My first suspicion that authority wasn’t all it was cracked up to be was at the age of 10, when I saw Lionel Bart’s newly released Oliver! Between the catchy numbers and faux-dirty actors there were two clear messages – the inhumanity of the workhouse system and Mr Bumble’s ‘The law is a ass, a idiot.’
Workhouses had blessedly long gone even then, but I have had many occasions in my long career to echo Mr Bumble’s sentiment. And if Dickens meant the term ‘ass’ in its asinine sense, I am sometimes tempted to go with the American usage.
There have been many occasions when a sloppily drafted law has been saved by the tax authority, with liberal and, sometimes, downright anarchical interpretations that could only be strictly justified by a completely new interpretation of the letters of the alphabet used in the drafting.
But, more often than not, it is not the case. While they will invoke ‘substance over form’ in incidences to their advantage – fairly confident that the courts will back them up if matters get that far – the authorities will fight hammer and nail to impose the letter of the law, hiding (possibly fairly) behind the excuse that they cannot ignore the written word.
And, just occasionally, they go a step too far.
If we are to believe the myriad reports of a case at the end of July, one of those steps is on the way.
I won’t dwell on the details of the case which has already been reported to saturation point, but suffice it so say, trust tax law – largely legislated with effect from 2006 – generally considers the contribution of an asset to a trust as a non-taxable event (a gross oversimplification, if ever there were one). The problem is that, for purely anachronistic reasons, Israel has a separate law for the capital gains from local real estate transactions. It, and its predecessor, simply predated Israel’s taxation of capital gains and for reasons I sadly suspect many of us understand, the situation has never been put right. The real estate law stayed silent beyond some existing archaic provisions that were essential for real estate transactions. The taxpayer argued that the transfer of real estate to a trust should not be a tax event – in logical line with the treatment of all other assets, as must have been the clear intention of the legislator – and the tax authority disagreed.
Blessedly, the committee appointed under the law to hear the appeal of the taxpayer, comprising two respected accountants and a senior judge, found in favour of the appellant. The ruling was reasoned and well-presented doing what I, in my recurring naivety, thought was what the tax authorities found difficulty with – filling in by stealth the missing bits of the law that should have been, but were not, there.
I assumed that would be it. The tax authorities were given a peg on which to hang their coat, and the world could carry on. The judge even recommended that the legislature add the relevant provisions to the statute so as not to permanently be required to rely on case law.
Well, according to the professional ‘press’, I got it wrong. The tax authority is expected to blow a raspberry at the decision and pursue an appeal in the High Court. Apart from the relative certainty that they won’t win, I don’t begin to understand what they are reported to be contemplating.
It would simply not be fair.