As the dust settles and the excitement subsides over Budget 2021 announcements, it is now an opportune time to examine the fine print of tax proposals. One such proposal which have drawn considerable attention and has the effect of substantially rewriting the law relates to the provision of Income Escaping Assessment i.e. Reassessment Proceedings.
A Look back at the extant provisions
The extant law relating to reassessment are codified under S. 147, to S. 153 of the Income Tax Act, 1961 (‘the Act'). The provisions enable the Assessing Officer (‘AO') who has ‘reason to believe' that an income has escaped assessment to reopen concluded assessment years to reassess the escaped income and any other income which comes to his notice subsequently in the course of such proceedings. However, where the assessee has been subject to scrutiny assessment in relation to a year, no reassessment can be made beyond a period of 4 years from the end of relevant assessment year (‘AY') unless the assessee has failed to ‘disclose fully and truly all material facts necessary for his assessment' for the year. Where the income likely to have escaped amounts to Rs. 1 lac or more, assessment can be reopened upto 6 years from the end of relevant AY1. Before making any reassessment, the AO is required to ‘record his reasons' for reopening the assessment and serve a notice requiring the assessee to file a tax return. Re-opening of assessment beyond a period of 4 years requires sanction of the Principal Chief Commissioner/Chief Commissioner/Principal Commissioner/Commissioner.
Reopening of assessment – an evergreen controversy
Reassessment proceedings, often, have been challenged in writ proceedings before the High Courts on the ground that the notice for reassessment lacks legal validity on account of failure by the AO to follow due process of law enshrined in the provisions and established under common law. Rather than the merits of concealment, courts are overwhelmed with cases to decide upon the sustainability of the core issue of initiation of reassessment i.e. whether the AO had ‘reasons to believe', did he ‘record his reasons' appropriately, did the assessee fail to ‘disclose fully and truly all material facts necessary for his assessment', was proper ‘sanction' of the appropriate authorities taken, etc.
The Hon'ble Supreme Court in the case of GKN Driveshafts (India) Ltd. vs. ITO & Ors. has laid that when a notice for reopening of assessment u/s 148 of the Act is issued, the proper course of action for the assessee is to file the return and, if he so desires, to seek reasons for issuing the notices. The AO is bound to furnish reasons within a reasonable time. On receipt of reasons, the assessee is entitled to file objections to issuance of notice and the AO is bound to dispose the same by passing a speaking order.
Recently the Hon'ble Supreme Court in the case of New Delhi Television Limited v DCIT (Civil Appeal No. 1008 Of 2020), in the context of disclosure of ‘fully and truly all material facts necessary for his assessment' has held that the obligation of the assessee is to disclose all primary facts before the AO and he is not required to give any further assistance to the AO by disclosure of other facts. It is for the AO at this stage to decide what inference should be drawn from the facts of the case. The court went on to hold that non-disclosure of other facts which may be termed as secondary facts is not necessary.
Further, numerous court decisions have repeatedly stated that while the AO has to record reasons for reopening, there should be proper application of mind and it should not just be a mechanical process.
As the reality stands, proper reopening in the manner provided under law has remained wanting. The courts have over and again expressed anguish over the mechanical approach of reopening assessment without adherence to the provisions which have resulted, more often than not, reassessment proceedings being quashed on the issue of proper exercise of jurisdiction itself.
Budget proposal 2021 – revamp of reassessment procedure
The Finance Minister brought smiles by announcing in her budget speech the proposal to reduce time-limit for reopening of assessment to 3 years from the present 6 years, and in serious cases where there is evidence of concealment of income in a year of Rs. 50 lakh or more, upto 10 years. However, on examining the details, one can observe that far-reaching changes have been proposed to the entire scheme of reassessment.
The proposals substitute the exiting provisions of S. 147 with a new section which pari materia contain similar provisions to the extent enabling the AO to assess the escaped income and any other income which comes to his notice subsequently in the course of proceedings. The new substituted S. 148 however makes a significant departure from the existing provisions which put the onus upon the AO to form a belief that an income has escaped assessment. The new provisions propose to provide a monitored criterion, having application across jurisdiction and assesses, to establish when the AO would be considered to have information which suggests that the ‘income chargeable to tax has escaped assessment'.
