Citizens and tax justice

September 15, 2015

How are citizens to engage with tax policy?  One method, the one which led to the foundation of this blog, is to seek out and respond to tax consultations.  In theory, any citizen can find, read, consider and respond to the government’s proposals for the tax system via the list of consultations published on the gov.uk website.

In practice…?

Well, a few weeks ago I saw a couple of tweets about a proposal to charge fees for taxpayers to challenge HMRC decisions at tax tribunals.  It started here:

and more detail came from this:

Because here it is: the actual consultation document is on the Ministry of Justice site under the splendid title of “Enhanced fees for divorce, possession claims and general applications in civil proceedings and consultation on further fees proposal

Now, I don’t know about you, but to me this does not immediately say “there’s a section about tax tribunals!  You need to read this, honest!”  It does not come up if you filter the “open consultations” section of the “consultations” page on gov.uk by the “tax and revenue” policy area, for example.  How were we to know it was there?

Having found the page (from the links provided on twitter) I was rather taken aback to see it described, in the overview, as “the government response to the consultation on enhanced fees for possession claims…” and it took me a while to work out that it was the final paragraph that must refer to the tax tribunal proposals (“In addition, we have today published a further consultation on a number of new fees proposals. This consultation proposes new or increased fees in a range of court and tribunal proceedings and the detailed proposals can be found in chapters 3 and 4 of the document provided below.”

The “document provided below”??  There are some documents “below”, three listed under the heading of “previous consultations” and seven under “related documents”.  It is not at all obvious which document contains the new proposals.  Where, then, are we to look for details of the proposals on tax tribunals?

Well, I’m an Impact Assessment wonk, so I started with the final document, the Impact Assessment for the “introduction of fees” to (amongst others) the “First Tier Tax Chamber, Upper Tier Tax Chamber” (IA No: MOJ008/2015)

What do we learn from this?  Well, first of all the perceived problem seems to be that the tribunals don’t cover their own costs and that government action is required to “reduce the burden on the taxpayer”.  Now to me this is begging rather a number of questions.  When, firstly, did we require courts to cover their own costs?  Isn’t the cost of justice precisely one of the reasons for having a tax system in the first place?  Isn’t it part of the deal we make in living in a functioning state, that the state will collect money from us in taxes but in return will provide us with security including a system of justice?  In other words, I reject the basic premise of the IA: this is not a problem that requires government action.  Collecting fees from applicants for justice is not justice: it is commerce.  It is the Ritz Hotel model of equality, where we all equally have the right to dine at the Ritz but only those with sufficient cash in hand are able to exercise that right.

Next, “what policy options have been considered, including any alternatives to regulation? Please justify any preferred option.”  Now this looked promising, at least in the sense that there are five options listed.  They are, however, different strands of the SAME proposal: there is a “do nothing” option, option zero, and then there are five separate options listed, the second of which is the tax chamber proposal.  These are not alternative options, they are different elements of the same proposal, the proposal to impose fees.  There is no suggestion that the perceived “need” to make the tax tribunal cover its own costs might be met in several different ways.  Off the top of my head, you could meet the court costs by a grant from HMRC, by a charge to anyone losing a case where tax at stake was more than £x million, by a percentage levy on the losing side in proportion to the tax at stake or by, I don’t know, starting a court tv service, televising the tribunals and selling bloody advertising. My point is, those are four different alternative options.  “Do this or don’t do it” isn’t presenting options at all: it’s a statement of intent.  Particularly when you say, as the government does in the impact assessment (under “Will the policy be reviewed?”) that once charges have been introduced the decision “will not be reviewed”  Why the hell not???

Turning to the “evidence” base, the scant material has been repeated five times so it looks as if someone has given it consideration, but a cursory glance at the actual material suggests otherwise.  Look at the bottom of page 15 where the evidence base for the tax tribunal proposals begins.  It reads:

45.  When cases are first issued in the First Tier Tribunal, they are assigned a case category (Paper, Basic, Standard or Complex) by the tribunal.  This is

However if you turn to page 16 hoping to find the end of that sentence, you will see instead what appears to be a misallocated footnote numbered 11 and then section 46.

This is a miserable, shoddy excuse for an impact assessment for what seems to me from reading it to be a miserable, shoddy excuse for a policy.  The consultation closes today.  There was an article about it in last week’s Taxation, so I expect at least some tax practitioners will have been alerted to what is proposed.  But, honestly, how would it serve justice if someone wanting to challenge the imposition of a fixed penalty of £100 for a late return were to be required to pay £50 for the privilege of challenging the state’s view of the case?  Follow this link to the electronic form…. Oh.  Actually the bloody thing closed at noon today.  No, it doesn’t tell you that on the consultation website.  But it does on the gov.uk landing page.


  1. I’ve commented (on behalf of the body I represent) to make the point that HM Government should not be charging people to dispute decisions about how much HM Government should be charging.

    If HMG has a financial stake in a dispute, then charging for access to tribunals is basically saying that in order to get out of paying something to HMG, you have to pay something to HMG.

    I didn’t include this analogy, but I’m reminded of a car park operator charging you for hire of the wheel clamp even though they accept that you weren’t parked illegally… :-/

  2. I’m really not surprised about the policy, the consultation or the impact assessment.

    Some of us have been shouting rather loudly and it was only a matter of time that they would direct their focus toward HMRC and taxpayers.
    Tory Britain is also UK Plc where everything boils down to cost and an absolute return to justice for the rich.

    There are fees for Employment Tribunals, IDS wants to introduce fees for Social Security Tribunals. A guilty plea costs hundreds but a Not guilty fee is over a thousand.
    The Personal Independence Payment consultation didn’t mention at all the massive change to the mobility threshold.
    As for impact assessment at least there was one. Over 100,000 people signed a petition to force a debate in parliament about the need for a Cumulative Impact Assessment of all the Welfare reforms on the lives of sick and disabled people. The debate happened and MPs voted in favour of the Assessment which didn’t happen and now it is in theory a new parliament the whole process has to start again.
    When a government shuts down access to justice it is time to be afraid very afraid.

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