary, Department of Legal Affairs and the Secretary, Department of Public Enterprises. If a dispute is between a CPSE and a State Government Department/Organisation, the Committee will comprise of the Secretary of the Ministry Department of the Union to which the CPSE belongs, the Secretary, Department of Legal Affairs and the Chief Secretary of the State concerned. Such disputes are ideally to be resolved at the first level itself within a time schedule of three (3) months, and in the eventuality of them remaining unresolved, the same may be referred to the Cabinet Secretary at the second level, whose decision will be final and binding on all concerned.

The Court, however, noticed that one of the main impediments to such a resolution, plainly speaking, is that the bureaucrats are reluctant to accept responsibility of taking such decisions, apprehending that at some future date their decision may be called into question and they may face consequences post retirement.

“In order to make the system function effectively, it may be appropriate to have a Committee of legal experts presided by a retired Judge to give their imprimatur to the settlement so that such apprehensions do not come in the way of arriving at a settlement.”

It was hence, noticed that a serious thought should be given to the aspect of dispute resolution amicably, more so in the post-COVID period.

Postscript 2:

This part dealt with the issue of matters pertaining to CPSEs and Government authorities insofar as taxation matters are concerned, because they are consistently sought to be carved out as a separate category of cases. One of the largest areas of litigation for the Government is taxation matters. The petition rate of the tax department before the Supreme Court is at 87%.

The Court was of the opinion that a vibrant system of Advance Ruling can go a long way in reducing taxation litigation. This is not only true of these kinds of disputes but even disputes between the taxation department and private persons, who are more than willing to comply with the law of the land but find some ambiguity.

“Instead of first filing a return and then facing consequences from the Department because of a different perception which the Department may have, an Advance Ruling System can facilitate not only such a resolution, but also avoid the tiers of litigation which such cases go through as in the present case. In fact, before further discussing this Advance Ruling System, we can unhesitatingly say that, at least, for CPSEs and Government authorities, there would be no question of taking this matter further once an Advance Ruling is delivered, and even in case of private persons, the scope of any further challenge is completely narrowed down.”

  • In 1971 that a report was submitted by the Direct Taxes Enquiry Committee recognising the need for providing Advance Ruling System, particularly in cases involving foreign collaboration with the aim to give advance rulings to taxpayers or prospective taxpayers, which would then considerably reduce the Revenue’s workload and decrease the number of disputes.
  • In 1993, a scheme of Advance Ruling was brought into effect, with the introduction of a new Chapter in the Income Tax Act, 1961. A quasi-judicial tribunal was established as the Authority for Advance Rulings (AAR) to provide certainty and avoid litigation related to taxation of transactions involving non-residents.
  • The scope of the transactions on which an advance ruling can be sought from the AAR has gradually increased to now include both residents and non-residents, who can seek the same for issues having a substantial tax impact. Chapter XIX-B of the IT Act deals with advance rulings and it has been defined in Section 245N(a) of the 43 IT Act. These rulings are binding both on the Income Tax Department and the applicant, and while there is no statutory right to appeal, the Supreme Court has held that a challenge an advance ruling first lies before the High Court, and subsequently before the Supreme Court. The advance ruling may be reversed in the event a substantial question of general public importance arises or a similar question is already pending before the Supreme Court for adjudication.

The Court, however, noticed that the ground level situation is that this methodology has proved to be illusionary because there is an increasing number of applications pending before the AAR due to its low disposal rate and contrary to the expectation that a ruling would be given in six months (as per Section 245R(6) of the IT Act), the average time taken is stated to be reaching around four years!

“There is obviously lack of adequate numbers of presiding officers to deal with the volume of cases. Interestingly, the primary reason for this is the large number of vacancies and delayed appointments of Members to the AAR. In view of the time taken, the very purpose of AAR is defeated, resulting in the mechanism being used infrequently as is evident from the everincreasing tax related litigation.”

Noticing a significant development in Section 245N of the IT Act, the Court said that in 2000, public sector companies were added to the definition of ‘applicant’, and in 2014, it was made applicable to a resident who had undertaken one or more transactions of the value of Rs. 100 crore or more.

“Insofar as a resident is concerned, the limit is so high that it cannot provide any solace to any individual, and we do believe that it is time to reconsider and reduce the ceiling limit, more so in terms of the recent announcement stated to be in furtherance of a tax friendly face-less regime!”

Referring to the international scenario where there has been an incremental shift towards mature tax regimes adopting advance ruling mechanisms, the bench noticed that the increase in global trade puts the rulings system at the centre-stage of a robust international tax cooperation regime. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) lists advance rulings as one of the indicators to assess trade facilitation policies, making it an aspirational international best practice standard.

The Court, hence, said,

“The aim of any properly framed advance ruling system ought to be a dialogue between taxpayers and revenue authorities to fulfil the mutually beneficial purpose for taxpayers and revenue authorities of bolstering tax compliance and boosting tax morale. This mechanism should not become another stage in the litigation process.”

The Court concluded by referring to the legal legend Mr. Nani A. Palkhivala, who while addressing a letter of congratulations to Mr. Soli J. Sorabjee on attaining his appointment as the Attorney General on 11.12.1989 referred to the greatest glory of Attorney General as not to win cases for the Government but to ensure that justice is done to the people. In this behalf, he refers to the motto of the Department of Justice in the United States carved out into the Rotunda of the Attorney General Office:

“The United States wins its case whenever justice is done to one of its citizens in the courts.”

The Court said that the Indian citizenry is entitled to a hope that the aforesaid is what must be the objective of Government litigation, which should prevail
even within the Indian legal system. In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.,

“We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”

[National Co-operative Development Corporation v. Commissioner of Income Tax, 2020 SCC OnLine SC 733, decided on 11.09.2020]

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