Posts Tagged Tax
Bundeszentralamt Fur Steuern v Heis. On comity, staying proceedings, and the ‘public /private’ divide in international litigation.
Bundeszentralamt Fur Steuern (Being the Federal Central Tax Office of the Federal Republic of Germany) & Ors v Heis & Ors  EWHC 705 (Ch) was held in March 2019 bit only came unto BAILII recently and had not caught my attention before.
The primary question raised is whether appeals by the applicants, the German Federal Tax Office (“the GTA”) and by Deutsche Bank AG (“DB”) against the rejection by the Joint Special Administrators (“the Administrators”) of MF Global UK Limited (“MFGUK”) of their respective proofs of debt, to allow the underlying claim which forms the subject of the proof to be resolved by the specialist German tax or fiscal courts, which both the applicants (for different reasons) contend are the natural forum for the determination of the claims and the forum in which they can be resolved most efficiently.
The underlying issue concerns German withholding tax.
The GTA has at all times maintained that its claim should be determined in Germany by the German tax courts, per the UK-Germany double taxation Treaty, based on the OECD model convention (for those in the know: it is Article 28(6) which the GTA has suggested exclusively reserves its GTA Claim to the German Courts). However it felt compelled to submit a proof in MFGUK’s UK administration proceedings in order to preserve its rights.
Under German law, it is within the GTA’s power to give a decision on MFGUK’s objection to relvant Amended Tax Assessment Notices. If and when it did so, it would then be for MFGUK, if it wished to pursue the matter further, to file an appeal against that decision by the GTA with the Fiscal Court of Cologne. The Fiscal Court of Cologne is one of the 18 fiscal courts in Germany which are the courts of first instance for tax matters. That seems a natural course to take however here the GTA is caught in a conundrum: at 18: the GTA has not yet formally rejected MFGUK’s objection. This is because such objection would establish proceedings in Germany, and there is a procedural rule of German law that, in order to prevent parallel proceedings, a German court will automatically defer to the court first seized of a matter. Accordingly, it seems likely that if the GTA were to reject MFGUK’s objection before the Stay Application has been decided by the UK Court, on any appeal by MFGUK, the Fiscal Court of Cologne might as a matter of comity defer to this Court in order to avoid parallel proceedings.
At 57: Brussels Ia is not engaged for the case concerns both the insolvency and the tax exclusion of Articles 1.1 and 1.2.b. At 56 Hildyard J considers the issues under English rules on the power to stay, with a focus on the risk of irreconcilable judgments.
At 84 Hildyard J holds that the GTA read too much into A28(6) and that there is no exclusive jurisdiction, leaving the consideration of whether a stay might be attractive nevertheless (at 89 ff the issue is discussed whether German courts could at all entertain the claim). This leads to an assessment pretty much like a stay under Brussels Ia as ‘related’ (rather than: the same, to which lis alibi pendens applies) cases. Note at 87(6) the emphasis which the GTA places on the actual possibility of consolidating the cases – similar to the arguments used in BIa A33-34 cases such as Privatbank and later cases).
At 115 the impact of this case having public law impacts becomes clear: ‘It seems to me that, despite my hunch that there will also be considerable factual enquiry, and a factual determination of the particular circumstances may determine the result …, the legal issues at stake are not only plainly matters of German law, but controversial and complex issues of statutory construction of systemic importance and substantial public interest in terms of the legitimate interests of the public in the protection of its taxation system from what are alleged to be colourable schemes.’
And at 116, referring ia to VTB Capital v Nutritek, ‘the risk of inconsistent decisions in concurrent proceedings in different jurisdictions, is the more acute when in one of the jurisdictions the issue is a systemic one, or may be decided in a manner which has systemic consequences. Especially in such a context, there is a preference for a case to be heard by the courts of the country whose law applies.’ Reference to VTB is made in particular with resepect to the point that Gleichlauf (the application by a court of its own laws) is to be promoted in particular (at  in VTB per Lord Mance: “it is generally preferable, other things being equal, that a case should be tried in a country whose law applies. However, this factor is of particular force if issues of law are likely to be important and if there is evidence of relevant differences in the legal principles or rules applicable to such issues in the two countries in contention as the appropriate forum.’
