PPP/C’s Income Tax Act amendment is also unconstitutional

The Stabroek News of Friday January 6, 2017, reported that two parliamentary representatives of the PPP/C criticised but abstained from voting on an amendment to the Value-Added Tax giving the Commissioner General the right to prevent persons, through the Chief Immigration Officer, from leaving the country once they owed VAT.

And in the letter columns of the Stabroek News of January 7, former Attorney General, Mr Anil Nandlall returns to the issue with a reasoned argument whether the amendment violates the Constitution and is therefore void (‘Section 45 of the VAT Act is unconstitutional’).

This is interesting because in 1993 then PPP/C Finance Minister, Mr Asgar Ally inserted by way of an amendment to section 71 of the Income Tax Act a new provision that is arguably more dangerous than the APNU+AFC’s amended VAT provision. Taking Mr Nandlall’s argument, it means that the PPP/C’s amendment to the Income Tax Act is, at best, on the same tenuous constitutional ground as the APNU+AFC’s amendment to the VAT legislation.

Garnishment and Distress Proceedings

Two proposals announced in 2017 Budget Speech – inserting into the Income Tax Act distress proceedings similar to the provision in the Value-Added Tax (VAT) Act, and garnishment of funds in bank accounts for the settlement of tax arrears – have caught the national attention. The discussion has not been helped by the misinformed and misguided statements in the media, even by columnists and persons who have a duty to be better informed.

That failure which is the cause of much of the confusion, misinformation and “noise”, has led to a situation whereby two very different provisions are conflated and wrong premises are used to defend or justify the two proposals. They should be addressed separately. Here is why.

The terms garnishment and distress are of significant legal and constitutional import and depending on circumstances may have different application to action against the person (in personam) and against the thing or property (in rem). As these matters apply to our Constitution they also raise the tension, if not the clash, between, on the one hand, Article 65 which grants to Parliament the power to “make laws for the peace, order and good government” and on the other hand, Article 142 which protects property rights subject to exceptions, as well as Article 8 which makes void any law inconsistent with the Constitution.

But first a piece of history. There was no garnishment provision in the original British Guiana Income Tax Ordinance passed in 1929. That came thirty-three years later as one of the measures introduced by the PPP Government in Act 11 of 1962 to give effect to that year’s Budget presented by C.R. Jacobs Jnr. but which came to be known as the Kaldor Budget. Persons from my generation will recall that that Budget was described by then Opposition leader Forbes Burnham not as the cause of war but the occasion for it. Of course, being an erudite lawyer, Burnham used the Latin for the aphorism although as the events unfolded in February 1962, the consequences were far from learned.

So what is now being proposed is the crude strengthening of a measure to which the PNC and the United Force were violently opposed and were prepared to do anything to block it, among others. Our columnists and self-serving and opportunistic politicians who have had an epiphany about the illegality and evils of tax evasion being such a bad thing may wish to go on the internet and google Wynn-Parry Report.

Both distress proceedings and garnishment are provided for in the VAT Act (section 49 and section 51 respectively) although instead of the word Garnishments used in the marginal note in the Income Tax Act, the corresponding marginal note in the VAT Act is “Recovery of tax from third parties”.

While the provision in the Income Tax Act pre-dates the 1980 Constitution and the VAT Act came much later, both are subject to the Constitution. And while the Constitution naturally allows an exception to the protection of property Article in the case of taxation, (otherwise how would the government be able to finance public services?) a taxing statute or a provision therein may be set aside as unconstitutional if it is confiscatory, discriminatory, disproportionate, or provides inadequate protection machinery for the taxpayer.

Perhaps somewhat confusingly, section 49 of the VAT Act speaks of both “distress proceedings” and “executing distress”. Distress is a summary remedy by which a person is entitled to take possession of the personal chattels of another without legal process while execution imports a legal process to give effect to a judgement of the Court. Moreover, section 49 is directed at goods, including perishable goods and allows the entry into premises accompanied by a police officer. Clearly, the Minister of Finance could not be referring to this section in discussing the expansion of garnishing funds from bank accounts.

