Feb 072016
 

On 6 January 2016 the ATO issued a Decision Impact Statement concerning the High Court judgment in the Australian Building Systems case.

[See my previous post for a discussion of the High Court’s majority decision: Australian Building Systems case: plenty of common sense in the dissenting judgment by Justice Michelle Gordon]

It seems that although the ATO accepts the High Court’s majority decision (as, of course, it must), it’s interpretation of the decision is nuanced, and suggests that it has no intention of giving up on the retention obligation.

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Apr 272015
 

{UPDATE 10/12/2015: The ATO lost in the High Court case. See my post of 10/12/2015.}

On 17 April 2015 the High Court granted special leave for the Australian Taxation Office to appeal the decision by the Full Federal Court in the Australian Building Systems case.

Previously … The liquidators of Australian Building Systems Pty Ltd disposed of company property for a capital gain. The Commissioner of Taxation claimed that the liquidators were required to retain funds from the sale proceeds to pay tax arising from the gain. The Federal Court (21/2/2014) and the Full Federal Court (8/10/2014) rejected the Commissioner’s position, holding that the payment and retention obligations in s 254 of the Income Tax Assessment Act arose only when a notice of assessment was issued by the Commissioner.

Commenting on the High Court’s grant of leave to appeal against those decisions of the Federal Court, David Pratley of Minter Ellison, Lawyers, says:

“Regrettably, the tax obligations of insolvency practitioners will continue to be uncertain for some time. It will likely be at least 12 months before the High Court hands down its decision on the appeal. If the appeal is allowed it would generally have retrospective application. Hence practitioners that rely on the Full Federal Court decision in releasing funds could be exposed to the risk of personal liability.”

Extracts from the transcript of the application for special leave

Below are extracts I have made from the High Court transcript number [2015] HCATrans 082.  CLICK HERE to see full transcript.  The application for special leave to appeal was before KIEFEL J and KEANE J. The full name of the case is : Commissioner of Taxation v Australian Building Systems Pty Ltd  (In Liquidation); Commissioner of Taxation v Ginette Dawn Muller and Joanne Emily Dunn as Liquidators of Australian Building Systems Pty Ltd (In Liquidation) [2015] HCATrans 82 (17 April 2015)
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MR J T GLEESON, SC (representing the Commissioner of Taxation):

…. So, in practical terms, a commissioner contends that if the liquidator sells a block of land on a certain date in the year for, let us say, a $10 million gain, the section requires the liquidator as a trustee to ensure that sufficient moneys remain in his or her hands to meet the tax when it is assessed at some future point. The obligation cuts in because the gain has been derived and it has its particular force at the time the liquidator is contemplating paying away money from the fund. So, in the example I have given, assuming they were the only facts known to the liquidator and the corporate tax rate was 30 per cent, the liquidator before making distributions to creditors or contributories would always make sure $3 million remained in the bank to pay the tax.

KIEFEL J: Do you say the obligation arises upon the receipt on each occasion of income or each transaction by which profit or gain is – – –

MR GLEESON: Yes, it arises because the derivation under paragraph (a), which is treated as being a derivation by the trustee or agent, and he thereby is bound under the obligation for the very good purpose that the whole point is so that the money remains there rather than the liquidator pay it away and then, when an assessment is later issued, the Commissioner would have to try and chase the creditors or the contributories.

….

KIEFEL J: What do you say – I think you have dealt with this in your reply – to the respondents’ argument that your construction leads to difficult results about how the liquidator has to estimate exact amounts?

MR GLEESON: It may or may not require attention by the liquidator to those questions. If it does, that does not call for any different construction, because the point of being a liquidator or a trustee or an agent, by taking on that responsibility the Act has placed upon you the duty to sufficiently inform yourself of the circumstances of the trust estate or the principal’s affairs with which you are acting in a representative capacity.

