Law Soc hails tax tribunal shake-up as end to secrecy

SWEEPING changes to the tax tribunal system, including ending the 200-year secrecy of Special Commissioners' hearings, will lead to more taxpayers' appeals and work for lawyers.

The changes, allowing publication of Special Commissioners' decisions, have been welcomed by the Law Society for creating a more open and even-handed system

Society revenue committee secretary Jill Hallpike says: “We certainly welcome the opening up of the tribunals to provide a more user-friendly, ready access.

“Openness will encourage people to pursue cases and lawyers will have new information for advising clients more accurately.”

The new rules came into force on 1 September and affect both Special Commissioners' hearings and Vat tribunals.

Presiding Special Commissioner, Stephen Oliver QC, says the main aim in making tax hearings public is for decisions to be made available on “an even-handed basis” to both taxpayers and the Inland Revenue.

Until now only the Inland Revenue has had access to case decisions, giving it an unfair advantage in some lawyers' view.

The income taxpayer will have a right to an appeal hearing, to be held in public unless a private one is requested. All decisions on appeal will be published, with anonymity for private hearings.

“The result will be a large number of non legally-binding decisions on points of law available to taxpayers and advisers,” says Oliver. “It will stimulate lawyers and accountants to realise that certain cases can be litigated and litigated with success.”

Oliver predicts a 10 to 15 per cent increase in the numbers of appeals to the Special Commissioners on the strength of this change.

Appeals to the Chancery Division against decisions will also increase, he says.

Powers to award costs agai-nst a party who acts “wholly unreasonably” and costs of up to u10,000 against those parties failing to comply with directions are introduced.

Vat tribunals' jurisdiction is also extended, to include duty appeals on insurance premium tax, air passenger duty, and a new appeal system for Customs and Excise duty. This is also expected to increase legal work available.

A Special Commissioners users' committee will be set up involving the Law Society, Bar Council, and other specialist bodies.