The garnishment provisions of the VAT Act in fact mirror those of the Income Tax Act and have no direct or indirect reference to a bank account. Since the Minister wants to harmonise the VAT and the Income Tax Acts in these enforcement procedures, it may be presumed that the VAT Act will also be amended in this regard.

With respect to garnishment under the VAT Act, it is highly doubtful that the Commissioner can lawfully apply the provision before he has made a proper assessment on the taxpayer and after the taxpayer has exhausted his right of objection to the Commissioner, and appeals to the VAT Board of Review and to the High Court. Of course, if the taxpayer refuses to exercise his statutory rights of appeal, or to seek a remedy by way of judicial review, the Commissioner General would be within his rights to pursue the debt.

Absent from the discussion too, is any recognition of two other drastic procedures for recovery provided in the Income Tax Act. The first is under section 97 providing for the enforcement of a tax debt by way of parate execution, a Roman Dutch legal concept generally available to banks. As applied in the Income Tax Act, parate execution allows for the relatively speedy process for the disposal of property by the GRA. The second is under section 101 which provides that a certificate registered with the Registrar of the Supreme Court has the same force as a judgement of the High Court. The Act is unclear whether the Commissioner is required to avail himself of the section 101 process before seeking to apply 102. But instructively, section 101 is also a product of the 1962 Act referred to above.

It is probable that the idea for the introduction of distress proceedings into the Income Tax Act arose from someone who is unaware of sections 97, 101 and 102 of that Act and of the Rules of the High Court dealing with enforcement of judgements. The Commissioner General has confirmed that the distress and garnishment provisions in the VAT Act have never been applied and we know as well that the Income Tax provisions for parate execution under section 97, for a certificate under section 101 and for garnishment under section 102 have not been applied in all or the better part of fifty-four years, so why should anyone believe that strengthening any one of them is necessary? Does Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo, the leader of the National Assembly know these things or wants to know them, insulated as he is from the day to day challenges of the working class whose interest he once claimed to champion?

The measures purportedly to improve tax administration seem more designed as a substitute for effective, professional administration and constitute a textbook case of draconian legislation. To use the words of the Sri Lankan Bar Association in similar circumstances, the proposed legislation is “discriminatory, draconian in their nature and harsh and superfluous”, grounds under which it successfully brought a constitutional challenge.

Provisions of the various Tax laws already give the GRA enormous powers for the administration of the Act and the collection of taxes. Its new head is familiar with the successful operations of those laws, having been part of the tail end of the glorious days of the Inland Revenue Department when it was respected for its professionalism, impartiality, competence and independence, characteristics which no doubt enabled it to operate effectively using the existing laws.

The new head does not need new, additional and draconian powers to be effective. He needs to apply the existing tax laws without fear or favour, with the same deference to big and small, and undaunted by touchable and untouchable alike.

Guyana could have successfully defended the action by Rudisa/CIDI

Mr. Anil Nandlall, former Attorney General, has raised on his Facebook page the issue of the Environmental Tax paid by the Surinamese company Rudisa and its Guyana subsidiary Caribbean International Distributors Inc. (Rudisa/CIDI). He suggested that the current Attorney General “either did not study the [CCJ] case or having done so is still unappreciative of its gravamen.” The decision in that case was handed down on May 8, 2014 but the PPP/C Government did not comply with an order of the Court that the Government repay with interest the sum of US$6,047,244.77, and further amounts collected up to the date of the judgment. The matter was resolved only after the APNU+AFC Government gave an undertaking to cease collecting the tax and to repay the full amount collected from Rudisa/CIDI.

Mr. Nandlall was not the AG when the PPP/C introduced the tax in 1995 but it would have been gracious of him to acknowledge that the PPP/C Government erred when it introduced a tax that clearly violated WTO Rules, and compounded its error by continuing to collect the tax from CARICOM companies after the Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas was incorporated in Guyana domestic law in 2006.

The matter has assumed important currency following the commencement of a similar action in the CCJ by the Trinidadian-owned Guyana Beverages Inc. which has paid more than two billion dollars in Environmental Tax. That money, like the Rudisa money, was spent by the past administration, and the current Finance Minister is faced with the serious risk of having to pay back this huge sum. In an ironic twist of fate, proposed legislation to address the problem introduced in 2013 by the PPP/C administration was rejected by the APNU and the AFC MP’s!