What the liquidator does – I have given a simple example where the liquidator says, “I must keep $3 million back from the creditors”, and if later on in the year there are further transactions on the tax account which the liquidator has information which might adjust the amount that he or she needs to keep, he or she makes an adjustment. But the critical thing is, the purpose of it is, do not pay away the money which needs to be there to make sure the Commissioner can recover the tax. By taking on the duty of trustee or agent you take on a statutory responsibility to ensure that is done. May it please the Court.

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MR S DOYLE, QC (representing the liquidators of Australian Building Systems Pty Ltd Acn 094 238 678 (In Liquidation)):

….

The respondent’s contention is “due” there means payable and our learned friend’s contention is that it means “owing” and it turns therefore on the question of whether there need be or need not be an assessment.

The construction for which the respondent contends, we would submit, is plainly right. It is required by the language of 254(1)(d), which speaks of a sum which is due but, more importantly, of a sum which will become due, not as the case against us requires that it be understood as if it might become due because our learned friend’s capital gain tax case is a good example upon the sale for a capital gain one can postulate that tax might become due, one cannot say that tax will become due without having regard to the totality of the affairs of the principal, the underlying taxpayer.

Additionally, the construction for which we contend gives defined content to the obligation to retain sufficient to pay because it is only when there is an assessment that one can know what that figure is. Our learned friend says against us that a liquidator has an obligation to understand the affairs of the company or a trustee has an obligation to understand the estate assets. This is not a question of diligence. This is a question of certainty. There is a defined obligation which requires one to be able to say, what is the sum sufficient to pay for the tax? The construction for which the respondent contends – which was favoured below – permits that to occur; the opposite construction does not.

KIEFEL J: Are you saying that the liquidator should only be required to be in a position to understand the overall obligations to pay tax on behalf of the company for the whole year rather than it being considered on a transactional basis?

MR DOYLE: It can only be when there is an assessment made. Assuming there are other affairs of the company within that period, it is only when there is an assessment issue that one can say that there is tax which will become due and that gives definition to the content of the obligation to retain a sum sufficient to pay it. It also gives content to – I hope I have answered your Honour’s question.

….

MR DOYLE:

…. To answer your Honour Justice Keane’s question, it is right to say the liquidator conducts the affairs of the company and has the obligation to put the tax return in. But our learned friend’s contention is the content of the obligation to withhold the money from the principal and to retain it under relevantly (d) and (e) arises long before that is done – arises at the moment of each receipt as it was put to you. That requires one to be able to say, the statute imposes a definable obligation on someone to withhold – as is the case here – a sum sufficient to pay the tax due upon a sale which gives rise to a capital gain in circumstances where there is no sum which can be defined as the tax due, or will become due, because of the other uncertainties which will influence the amount, if any, of tax which will become due.

That is, in our submission, the real difficulty with the case which is put by the applicant. It requires you to be able to say that when a liquidator makes a sale at a capital gain, he is obliged to do something to retain that money – that is, obliged by the Tax Act – forgetting his obligations as a liquidator – obliged by the Tax Act to do something with that money in circumstances where it is not possible to say how much. It is not possible to say there will, in fact, be tax due because subsequent events may mean there is no tax due.

….

KIEFEL J: Yes, there will be a grant of special leave in this matter. The Court notes the Commission is undertaking to pay the respondent’s costs, regardless of the outcome in this matter. The parties should obtain a copy of the directions for the filing of submissions with respect to this matter and, of course, to adhere strictly to the timetable there set out. Time estimate? No more than a day? ….

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Links to previous post about tax on this blog site:

“Post-appointment income tax debts of liquidator” – 10 October 2010
“Taxing capital gains made during liquidation” – 15 October 2010
“Legal opinion warns external administrators about personal liability for company taxes” – 16 November 2010
“Decision only partly resolves tax puzzle for liquidators” – 7 March 2014
“ATO appeals against decision in Australian Building Sysytems case” – 19 March 2014
“Tax Office loses to liquidators in test case regarding tax obligations” – 10 October 2014

 

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Oct 102014
 

The Federal Court of Appeal has dismissed an appeal by the Australian Taxation Office against a court ruling that where a tax assessment has not been issued liquidators have no obligation under s 254(1)(d) of the Income Tax Assessment Act to retain from the proceeds of sale an amount sufficient to pay an apparent Capital Gains Tax liability . (Judgment dated 8/10/2014, Commissioner of Taxation v Australian Building Systems Pty Ltd (in liq) [2014] FCAFC 133.)

