Clearer tax law

Many cases brought by the tax authority are conventional and fully justified. In most criminal proceedings the facts are mostly undisputed and only exists because courts are bound to proceed them.

Author: Bjarnfreður Ólafsson
Businessmen in a meeting

Many cases brought by the tax authority are conventional and fully justified. In most criminal proceedings the facts are mostly undisputed and only exists because courts are bound to proceed them.

However, the reason for this article is the increasing number of court cases where fundamental questions regarding tax liability are disputed.

Requirements towards tax law

Tax law, like criminal law, is relatively easy to understand because the basic principles of constitutional law stipulate that taxes may only be levied according to clear wording of the law. This follows from the principle of legality and from the constitution, which states that tax matters must be decided only by law and that the government cannot be entrusted with the decision on whether to impose tax, change it or abolish it.

Most literate adults should therefore understand tax laws and how taxes are levied and collected, because taxpayers should be able to read these rules from the law itself. And if taxpayers do not want to or do not have the time to read the law themselves, they can buy the service of experts and even have them prepare their tax returns for them. Tax law, like criminal law, should therefore be transparent and easy to understand so that the tax burden is predictable for those who are properly aware of their obligations.

Is tax enforcement transparent

There has been a significant deterioration in the transparency of interpretations and predictability in tax practice. It also seems that the tax authority goes further and further in their stance against the taxpayer.

For example, the tax authority recently summoned taxpayer to court and demanded annulment of the decision of Internal Revenue Board, which had entirely agreed with the taxpayer’s interpretation of the law. The Internal Revenue Boards decision was decisive against the tax authority’s interpretations. Now the taxpayer is obligated to defend the decision of the Internal Revenue Board before court, but the litigation has already costs the taxpayer a lot. There has never been a lawsuit like this before in Iceland and hopefully will not happen again. This litigation is similar to a recent case where the Ministry of Education filed a lawsuit against a woman due to the decision of the Equality Complaints Committee which was in the woman’s favour. That litigation was not considered exemplary and was abandoned before the Court of Appeal.

Enforcement by tax authority based on dubious legal grounds is a serious matter for taxpayers and there are too many recent examples of legally unclear and unsparing cases. However, they will not be discussed further here.

Cultural change?

In the past, the tax authorities had specific goals and worked according to a well-known slogan: “The right tax in the right way”. This slogan was well-suited and did set the tone for certain culture within the tax system, i.e. that tax will be imposed on all taxpayers according to the law – nothing more and nothing less.

Some time ago this slogan was abolished, and new signature words were established. On the tax authority’s website says i.a.: “The role of the tax authority – for the benefit of society as a whole – We are a progressive service organization that lays the foundation for social services by ensuring revenue generation for the state and municipality. Through active monitoring, investigations, and customs enforcement we promote equality and active competition and contribute to the protection of society.”

Nowhere does it appear in the tax authority’s slogan that taxes should be imposed correctly or according to law. Instead, it mentions that the institution is “progressive”? and how does the institution promote equality and active competition? It can hardly be within the scope of the tax authority, as these projects fall under completely different institutions. And what is the meaning of the words about the protection of society? This is all quite abstruse.

It can be said that policy changes in the tax authority’s interpretation of the tax law are well reflected in their changed values. At the same time, nothing has changed regarding the basic principles of law and our constitution which the tax authority should act according to.

On methods of interpretations

It is certainly not possible to have all the details in the law, and no matter how clear they are, something will always come up in practice that requires further clarification or guidance.

In the past, it was considered urgent to publicly publish new interpretations by the tax authority in “decisive letters”. Under certain conditions taxpayers could (and still can) apply for “binding rulings” as well. Now the tax authority nearly never publishes its interpretation in decisive letters. It is thought to be sufficient to send the requested explanations to the individual parties, verbally or in e-mails and sometimes there are no answers.

Binding rulings have not been sufficiently successful due to strict formal legal requirements as well as the fact that a request for an opinion can easily be rejected (rejection is non-appealable).

It can be said that since 2010 publication on decisive letters has almost completely ceased although occasional letters have appeared since then. The tax authority mainly publishes Value Added Tax (VAT) “basic amounts” in accordance with its legal obligations. These developments can be seen on the tax authority’s website.

Thus, the tax authority decided to change the interpretations of their legal obligation to publish the precedent interpretations and significantly reduce the important information for taxpayers and their advisors. This development goes against the principles of transparency and predictability of tax enforcement as well as the obligation of the tax authority to provide guidance.

This dire situation needs to be rectified as soon as possible. It is necessary to clarify in more detail what the obligation to provide guidance is, where its limits lie, and to ensure that information on important interpretations is not only available to one party, but that other taxpayers have equal access to the information.

It can be argued that if the tax authority cannot provide guidance on how to interpret the law with given and clear assumptions, then the doubt would not be interpreted against the taxpayer if the assumptions are exactly the same as before. This follows from the basic principle, mentioned above, that taxes may only be imposed according to a clear legal authority. If the law is not clear to the tax authority, then that should no less apply to the taxpayer.

Is opacity perhaps more desirable?

It must be in everyone’s interest that the tax laws are clear and accessible to everyone. Or what?

Could it be that the tax authority feels it is better to keep some tax rules vague so that they have more flexibility to respond to different situations that they can then adapt to the “correct” interpretation each time? If such views prevail, this author considers them doubtful and that they may even be illegitimate. If there is a need to respond to a situation, then Alþingi (the Parliament) should be informed about the situation, which will take a position on whether to amend the tax law and then decide on a clear provision on what was previously regarded as uncertain tax liability under the wording of the legislation.

The Precedents

Increased number of court cases in the field of tax law can i.a. be explained by the tax authority’s tendency to try new interpretations. In that context, it is sometimes suggested that it is urgent to “get a precedent on the issue”. As mentioned before, the tax authority is constantly going further in this regard.

It is not the role of the courts to create new rules in the field of tax law, as discussed in the clear wording of the constitution, although obviously courts must interpret established laws in their decisions. The tax authority’s path can therefore be doubtful on this basis and the methods quite costly. In any case, it is intolerable that taxpayers must pay for it through expensive litigation, even criminal proceedings, on the grounds of law that was never clear enough in the opinion of the tax authority, who then use litigation against the taxpayer trying to get the controversial understanding of the tax law confirmed.

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