Defined meaning of expression ‘income chargeable to tax has escaped assessment'
The expression, forming the basis for triggering reassessment proceedings has now been defined in a restrictive manner to mean –
(i) any information flagged in the case of the assessee for the relevant assessment year in accordance with the risk management strategy formulated by the Central Board of Direct Taxes (CBDT) from time to time. Such flagging would largely be done by the computer based system;
(ii) any final objection raised by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India to the effect that the assessment in the case of the assessee for the relevant assessment year has not been made in accordance with the provisions of this Act.
In case of Search & Seizure (S. 132), Survey (S. 133A), Requisition of books of accounts, etc relating to the assessee (S. 132A) or where money, bullion, jewellery or other valuables articles are sized in case of another person but belong to the assessee or books of accounts or documents seized or requisitioned in case of another person pertain to the assessee or contain information related to the assessee, the AO is ‘deemed to have information suggesting escapement of income' chargeable to tax for 3 AY preceding the AY relevant to the year in which the aforesaid proceedings is conducted (i.e. 4 preceding financial years). These provisions principally seek to simplify and align the special procedure presently applicable to matters relating to search & seizure etc., with the new procedure for reassessment.
It is pertinent to note that the information flagged in accordance with the risk management strategy should necessarily pertain to ‘the assessee' and thus it appears that information flagged in the case of thirds party, even if implicating the assessee cannot be made a basis of issuance of notice. Perhaps it may have to be seen whether the mechanism to be formulated by the CBDT ensures checks and balances to identify such delinquent taxpayers also.
Procedure to be followed before issuing notice for reassessment
The new provisions further codify the procedure to be followed by the AO before issuing a notice for reassessment. The provisions required the AO to:
- Conduct any enquiry, if required, with prior sanction of the specified authority, with respect to the information suggesting escapement of income;
- Provide the assessee an opportunity of being heard by serving a notice to show cause within such time (being not less than 7 days and not exceeding 30 days) as to why a notice under section 148 should not be issued on the basis of information suggesting escapement of chargeable income and results of enquiry conducted, if any;
- Consider the reply of assessee, if any, furnished and basis the material including reply of the assessee, decide whether a notice is to be issued by passing an order, with the prior approval of specified authority, within 1 month from the end of the month in which the reply referred to in received/ time allowed to furnish a reply expires.
The aforesaid procedure is not required to be followed in cases relating to search and seizure, or where books of account, other documents or any assets are requisitioned under section 132A, etc. (i.e. situations where AO is deemed to have information suggesting escapement of assessment.)
Time limit for issuance of reassessment notice
The new provisions reduce the time-limit for re-opening of assessment to 3 years from the end of relevant AY. For instance, in relation FY 2017-18 corresponding to AY 2018-2019, the reassessment proceedings can be opened only upto 31 March 2022 (being 3 years from the end of relevant AY). FY 2016-17 and prior years will henceforth be barred by limitation if a notice is issued after 31 March 2021 (as against FY 2013-14 and prior years under existing law). In case where the AO has in his possession books of accounts or other documents or evidence which reveal that the income chargeable to tax, ‘represented in the form of assets', which has escaped assessment amounts to Rs. 50 lacs or more, the assessment can be re-opened upto 10 years.
Grandfathering period of limitation for AY 2021-22 and prior years
The new reassessment provisions are applicable from April 1, 2021. The provisions grandfather issuance of notice for reopening of assessment for financial years (FY) ending till 31 March 2021 upto the end of 6 assessment years relevant to such assessment year (for which notice is issued) as prescribed under the existing provisions. This would imply that if a notice for reassessment was to be issued in FY 2021-22, notice for reassessment can be issued only for FY 2017-18 and subsequent years (i.e. 3 years limitation under new provisions). Further, if it is a case where the quantum of income escaped is Rs.50 lacs or more, notice for reassessment can be issued only for FY 2015-16 and subsequent years on account of grandfathering provisions. The extended period of 10 years would not apply in such case.
Analysing the change
The proposals, in all fairness are in the right direction. Reduction of period of limitation from 6 to 3 years would provide much desired certainty and closure to a large section of taxpayers. Further restricting reopening based on risk management strategy of CBDT and objections raised by CAG will bring an end to the often-abused powers of reopening exercised by AO, typically at the fag end of the limitation period. By providing a clear mechanism of inquiry, issuance of notice and its timeframe, the proposal will, to a major extent, aid in streamlining the procedure. The unpleasant surprise of receiving reassessment notice on the last day of the financial year will now be a thing of the past given that the new provisions require a detailed procedure to be followed and opportunity to be granted to the assessee to provide his reply before issuance of notice.