The liquidators of Australian Building Systems Pty Ltd entered into a contract of sale of real property in Creastmead, Qld. The ATO argued that a tax liability for the capital gain arising from the sale arose when the sale occurred, and, accordingly, on receipt of the proceeds of sale, the liquidators were obliged under s 254(1)(d) to retain from the proceeds of sale an amount sufficient to pay that tax liability regardless of whether a tax assessment had been issued.

ATO-logoARITA logo

A couple of years ago the Australian Restructuring Insolvency & Turnaround Association (ARITA) (then the IPAA) and the ATO decided to run a test case on the obligations of liquidators upon the occurrence of a CGT event.

Justice-Blind-Scales

 

The decision in the first instance by Justice Logan of the Federal Court (in March 2013) has been confirmed by Justices  Edmonds, Collier and Davies.  Davies J summed up the decision as follows (paragraphs 34 and 35):

“Section 254(1) of the Income Tax Assessment Act 1936 (Cth) (“ITAA36”) applies to liquidators because liquidators are deemed to be “trustees” for the purposes of the taxation laws: see definition of “trustee” in s 6(1) of the ITAA36. As the consequence, a liquidator is “answerable as taxpayer” in respect of income, profits or capital gains derived by the liquidator in his or her representative capacity (s 254(1)(a)), and is required to lodge returns of such income, profits or capital gains and liable to “be assessed thereon”, but in his or her representative capacity only (s 254(1)(b)). Section 254(1)(d) then requires the liquidator to retain “out of any money” which comes to the liquidator in his or her representative capacity, sufficient money to pay tax that “is or will become due” in respect of such “income, profits or gains”, and s 254(1)(e) makes the liquidator personally liable for the tax payable to the extent of the amount retained, or which “should have been retained”. On its proper construction, it seems to me that the section contemplates that in the circumstances where the section is engaged, a post appointment tax liability, if any, will be assessed to the liquidator in his or her representative capacity, rather than to the company. That said, the analysis serves in my view to confirm that any personal liability falling upon the liquidator arises only if, and where, an assessment has issued, and there is an amount of tax that “is or will become due” in the sense of “assessed as owing”. For the reasons expressed by Edmonds J, the Commissioner’s construction of the phrase “is or will become due” as it is used in s 254(1)(d) is to be rejected. In my view the primary judge was correct to hold that the reasoning in Bluebottle UK Ltd v Deputy Commissioner of Taxation [2007] HCA 54; (2007) 232 CLR 598 in respect of the proper construction of s 255 of the ITAA36 applies equally to the proper construction of s 254, and that s 254(1)(d) is to be read as referring to an amount of tax that has been assessed. “

Interestingly, the appeal judges did not comment on Justice Logan’s cautionary advice to liquidators at the first hearing, which was:

“… Even though, for the reasons given, s 254 does not require retention upon the mere happening of a CGT event, that does not mean that a liquidator is obliged immediately to distribute the resultant gain or part thereof as a dividend to creditors in the course of the winding up. A prudent liquidator, like a prudent trustee of a trust estate or executor of a will, would be entitled to retain the gain for a time against other expenses which might arise in the course of the administration. Further, in relation to income tax, the liquidator would at the very least be entitled to retain the gain until the income tax position in respect of the tax year in which the CGT event had occurred had become certain by the issuing of an assessment or other advice from the Commissioner that, for example, no tax was payable in respect of that income year….” __________________________________________________________________________________

For my other posts on this topic see: “Post-appointment income tax debts of liquidator” 10 October 2010 “Decision only partly resolves tax puzzle for liquidators” 7 March 2014 “ATO appeals against decision in Australian Building Sysytems case” 19 March 2014

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Mar 192014
 

The Australian Restructuring Insolvency & Turnaround Association (ARITA) reported yesterday that the Australian Taxation Office is appealing against the decision in the test case on the obligations of liquidators upon the occurrence of a Capital Gains Tax (CGT) event.

