Monday 12 October 2015

Preservation Order and the South African/Australian Double Taxation Agreement

On 20 August 2015 the Supreme Court of Appeal delivered its judgment in the case of M Krok & Jucool Enterprises Inc. v The Commissioner for the South African Revenue Services which related to an appeal from the Gauteng Division of the High Court regarding the correctness of the confirmation of a preservation order granted by Fabricius J in the context of the South African and Australian Double Taxation Agreement (“DTA”).

The DTA was concluded by the two countries on 1 July 1999 and subsequently altered by way of a Protocol signed on 31 March 2008 which catered for the states to assist each other in the collection of taxes. During January 2012 and February 2013, the Australian Tax Office (“ATO”) requested the assistance of the Commissioner: South African Revenue Service to assist it in the collection of taxes allegedly due by Mr M Krok to the Australian Commissioner of Taxation in the sum of Australian $25 361 875.79 plus interest for the period 30 June 2004 to 30 June 2009. The ATO therefore required SARS’ assistance in the conservancy of Mr Krok’s assets located in South Africa pending the collection of the tax debt and a formal request was made accompanied by the certificate required under section 185 of the Tax Administration Act, No. 28 of 2011 (“TAA”).

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Mr Krok emigrated to Australia from South Africa during April 2002 and prior to his emigration a trust of which he was a beneficiary vested the capital assets of that trust in Mr Krok. Thus, Mr Krok held the assets received from the trust in addition to his personal assets.

The distribution was made by the South African trust in order to reduce capital gains tax in the future and also to allow for the remittance of income under the exchange control regulations. Pursuant to Mr Krok’s emigration from South Africa, he contended that he ceded all South African income and assets to a foreign company, Polperro, held by a foundation located in Lichtenstein. Subsequently during December 2008 Mr Krok emigrated from Australia to the United Kingdom. Mr Krok contended that as part of his emigration planning to United Kingdom, Polperro was liquidated and the assets owned by him were transferred to Jucool Enterprises Inc., a company incorporated in the British Virgin Islands and held by a Jersey Trust.

During 2009 the ATO conducted an audit of Mr Krok’s tax affairs covering the period February 2003 to February 2010.

As a result of the ATO’s investigation into Mr Krok’s affairs, the ATO concluded that Mr Krok had failed to declare income derived by him for Australian tax purposes in respect of assets held by him in South Africa while an Australian resident. The various transactions whereby assets were transferred from Mr Krok to the foreign companies were never disclosed to SARS or the ATO. 

The ATO reached the conclusion that Mr Krok retained legal and beneficial interest in the assets and that the alleged assignment of his rights and interest of the capital and income of the assets to the foreign company violated South African exchange control regulations and was a sham. Consequently, the ATO adjusted Mr Krok’s tax returns and issued notices of assessment reflecting tax and penalties. The objections lodged by Mr Krok to those assessments were disallowed by the ATO.

As a result of the ATO’s request for assistance under the DTA, SARS launched an application for a preservation order under section 163 of the TAA. Mr Krok contended that the tax claimed by the ATO fell outside of the scope of the DTA on the basis that the Protocol came into effect on 12 November 2008 and therefore should only apply in respect of income or profits and gains of any year of income beginning after 1 July 2009.

Jucool contended that it had legal title to the assets and that the assets were therefore not owned by Mr Krok. Thus, Mr Krok’s primary argument was that the DTA did not apply on the basis that the tax in issue did not arise on or after 1 July 2009. The court considered the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties of 1969 and reached the conclusion that the Protocol concluded by South Africa and Australia applied to all tax debts, whether they arose before or after the date on which the Protocol was agreed to.

The court referred to the fact that the arguments raised by Mr Krok were dismissed in the case of Ben Nevis (Holdings) Ltd and Metlika Trading Ltd v Commissioners for HM Revenue and Customs. That case considered the provisions of the tax treaty between South Africa and the United Kingdom regarding an appeal in which similar issues to those raised in the Krok case were considered in the context of a similar article to a 2002 DTA between those two countries as amended by a 2010 Protocol. 

In the Metlika case the taxpayer argued that the 2010 Protocol precluded mutual assistance in the collection of tax debts which arose before 1 January 2003. The United Kingdom court disagreed with Metlika and accordingly allowed the United Kingdom Revenue to assist SARS in the collection of amounts allegedly due to it. The Supreme Court of Appeal therefore held that there was no merit in the taxpayer’s point on retrospectivity and that the provision of Article 25A allowing for reciprocal assistance in the collection of tax applied regardless as to when the income tax debt arose.

Furthermore, the court rejected Jucool’s contention that it was the beneficial owner of the assets in question and not Mr Krok.

Thus, the Supreme Court of Appeal confirmed the decision of the High Court authorising SARS to assist the ATO in recovering the tax allegedly due by Mr Krok to the ATO, despite the fact that the tax arose prior to the date on which the Protocol took effect.

Taxpayers therefore need to be aware that where they incur a tax debt in one country, that country may seek assistance in the recovery of those amounts from the assets held by a taxpayer in another country with which a DTA has been concluded.

Dr Beric Croome is a Tax Executive  at ENSafrica This article first appeared in Business Day, Business Law and Tax Review, October 2015.