The proposal for extended 10 years limitation where the alleged income, ‘represented in the form for assets', has escaped assessment exceeds ‘Rs. 50 lacs or more', principally seem reasonable. Prima-facie, it appears that since the revelation of escaped income has to be ascertained from ‘the books of accounts or other documents or evidence in possession of the AO', this may typically apply to cases of search and seizure, survey, requisition of books, etc. However there seems to be some ambiguity which could have far reaching implications.
The new provision in so far as relate to matters of search & seizure, requisition of books etc. prescribe that where the aforesaid proceeding are initiated, the AO shall be deemed to have information suggesting escapement of chargeable income for 3 AY immediately preceding AY relevant to the FY in which such proceedings are undertaken. Thus, for instance, if search proceedings are initiated against an assessee in FY 2021-22 (relevant AY being 2022-23), income will be deemed to have been concealed for 3 immediately preceding AY i.e. AY 2019-20, AY 2020-21& AY 2021-22, (corresponding to FY 2018-19, FY 2019-2020 & FY 2020-21). Thus, notice would be issued for all the 3 years. Consider this in light of the operative provision which prescribes that where income chargeable to tax has escaped assessment for any assessment year, the AO shall reassess such income for such assessment year. The combined reading of law appears to suggest that in case of aforesaid matters, reassessment proceedings can be undertaken only for 3 years prior to the year in which search proceedings are initiated. If this was to hold good, the question arises whether the extended period of 10 year is really redundant for search & seizure/survey/requisition of books, etc. matters?
This leads to the next pertinent question – in which situations will the10-year limitation period apply?
The limitation period beyond 3 year and upto 10 year is applicable where the AO ‘is in possession' of books of accounts or other documents or other evidence which reveal escapement of income chargeable to tax and represented in the form of assets. Ordinarily, AO obtains possession of bocks of accounts/other documents/evidence in proceedings relating to search & seizure/survey/requisition of books, etc. matters. As discussed above, given the provisions as presently stated, one possible reading is that reassessment proceedings can only be undertaken for 3 years prior to the year in which search proceedings, etc are initiated. Would this imply that the extended period of 10 years would apply to matters other than search & seizure/survey/requisition of books, etc.?
In light of the aforesaid, the expression “Assessing Officer has in his possession books of accounts or other documents or evidence which reveal that…”, a necessary condition for exercising extended limitation of 10-year, merits consideration. Would it therefore mean that the documents gathered during regular assessment proceedings may well be regarded as relevant ‘documents or evidence' being in the possession of the AO. ‘Books of accounts' are typically not given in possession during assessment proceedings, and therefore how it fits into the scheme of things remains a grey area. Further, would the information mined and provided under the ‘risk mitigating strategy' of CBDT also be regarded as ‘evidence' in possession of the AO.
While this may still be debatable, any such inference would be a huge damper as it would now enable reopening assessment for 10 years (subject to Rs. 50 lacs threshold) as against 4 year under the existing law even where the assessee has made full and true disclosure of material facts during the course of prior assessment. Take for instance a case where risk management strategy of CBDT flags substantial increase in loans and advances or investments as a data point for triggering reassessment. The same would logically have been disclosed in the balance sheet. In such a situation, inspite of such disclosure, there could perhaps be possibility to reopen reassessment proceedings upto 10 year (subject to monetary threshold), effectively giving the CBDT a 10-year timeframe to refine its data intelligence and risk-based criterion. This would certainly be an area of concern.
Overall, it is encouraging to note a transformational change in the provisions relating to reassessment proceedings. There is a fundamental shift from an obscure and discretionary regime to systematic and risk-based criterion applicable uniformly across jurisdictions and taxpayers, without bias and subjectivity. It will however be interesting to see how the authorities go about enforcing the extended period of limitation given the ambiguity involved. One can hope the same is not enforced against the interest of taxpayer, specifically taking a liberal interpretation of 10 years extended limitation period, which otherwise will be a huge disappointment.
1 Extended period of 16 years is prescribed in case of escaped income in relation to an asset located outside India.
Originally Published by Aureus Law Partners, February 2021
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.