At 117: ‘even if the factual centre of gravity may be London, the jurisdiction likely to be most affected by the result is Germany: and even if the US approach of ‘interest analysis’ is not determinative in this jurisdiction it does not seem to me to be an impermissible consideration.’
Held, at 121, there is here ‘a sufficiently “rare and compelling” reason for granting the stay sought by the GTA, provided that the German Fiscal Court are an available forum in which to determine the substance of the disputes.’ At 122 Hildyard J seeks assurances ‘insofar as the parties’ best endeavours can secure it, resolution of both the GTA Claim and the Later MFGUK Refund Claim as expeditiously as possible. That seems to me necessary in order to safeguard this jurisdictions’ insolvency processes and for the protection of the interests of the body of creditors as a whole.’
Then follows at 131 ff extensive analysis of the impact of this stay decision on the related case of Deutsche Bank, with at 190 a summary of the issues to be decided. Held at 218: ‘By careful selection of potentially dispositive issues, I consider that there is some prospect of that process enabling a determination without recourse to the intricacies of German tax law which are to be decided in the context of the GTA Claim; whereas an immediate stay guarantees a long delay before this court can determine the matter, based on presently hypothetical claims, after a long wait for non-binding guidance from the German court which may result from other cases to which DB is not a party.’ However at 219 the prospect of a stay after all is held out, should a quick resolution of those issues not be possible.
One cannot have one’s cake and eat it. Meaning once the cake has been eaten, it is gone and you no longer have it. (Apologies but this saying is so often misunderstood I thought I should clarify).
Anyways, the Flemish tax administration had something along these lines in mind when it recently ruled in a case involving a Liechtenstein Stiftung. Many thanks to De Broeck & Van Laere for bringing the ruling to my attention. The Inland Revenue generally employ quite a lot of deference towards trusts and Stiftungs of all kind. In the case at hand however it requalified the transfer of means from the Stiftung to the heirs of the deceased, as being of a contractual nature. That is because the deceased, upon creation of the Stiftung, had issued such precise instructions in the Stiftung’s by-laws, that the hands of the trustees (or equivalent thereof) had been tied. This essentially takes away a crucial part of the Stiftung’s nature, and no longer shields the assets from the (Flemish) taxman. The cake has been eaten.
In Orgacom v Vlaamse Landmaatschappij, Case C-254/13, the ECJ sent out its regular reminder of the core foundation of EU law: namely it being a customs union.
Upon receiving instruction to challenge a national tax, it is useful intuition first of all to assess whether what client is complaining about, is not actually a customs duty (or charge having equivalent effect) per Article 30 TFEU (previously 25 EC), rather than an internal tax. If it is, a win is signed, sealed, delivered. That is because contrary to the possibility for Member States to argue an exception to a trade-restrictive national tax (Article 110 TFEU, previously Article 90 EC), per the ECJ’s case-law (Vinal v Orbat, Case 46/80, was the pivotal kick-off case), there is no room for manoeuvre whatsoever which could ever justify a customs duty.
Qualifying a charge as a customs duty or an equivalent charge, renders this charge contrary to the Treaty by its very nature. Charges which fall under Article 110, on the other hand, are only incompatible with the Treaty where they are discriminatory or protective.
What distinguishes both? Any pecuniary charge, whatever its designation or mode of application, which is imposed unilaterally on goods by reason of the fact that they cross a frontier, and which is not a customs duty in the strict sense, constitutes a charge having an effect equivalent to a customs duty. The only exception is where the charge in question represents payment for a service rendered to the importer, of a sum in proportion to the service, or if it forms part of a general system of internal taxation, applied systematically in accordance with the same criteria to both national products and imported or exported products: such charges on importation fall under Article 110 TFEU where they form part of a general system applicable systematically to categories of products in accordance with objective criteria, irrespective of the origin of the products.
