The powers of the South African Revenue Service (SARS) to gather information were extended significantly in Chapters 4 and 5 of the Tax Administration Act, No 28 of 2011 (TAA) that took effect on 1 October 2012.
Greater powers were deemed necessary because "... too many requests for information by SARS result in protracted debates as to SARS's entitlement to certain information." (SARS Short Guide to the TAA, at p23)
Clearly information is central to the SARS business model: "By increasing and integrating data from multiple sources, SARS will increasingly be able to gain a complete economic understanding of the taxpayer and trader across all tax types and all areas of economic activity." (SARS Strategic Plan 2013/14 - 2017/18, at p25) Information-gathering under the applicable TAA provisions is a costly exercise for SARS, taxpayers (both corporate and individuals) as well as for advisers. The cost-aspect is usually not addressed in legislation empowering information-gathering by revenue authorities.
Despite this there is a strong need for 'cost-consciousness' relating to information requests – simply because of the compliance cost impact.
The SARS Strategic Plan specifically states, in order to achieve the objectives of the National Development Plan, SARS will promote effective government by "Reducing the cost of compliance and the cost of doing business in South Africa" (at p13). Hence, one of SARS's future initiatives would be to "Continue to implement the principles of a cooperative compliance approach to reduce compliance costs..." (at p34). SARS also acknowledges under "Small business and Cost of Compliance" that the "relatively high cost of compliance" might be a reason for non-compliance by small business (see at p43).
So how does a revenue authority inculcate a culture of "cost-consciousness" when it comes to information-requests by its officials? The Australian Tax Office (ATO) has gone down this road in its Access and Information Gathering Manual: Said Manual explains the law relating to the ATO's statutory information-gathering powers and indicates how ATO officials should exercise such powers. [The Manual is available on the ATO website].
The following reflects the ATO's philosophy on information gathering (as communicated by the then Commissioner): "These guidelines are to assist my staff and ensure we apply a professional and, as far as possible, open approach to the exercise of our access and notice powers. These powers must be used with the utmost care and we aim only to fulfil my obligations under the legislation. A consultative approach to obtaining the information should be the norm. Consultation generally involves advance notice and flexibility in meeting reasonable requests."
It is, furthermore, important to the ATO that costs associated with information-gathering should be curtailed: "In deciding whether to seek access, and in determining how much detail to seek, officers should always try to minimise the cost to the recipient of meeting access requests. Particularly in cases of seeking bulk data, request should be made only if there is a reasonable chance that there will be a substantial compliance impact relative to cost. On occasions sampling may be required to determine the benefits of obtaining bulk data. Also where bulk data is requested, officers should try to fit in with the custodian's circumstances (for example seeking information from the custodian's IT systems at times when it will not disrupt operations) and recognise the time and cost of obtaining such information." (emphasis added)
The ATO then provides practical guidance to its officials considering an information request, alternatively where they intend accessing premises to obtain information/documentation. The ATO official is instructed to ask certain questions before requesting the information/accessing any premises. [The following is a summary of the guidance from the ATO Manual]:
For what purpose and under which law do you require information?
The access provisions can only be used for the purposes of the Act. You must be clear on your reasons for seeking particular documents. You should be able to show a clear connection between the use of the access power and one of the purposes of the Acts. Like all statutory powers, you must exercise the right of access in good faith for the purposes for which it was conferred.
What information do you already have?
You should ensure that the taxpayer or the third party has not already provided the documents to the ATO, eg in support of a request for a private ruling.
What information do you need?
You should establish, as far as possible, what particular books, documents and papers are needed and whether the information they might contain is necessary for the purposes for which you are seeking access. Is it likely that the information will be located at the premises you propose to access or from the person you propose to give a notice to?
Can you obtain relevant information from another source?
Before using access powers, be reasonably sure that you are approaching the right person. If the information is available from more than one source, you should consider the cost to each party and who might be the appropriate party to bear the cost. In the majority of cases, tax officers should try and obtain the information and documents from the taxpayer prior to contacting third parties, such as advisers and banks. The cost to the ATO, and whether the exercise if cost-effective, should also be considered.
Are you authorised to seek access?
You must be properly authorised to exercise access powers.
Can you obtain access to the relevant information on an informal/cooperative basis?
If you think you can obtain the information by making telephone contact, sending an informal letter or searching other sources, the access powers should not be used. However, it is not necessary for all other avenues of enquiry to have been exhausted or to have used the notice powers before resorting to the access powers. You should be able to conclude that the occasion is one that reasonably requires you to enter premises and inspect documents.
Is it necessary to exercise formal access powers?
In circumstances in which privacy or confidentiality require that the formal access powers are used, consultation beforehand should encourage cooperation. Consultative procedures may include: giving the custodian reasonable notice of your intention to obtain access; liaising with the custodian about a convenient time to seek access, taking into account the workflow demands on the custodian; giving adequate information to ensure that custodians are fully aware of their rights and obligations in relation to access requests and so on.
Minister Gordhan, in his foreword to the SARS Strategic Plan (at p6), anticipates that over the next four years "... the demands on revenue collection growth will be between 10% and 11% per annum". For example, SARS would need to collect R1.09 trillion in revenue by 2015/16. To achieve those kinds of revenue targets probably means increasing levels of information-gathering. Seeking to reduce the cost of compliance requires that locally 'cost-consciousness' must become part of the information-gathering equation - and that a way is found to limit, and hopefully reduce, the costs associated with information-gathering under the TAA.
Written by Johan van der Walt, Director, Tax, Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr