Monday, January 19, 2009

Suspects in criminal cases have more rights than in tax cases

A recent article in Taxation magazine reminded me of this concern that I first expressed some years back.

Peter Vaines, is a tax lawyer and a partner with Squire, Sanders & Demspey. In his article he notes that taxation inhabits an 'extraordinary place' in our legal system.
"An individual is better protected by the law if he is suspected of a serious crime than if he is suspected of not paying even a comparatively small amount of tax. HMRC can demand information, enter premises, raise assessments and enforce the payment of tax on grounds which would barely scratch the surface in the criminal process."

Like Peter I appreciate that the burden of proof differs as between civil and criminal cases. However HMRC do not even have to prove their case to the civil standard. It is the taxpayer who has to prove that he or she is innocent to the civil standard. Almost all of the legal protection afforded to a suspected burglar are unavailable to someone suspected of failing to disclose all of their income.

I also share Peter's view that we need to ensure that taxes are paid properly. However I tend to the view that too many obviously guilty people are acquitted under the criminal law due to 'technicalities'. The 'tyrannical powers' that HMRC now have (to use Peter's description) were sought so as to reduce the prospect of tax evaders escaping justice.

Peter refers back to Jonathan Schwarz's Hardman memorial lecture to which I referred on this blog last November. HMRC powers - The rational arguments that these go too far. Peter highlights another key point made by Jonathan. That HMRC simply have too broad a coverage and that it would be much better for them to confine their attentions to taxation and not be burdened by social security benefits at one end and criminal activities such as the importation of endangered species and drugs at the other.

Peter endorses Jonathan's view (as do I) that HMRC are being asked to do too much and that this risks them destroying the very prize the Government seeks.
"The willing co-operation and compliance by the majority."

The key question, I believe, is whether HMRC do restrict the use of their newly liberated powers to the more serious cases or whether we perceive a clunking iron fist across the board. Until recently I was hopeful that the use of their powers would be restricted. More recently I have begun to fear that I was being naive - and wrote about how the Misuse of anti terrorism powers raises concerns about potential for misuse of HMRC powers.
I suppose we shall just have to wait and see!

1 comment:

  1. HMRC are already going beyond their powers by 'correcting' state pension figures in tax returns without telling the taxpayer. Many of these 'corrections' appear to be wrong. See article on Accounting web: