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.

Ms. Baksh avoided main points about a conspiracy to conceal mandatory info on Berbice Bridge Company

It is good that Ms. Azeena Baksh, the Registrar of Deeds responded, even if indirectly, to my blog article Conspiracy to conceal mandatory public information in SN’s letter of May 2, `Procedure on filing of annual returns clear’.

Ms. Baksh’s claim that she was extending to me “respect” by calling on BBCI to file their annual returns shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the duties of the Registrar and of the public records function of the Registry. Section 487 (2) prescribes that the Registrar “must send to [any company in default of its filing requirement] a notice advising it of the default and stating that, unless the default is remedied within twenty-eight days after the date of the notice, the company or other body corporate will be struck off the register”.

Even if Ms. Baksh were to claim that she was exercising some legitimate discretion towards BBCI, such exercise must be reasonable. The circumstances of BBCI certainly do not justify a delay of more than two years in holding its 2012 AGM. The shareholders are all resident and the accounts are pretty straight forward.

The reality is that BBCI is experiencing difficulties meeting its financial obligations and wants to delay publication of its financial statements and report of the directors until after the May elections. My understanding is that the directors have approached the PPP/C government with a number of options, including raising the toll!

Ms. Baksh also claims by way of excuse for her inaction in relation to BBCI’s 2012 and 2013 returns that the Registry is “handling backlogs for the period 2002”. She may wish then to explain how companies #6450 incorporated in 2010 and #’s 6506, 6904 and 6951 incorporated in 2011 were struck off by the Registry. Or why the PPP controlled New Guyana Company Limited incorporated in 1959 is still listed as an active company despite its illegal conduct, and egregious breaches of the Companies Act for non-filing of annual returns, changes of directors, secretary, etc.

As an aside, Ms. Baksh has been in the job since 2012 and she is now only at 2002! At this pedestrian rate, heaven knows when the Registry will have up-to-date records, its very raison d’etre.

Now to some specifics. Contrary to what Ms. Baksh’s claims, BBCI did not respond to the Registrar’s request and ask for a 28 days extension for filing their returns. What BBCI did was write her stating that the Minister of Finance had approved an extension to June 30, 2015 for the holding of BBCI’s 2012, 2013 and 2014 annual general meetings. Surely Ms. Baksh must be aware that extensions are granted subject to conditions and directions and are not a carte blanche exemption as the registrar seems to think.

May I point out too, that Ms. Baksh contradicts herself, stating in one breath that she will not put on record any document marked “Private and Confidential” and in another that BBCI’s request was placed in its file in the Registry. There is a system in the Deeds Registry that every visit I make there and any staff I engage, is noted, regardless of the official nature of my business. The Registrar would know that I visited the Registry on Friday last. My diligent enquiry concerning any developments or updates regarding BBCI contradicts her assertion.

Ms. Baksh may wish to elaborate for the public how placing a private and confidential reply on file renders “the rule of law” chaotic. And I would be most grateful if she would direct me to the provision of the law which permits her as Registrar to withhold information from the public in relation to the failure of a company to meet its statutory obligation under the Companies Act. As a member of the public I have certain rights which by her inaction and acquiescence I am being effectively denied.

Ms. Baksh has avoided the main points in my article that led to the inescapable conclusion of a conspiracy to conceal mandatory information pertaining to BBCI. In the interest of space I summarise those points: first, Finance Minister, Dr. Ashni Singh’s purported approval for the Bridge Company to extend up to June 30, 2015 the date for BBCI to hold its 2012 AGM is unlawful and void; second, even if the Minister had such authority, the precondition was not met; and third, and perhaps worse, BBCI never made an application to the Registrar for the presentation of dated accounts to any AGM and so she could not therefore approve any extension. Even at the most charitable level, unfamiliarity with certain relevant provisions of the Companies Act cannot explain this series of grave mistakes in which Ms. Baksh persists.

The unfamiliarity goes further and has even more serious consequences as seen in the botched CLICO liquidation. Despite my drawing the relevant provision to Ms. Baksh’s attention on more than one occasion, she has failed over a period of years to carry out her duty to have the statements of the Liquidator of CLICO audited, as required by the Companies Act.

At the time of her application for the position as Registrar Ms Baksh had neither the relevant training nor experience for the position. However, as luck would have it, she was appointed to the position. A country needs to have as the keeper of its public records persons whose professional competence and impartiality are beyond reproach. Ms. Baksh as the keeper of the companies’ records has a long way to go to convince many members of the public that she possesses those qualities. She can begin with BBCI and New Guyana Company Limited.

I accept that this letter is long. However I think the exchange puts our regulators under the microscope which I think is a good thing. I believe we need more accountability and reporting from all our regulators.