Hand objection

ARITA’s report is as follows:

CGT UNCERTAINTY by Kim Arnold, 18/3/2014

Further to our recent article on the decision in Australian Building Systems Pty Ltd v Commissioner of Taxation [2014] FCA 116, the ATO have lodged an appeal.  The grounds of the appeal are that:

  • the judge erred in concluding that the liquidators were not required under s254(1)(d) of the Income Tax Assessment Act 1936 to retain proceeds from sale sufficient to pay any net capital gain arising from the sale; and
  • the judge erred in concluding that the obligation to retain monies sufficient to pay any tax in respect of the sale only arises when and if an assessment is issued.

The ATO’s view is that there is an obligation for the liquidators to retain proceeds from sale sufficient to meet any tax obligation and that an assessment is not required for that obligation to arise.

The issue of CGT priority and external administrator obligations on the sale of assets in insolvency administrations has been outstanding for many years and it seems that there will be no certainty for some time to come.

For my earlier post on this subject CLICK HERE.
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Mar 072014
 

[UPDATE 19/3/2014: THE ATO HAS APPEALED AGAINST THE DECISION DISCUSSED IN THIS POST] [UPDATE 10/10/2014: THE ATO FAILED IN ITS APPEAL; THE DECISION OF LOGAN J WAS CONFIRMED.]

When the Insolvency Practitioners Association of Australia (since renamed the Australian Restructuring Insolvency & Turnaround Association, or ARITA) and the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) decided to run a test case on the obligations of liquidators upon the occurrence of a Capital Gains Tax (CGT) event, they probably knew they risked broadening the contentious issues.  But they had to try settling a far-reaching and long-standing argument ­ which ARITA and the ATO had been having since 2009.  (1)

Unfortunately for ARITA and the ATO, the Court decided not to adjudicate in one important area, deeming it “unnecessary to answer in light of the conclusion reached …”

In running Australian Building Systems Pty Ltd v Commissioner of Taxation ([2014] FCA 116), decisions were sought on the following questions:

–          whether the liquidators (this was a joint appointment) are obliged by s 254 of the Income Tax Assessment Act 1936 , prior to the issuing of a notice of assessment to Australian Building Systems Pty Ltd (ABS), to retain monies so as to meet what may be a taxation liability in respect of the income year when the CGT event occurred; and

–          whether the liquidators are obliged to pay to the Commissioner the whole of any tax due by ABS in priority to other creditors of that company notwithstanding  ss 501, 555 and 556 of the Corporations Act.

Tax law gavel

On the first question the Court –  Logan J presiding – concluded:

“ … that s 254 of the ITAA36 had no application to the liquidators. They were not, in the absence of any assessment, subject to any retention and payment obligation derived from that section…..” (para 25 of the judgment) and “s 254 does not require retention upon the mere happening of a CGT event …” (para 31).

As the ATO had argued that it was not necessary for there to be a notice of assessment before the retention obligation of S. 254 could arise, this decision was a victory for the liquidators.

But Logan J added the following cautionary advice:

“… Even though, for the reasons given, s 254 does not require retention upon the mere happening of a CGT event, that does not mean that a liquidator is obliged immediately to distribute the resultant gain or part thereof as a dividend to creditors in the course of the winding up. A prudent liquidator, like a prudent trustee of a trust estate or executor of a will, would be entitled to retain the gain for a time against other expenses which might arise in the course of the administration. Further, in relation to income tax, the liquidator would at the very least be entitled to retain the gain until the income tax position in respect of the tax year in which the CGT event had occurred had become certain by the issuing of an assessment or other advice from the Commissioner that, for example, no tax was payable in respect of that income year….” (para 31).

