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Taxpayer loses out to ATO in ‘awkward’ court case

Scales of Justice

A recent court case indicates the ATO may not be held to their communications if they were made in error, leaving taxpayers in an “awkward” position.

The High Court has refused a taxpayer’s application for special leave to appeal against the decision of a full bench of the Federal Court in Pintarich v Deputy Commissioner of Taxation.

The Federal Court’s ruling found that Mr Pintarich was liable for the entire amount of general interest charge (GIC) on income tax, despite an error in communication from a letter from the deputy commissioner stating that he was not.

The letter, issued under the signature block of the first deputy commissioner, purported to remit all GIC payable by the taxpayer except for a relatively small amount.

“Thank you for your promise to pay your outstanding account. We agree to accept a lump sum payment of $839,115.43 on or by 30 January 2015,” said the ATO. “This payout figure is inclusive of an estimated GIC amount calculated to 30 January 2015.”

Mr Pintarich then made the full payment by the due date but was later advised in a subsequent letter on 18 August 2015 that the amount paid did not include the entire amount of GIC accrued.

“We wish to advise you that the letter issued by the deputy commissioner of taxation dated 8 December 2014 titled ‘Payment Arrangement for your Income Tax Account Debt’ was issued in error. The outstanding amount of $839,115.43 in the letter did not include the entire amount of GIC, which had accrued on the entire amount of outstanding debt up to and including 8 December 2014,” the ATO letter said.

The court found that the error was made due to information input into a computer-based “template bulk issue letter” by an ATO officer, and that no decision had been made because there was no “mental process” of reaching a conclusion.

What does this mean for taxpayers?

The Tax Institute’s senior tax counsel, Professor Robert Deutsch, believes taxpayers will need to “tread carefully” with future offers of settlement, considering the number of automated letters issued by the ATO on a daily basis.

“My view is that the Tax Office should stick by their own unequivocal unambiguous offers of settlement and if it turns out that is an error, which clearly was the case here, they have to live by it,” said Professor Deutsch.

“In reverse, I’m hypothesising here, but if a taxpayer puts forward an unequivocal offer to pay an amount which the Tax Office then accepted, I’d be very surprised if the taxpayer was allowed to go back and say, ‘that was a mistake, my secretary sent that and I didn’t mean it’.”

Taxpayer loses out to ATO in ‘awkward’ court case
Scales of Justice
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