In his Facebook comments, Mr. Nandlall took issue with a statement by Mr. Williams that the Government of Guyana never led evidence to show that the Environmental Tax paid was passed on to the consumer, claiming that passing on was never “a disputed issue”. The problem for Mr. Nandlall is not only that passing on was and is the principal defence to an action for reimbursement, but as the judgement at paragraph 30 states, Mr. Nandlall submitted that no such reimbursement should be made to the Claimants (Rudisa/CIDI) because the latter must have already passed on the tax “by a re-adjustment of the price”.

The Court rejected that submission, finding that Guyana “presented no evidence to show that the Claimants have in fact passed on the environmental tax to their customers. The mere assertion that the Claimants are motivated by profit and that the tax must (CCJ emphasis) have been passed on is not enough.” Having failed to prepare adequately the case which he chose to argue himself, Mr. Nandlall sought to establish, belatedly, the presumption of passing on by way of “robust cross examination”. That could not and did not find favour with the Court.

While criticising Mr. Williams’ understanding of the case, Mr. Nandlall states on his FB page that Rudisa contended that it was “forced to lower the price of its product destined for the Guyana market below their market-value to offset the environmental tax.” He then goes on to state that “Rudisa absorbed the losses or the equivalent of the environment tax in Suriname before the product arrived in Guyana. They led evidence to establish that they sold similar products in other territories in the Caribbean at a price higher than they sold those same products for to their Guyanese distributor”.

That is not what the judgment states. It states at paragraph [31] that “Rudisa Beverages would invoice goods to CIDI at FOB Suriname prices with Rudisa Beverages bearing the insurance and freight charges.”

Another easily rebuttable evidence from Rudisa, accepted by the court presumably because it was unchallenged by Nandlall, was that Rudisa and its local subsidiary “absorbed the loss occasioned in order to retain their 50% market share”. Yet, if Mr. Nandlall had done minimal research he would have realised that the Guyana subsidiary never had any such market share. He would have learnt too that CIDI did not commence operation in Guyana until July 2007, the company having been incorporated three years earlier. He might even have argued that the tax was incidental to the company’s carefully planned strategy and that Rudisa/CIDI opted for a market penetration price to earn rather than to retain market share.

It is probable but speculative that Guyana could have successfully defended the action by Rudisa/CIDI. Clearly Mr. Nandlall’s preparation and advocacy of the case was seriously deficient, and cost the country heavily. How the consequence of that poor performance will impact on the present case is a $2 billion dollar question.

Straw man fallacy

Please permit me to comment on a letter by Mr Ruel Johnson (SN January 6, 2016: ‘It is good to show we are capable of clemency but first we must show we can deliver justice’).

That letter was partly in response to a letter by me in Stabroek News January 5, 2016 ‘Treatment of Sattaur by persons from the GRA is not acceptable’.

My letter addressing four main points spoke for itself. I believe therefore that Mr. Johnson was engaging in the classic straw man fallacy of creating, in order to refute, a point not made in my letter.

I will not pursue any further correspondence or argumentation on this matter.

Ram & McRae was never provided with any proof of an $82M deposit to any Republic Bank account holder

Some time ago, Messrs Ronald and Rustum Bulkan, Joint Managing Directors of Precision Woodworking Limited (PWL) called to request a meeting with me. Although we had brought the auditor-client relationship between Ram & McRae (the firm) and the company to an end for professional reasons several years earlier, I agreed to meet with them at our office.

At the meeting, the company’s directors informed me that there was an issue between Republic Bank (Guyana) Limited and PWL as an account holder of the Bank over what they claimed was a deposit of a certain sum of money to the company’s account. They explained that they were seeking my representation in the matter.

I responded that for professional reasons, neither the firm nor I could offer any representation or information to them in the matter. What we did not disclose was that, out of an abundance of caution, we not only reviewed the working papers in our office but a partner of the firm was asked to carry out a further review of the alleged deposit. We found that there was no such deposit.
Continue reading Ram & McRae was never provided with any proof of an $82M deposit to any Republic Bank account holder