Caution-taxes

ATO back to the drawing board

The ATO will need to withdraw its exhaustive Draft Taxation Determinations TD 2012/D7 and TD 2012/D6 of September 2012 and try again to state the correct legal position.  In those determinations the ATO took the view that

  • “a receiver who is an agent of the debtor is required by paragraph 254(1)(d) of the ITAA 1936 to retain from the sale proceeds that come to them in the capacity of agent sufficient money to pay tax which is or will become due as a result of disposing of a CGT asset”; and
  • “The phrase ‘tax which is or will become due’ in paragraph 254(1)(d) of the ITAA 1936 is not restricted to tax that has been assessed, and includes tax that will become due when an assessment is made. Consequently, the obligation to retain an amount under paragraph 254(1)(d) can arise in respect of tax that has not yet been assessed”.

 

An advisory note from ARITA?

One can imagine that the decision and the words of caution by Logan J will eventually find their way into an advisory note or practice guide from ARITA to liquidators and other insolvency practitioners.  But in getting there the Judge’s caution is bound to cause ARITA’s technical advisers and members considerable trouble.

ARITA’s initial interpretation

ARITA posted a summary of the judgment on its website on 23 February  (“Liquidator succeeds in CGT dispute with ATO” by Michael Murray), and ended with a note that it will closely examine the decision and the Judge’s comments and will raise the matter at its next liaison meeting with the ATO.

ARITA’s interpretation included the following comment:

In the case in hand, no assessment had issued when the sale took place.  This means that there is no personal liability for a liquidator if, once the assessment issues, there are insufficient funds to meet the liability.

Kicking off the discussiondiscussion meeting

I would make a couple of preliminary observations regarding this comment.

First, the fact that no assessment had issued when the sale took place is unremarkable.  Normally, a tax assessment is not made until after an event occurs.  Ordinarily, the ATO would not even be aware that an event had occurred until it was disclosed in a return lodged by the taxpayer.  (2)

Secondly, I agree that, based on this decision, there would be no personal liability under s. 254(1)(d) or (e) of the ITAA 1936 for the tax payable as the result of a profit, etc., if the money the liquidator had was expended and/or disbursed before a tax assessment was issued.

But there are other important issues to consider.  If a tax return covering
a post-appointment period was lodged and/or a tax assessment was issued showing tax payable in respect of that period, this would give rise to a debt payable by the company; and that debt would, it seems to me, be entitled to priority payment under the Corporation Act, as are other costs
of the winding up.

Such a tax debt would probably be entitled to classification as an expense “properly incurred by a relevant authority” (e.g., a liquidator) (S. 556(1)(dd) of the Corporations Act).  If so, it would have a higher priority than, for example, liquidator’s remuneration (S. 556(1)(de)) and employee entitlements (S. 556(1)(e) and (g)).

So … if, when the assessment issues “there are insufficient funds to meet the liability”, the liquidator may be deemed to have breached his or her duty to distribute the proceeds in accordance with the priorities established by law.

It seems to me that this very issue was the one being broached by Logan J in his caution at para 31 of the judgment when he said:

“ … in relation to income tax, the liquidator would at the very least be entitled to retain the gain until the income tax position in respect of the tax year in which the CGT event had occurred had become certain by the issuing of an assessment or other advice from the Commissioner that, for example, no tax was payable in respect of that income year….”.

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NOTES:
(1)    In October 2012 the ATO issued draft rulings on the subject; and in February 2013 the  hearing of the test case began.
(2)    In the case being examined here, the ATO was informed of the CGT event when the company sought a private ruling from the Commissioner on whether s.254(1)(d) applied.

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For more on this topic see my article “Post-appointment income tax debts of liquidator” published on this site on 10 October 2010.

 

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