Conspiracy to conceal mandatory public information

There seems mischief afoot and a conspiracy involving Ms. Azeena Baksh, Registrar of Companies, the Berbice Bridge Company Inc. (BBCI) and Dr. Ashni Singh, Minister of Finance to conceal information from the public about the Bridge Company. One year after the NIS had invested nearly one billion in preference shares in BBCI, the company wrote the NIS telling its General Manager that it would not be receiving any dividends for 2014 because “the company had not made any profits”.

One of the regulatory controls of companies is disclosure to the public, mainly through an annual return. The problem is that BBCI has not filed any returns with the Registry since 2011 and has resisted every attempt to have it comply. The reason has become clearer over the past month with the Minister of Finance giving the company cover NOT to file for some time yet, even though he has no such power under the law. Even if the Minister had such power, the company had not met the conditions set out in the Companies Act for any extension of the filing date.
Continue reading Conspiracy to conceal mandatory public information

There are numerous examples of the Finance Minister’s mismanagement

Mr. Nigel Hinds’ letter ‘Ashni is in the best and brightest category’ (Stabroek News, March 15, 2012) has drawn sharp comments on the meaning and intent of the term “best and brightest”, particularly from those who felt that Mr. Hinds was unjustifiably praising Dr. Ashni Singh, the Minister of Finance. In fact, “best and brightest” is a term of deprecation going back at least to a letter in a 1769 publication in which the writer used it mockingly and ironically to describe King George III’s ministers. Exactly two hundred years later, its place in infamy was sealed when journalist David Halberstam used it as the title of his #1 bestseller which exposed the intellectual bankruptcy of the whiz-kids of John Kennedy’s disastrous policy that led to America’s ignominious defeat in the Vietnam War.

That it was in that context of derision that Mr. Hinds identified Dr. Singh is clear from his paragraph calling for his “cleansing the Augean Stables filled with questionable deals, those facilitated by National Commercial and Industrial Development Limited (NICIL), sale of Sanata Textile Mills, Amaila Falls Project engineered by the infamous Fip Motilal, Georgetown Public Hospital Corporation [GPHC] contracts with New Guyana Pharmaceutical Corpora-tion [New GPC], and the absence of lottery funds from Consolidated Fund to name a ‘few’ ”.

It is public knowledge that Dr. Singh was personally involved in every one of these “questionable deals”, and in the case of the “infamous” Fip Motilal, Dr. Singh’s ministry caused to be issued through GINA a three page attack of undignified calumny on “Ram-like critics” who, on the bizarre selection of Fip Motilal as contractor for the road to the Amaila Falls, dared to expose Motilal as an unqualified contractor. They have been proved right and Dr. Singh wrong. In the case of the GPHC and New GPC contracts, it is the Dr. Singh-controlled National Procurement and Tender Administration Board that annually approves single source contracts, and outrageous of all, Dr. Singh chairs the truly egregious NICIL which spearheaded the tender for the Amaila Road Project.

But these were only a few examples of Dr. Singh’s “brightness”. Here are some others:

1. Every single audit report since Dr. Singh became Minister of Finance reminds us that “the Contingencies Fund continues to be abused”. And the abuser: the Minister of Finance in whom section 41 (2) of the Fiscal Management and Accountability Act (FMAA) invests sole powers and responsibilities over the Contingencies Fund.

2. Dr. Singh’s Finance Ministry has underwritten every one of the irregular transactions of the Jagdeo Administration since October 2006, including the infamous Pradoville 2 for which Dr. Singh’s NICIL allotted house lots to former President Jagdeo, Cabinet Members, members of NICIL boardand friends, all at below market price; computer purchases from a Brooklyn barbershop location; sole sourcing of school books for $90 million; disastrous multi-billion dollar road and other infrastructure contracts.

3. On all but one occasion of Dr. Singh’s presentation of the [annual] mid-year report under section 67 of the FMAA, the report pre-dates by months the date of its publication, prompting integrity concerns.

4. Dr. Singh has never once complied with section 21 of the FMAA dealing with conditional appropriations. Nor on his own recent admission in the National Assembly, has he ever complied with section 24 (4)of the FMAA, on each of the fourteen occasions he came to the National Assembly for supplementary funds, concealing the annual budget deficit.

5. Dr. Singh has begun to use creative financing to plug the ballooning budget deficit caused by over-spending and non-receipt of the Norway money. In 2010 he treated $11.117 billion as Miscellaneous Income, “the net result of the ‘closure’ of inactive accounts, and retiring long outstanding obligations in relation to the issuance and redemption of Government Securities.”