Orgacom is a classic tutorial in the application of Article 30 TFEU. In the case at issue, the levy in question affects the importers of surplus livestock manure on import. The trigger for the levy is simply the amount of importation in the preceding year. That there is a similar levy imposed on fertilisers produced in the Flanders Region, is not sufficient to have it qualify as a tax under Article 110: it is the frontier crossing which is the trigger; the duty is not imposed at the same marketing stage (the disputed levy is imposed on importers; while the same levy in the Flemish Region affects producers); and the two levies are calculated using different methods.
The Court therefore also dismisses first hand the argument that the levy was needed to control the stocks of manure in Flanders and to protect domestic production against external measures that distort competition and impose an additional environmental burden on Flanders: because, as noted, once the measure is qualified as a charge having equivalent effect as a customs duty, wriggle room is out of the question.
(Of note is that the Belgian Constitutional Court had previously held the levy incompatible with Belgium’s internal Economic and Monetary Union).
Never ever underestimate the power of Article 30 TFEU.
Postscript 2 October 2014: the AG opined along similar lines in Q, with respect to a question also referred by the hoge Raad, as follows: ‘Does the importance of the conservation of national natural heritage and cultural heritage, as addressed in the Natuurschoonwet 1928 (Law on nature protection 1928), constitute an overriding reason in the public interest which justifies a scheme whereby the application of an exemption from gift tax (recovery facility) is limited to estates situated in the Netherlands?’
In X, Case C-87/13, the Hoge Raad of the Netherlands asked in essence whether EU law, in particular the rules on freedom of establishment and on free movement of capital, preclude[s] a resident of Belgium who, at his request, is taxed in the Netherlands as a resident and who has incurred costs in respect of a castle, used by him as his own home, which is located in Belgium and is designated there as a legally protected monument and village conservation area, from deducting those costs in the Netherlands for income tax purposes on the grounds that the castle is not registered as a protected monument in the Netherlands?
Kokott AG opined on 4 September last (the Opinion at the time of writing was not yet available in English) and suggested The Netherlands should be allowed to go ahead with such distinction. She focussed her opinion on the free movement of establishment, suggesting the same analysis applies mutatis mutandis for free movement of capital.
A summary of the Court of Justice’s case-law on the main exceptions to the free movement of capital (and, also per Kokott AG, similarly applicable to free movement of establishment), may be found in par. 42 of Jaeger, Case C-256/06:
According to the case-law, in order for national tax legislation such as that at issue in the main proceedings, which, for the purposes of calculating inheritance tax, distinguishes between assets situated in another Member State and those situated in Germany, to be considered compatible with the provisions of the Treaty on the free movement of capital, the difference in treatment must concern situations which are not objectively comparable or be justified by overriding reasons in the general interest.
The Advocate General suggested the Court find the two situations objectively comparable, given that listed property in both countries is likely to be subject to various restrictions. Simply quoting budgetary reasons for limiting the possibility of tax offset to assets in the State of taxation is not enough under EU law. However she did find merit in the argument that the limitation to listed property in The Netherlands, is in the general interest: in contrast with other cases (e.g. Petersen C-544/11), the general interest identified by the Member State concerned, cannot be met by market participants in other Member States (at 41): allowing set-off for maintenance of listed property in another Member State, does not serve the goal of preserving Dutch national heritage, a relevant interest illustrated eg. by the references to national heritage in Articles 36 and 167 TFEU.
If adopted by the Court, the AG’s Opinion in my view would be very welcome. The EC have been using an extensive interpretation of the free movement of capital essentially to skate around its limited progress in tax harmonisation (which is subject to national veto).