6. Dr. Singh was central to the sale of state property and the unlawful granting of tax exemptions to the Ramroop group. In these transactions, Dr. Singh had not one but three occasions to check the validity, legality and propriety of the transactions: as Minister of Finance, as Chairman of NICIL, and as a senior Cabinet minister. He missed them all.

7. As Minister of Finance, Dr. Singh controls the Consolidated Fund and has allowed the proceeds from the Lottery to be placed in a “special” account outside of the Consolidated Fund. He approves the operations of this extra-ordinarily special account from which only his mentor, former President Jagdeo could spend.

8. Dr. Singh was part of a transaction for $4 billion in which there was sufficient evidence to refer Minister of Housing Irfaan Ally to the Privileges Committee for allegedly misleading the National Assembly.

9. Dr. Singh has presented five budgets to the National Assembly totaling $627.5 Billion. During that time, we have had no natural disasters or economic shocks undermining the Budget. Yet, during the same period, Dr. Singh has returned to the Assembly with fourteen (14) supplementary appropriation bills covering over 440 transactions totaling $67.5 billion –conditions that would embarrass even a mediocre budget controller. For good measure, none of the transactions involving drawings from the Contingencies Fund, covering a minimum of $19.5 billion, was brought within the “next sitting” of the National Assembly timeframe required under section 41 (5) of the FMAA.

10. Dr. Singh has ministerial responsibility for the National Insurance Scheme and the Insurance Act. To him therefore, is due more than a quarter share of the blame in the Jagdeo-Dr. Singh-Luncheon-Gita Singh quartet for the NIS loss of $5 billion in Clico.

11. As Finance Minister Dr. Singh would have known of the mistake that led to the excessive VAT rate of 16%. In order to disguise the effect of the mistake and a windfall of close to twenty billion dollars, he sought supplementary spending provisions of $18 billion in the last two months of 2007! “Brightness” is certainly not the word to describe such shocking conduct. No wonder, neither Dr. Singh nor former President Jagdeo has responded to my several public challenges to them to release an unredacted copy of the report of the Barbadian consultant who was contracted to carry out the exercise. As a result the state has so far gouged the Guyanese taxpayer of more than fifty billion dollars.

As readers would expect, such a letter cannot address all the financial shenanigans hidden in the spending of $627 billion (US$3,135 million) during the last Parliament. Only a thorough investigation initiated by the National Assembly will reveal how the “best and brightest” Dr. Singh and his mentor, that other “best and brightest” Mr. Bharrat Jagdeo, have mismanaged the country’s finances for five years.

Citizens have a constitutional right in relation to budget consultations

The exchanges between Dr. Ashni Singh, Minister of Finance and Mr. Carl Greenidge, former Finance Minister about whether or not there will be a meeting of the parliamentary parties on the 2012 Budget should not have been necessary given the country’s constitutional framework.

Prior to 2003, Article 11 (now Article 13), Chapter II PRINIPLES AND BASES OF THE POLITICAL, ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL SYSTEM provided that “The principal objective of the political system of the State is to extend socialist democracy by providing increasing opportunities for the participation of citizens in the management and decision-making processes of the State.” To the representatives of the PNC Government who questioned the justiciability of the specific Article, then Chancellor Keith Massiah responded in the 1987 decision in the case Attorney General v Mohammed Ally that “I see no reason to think that the articles in Chapter II of the Constitution have no juridical relevance and are merely idealistic references with cosmetic value only. So to think would be to seek to debase the Constitution.”

In a subsequent amendment, the strength and justiciability of Article 13 were put beyond doubt when by Act 10 of 2003 the right to be consulted was made into a fundamental right under Article 149C in the following terms: “No person shall be hindered in the enjoyment of participating through co-operatives, trade unions, civic or socio-economic organisations of a national character in the management and decision making processes of the State.”

However, since his appointment in 2006, Dr. Singh has shown a disdain and intolerance for the annual budget consultations – arguably the single most important decision made by the State in any year – and discontinued them for his first Budget in 2007.

Ironically, while Dr. Singh might have argued against any meeting with the parliamentary opposition on the grounds that they were not contemplated within “trade unions, civic or socio-economic organisations”, and that they have all the opportunities to participate in the debate in the National Assembly, he has agreed to meet with them even as he has blocked out entities as women’s groups, the professional accounting body, the trade unions, the private sector organisations, etc.

President Ramotar has to be careful that his preference for a more open presidency and non-violation of the Constitution applies not only to himself, but to his Ministers as well. It is not whether or not Dr. Singh cares for consultations or whether he thinks they are useful.

It is that citizens have a constitutional right to participate in such a process.

And as a Minister of the Government Dr. Singh has a corresponding duty to engage persons, and not only the parliamentary opposition, in such consultations.