Thursday, 22 August 2013

Lavigne & VanRybroek on Language, Communication and Access to Justice

This recently posted article by Michele Lavigne and Gregory VanRybroek, entitled 'He Got in My Face so I Shot Him': How Defendants' Language Impairments Impair Attorney-Client Relationships, while not directly tax-related, presents a very interesting take on what it means to have meaningful access to justice, which is a major aspect of thinking about what it means to say we are governed by the rule of law. I am still more optimistic than PJ about this concept, but I have grave fears for the future of law in the face of the many severe procedural impairments we have been seeing of late. This paper outlines in a deep and rich way some of the fundamental components necessary to a just legal system, but it also just a very well written and fascinating account of the role of language and communication in expressing and implementing law. Abstract:
Language impairments -- deficits in language and the ability to use it -- occur at starkly elevated rates among adolescents and adults charged with and convicted of crimes. These impairments have serious ramifications for the quality of justice. In this article, we focus specifically on the effects of a client's language impairment on the attorney-client relationship, the constitutional realm that suffers most when a client lacks essential communication skills. The effects of language impairment can be seen in a client's ability to work with a lawyer in the first place, tell a story, comprehend legal information, and make a rational and informed decision. This article shows how these effects play themselves out within the attorney-client relationship, and the impact on the lawyer's ability to meet her constitutional and ethical obligations. We also propose concrete steps for improving the quality of communication within the attorney-client relationship. While attorneys will obviously shoulder much of the responsibility, judges and prosecutors are not exempt. A client's poor communication skills are not simply be "the lawyer's problem," but a matter of great concern for all stakeholders in the justice system.

Monday, 19 August 2013

Here is the only reason why Ted Cruz's citizenship is interesting.

It is not whether he's natural born and therefore eligible for the presidency. It is that Ted Cruz has suggested that he did not even realize he might be a Canadian citizen until the Dallas Morning News suggested it to him and asked a few experts on Canadian citizenship law to confirm that Canada, like the US, like many, many countries, confers birthright citizenship on people born in the territory whether they request it, or want it, or not.

This is interesting because this is all happening during America's ongoing roundup of every person on the planet who may be a US citizen because they were born in the US or by birthright through their lineage, for the purpose of imposing draconian penalties for failure to file tax returns and asset information reports under the US citizenship-based tax regime. This is the only tax regime in the world that treats lineage alone as a justification to impose worldwide taxation. Ted Cruz's expressed thoughtlessness about his own dual citizenship, coupled with his breezy intention to simply get rid of the unwanted extra citizenship, beautifully illustrates the major problem with citizenship-based taxation and why no other country on the planet would try to enforce such a system.

The US is right now imposing enormous penalties and unleashing general chaos on people living in other countries with US citizenship, both by newly enforcing long-ignored rules and by layering on top of these rules a new and more draconian layer of enforcement. The chaos comes in the form of fear-inducing, devilishly complicated and duplicative paperwork, and penalties, most of all penalties, and it is being piled on to millions of people around the world, many of whom, like Cruz, are very possibly only beginning to understanding that citizenship status is mostly conferred upon rather than chosen by individuals.

Ted Cruz should consider himself very lucky, because the citizenship he claims he didn't realize he had doesn't carry any punishment for his failure to recognize it. Moreover renouncing, if he really intends to follow through on that promise, will be relatively simple, cheap, and painless other than the cost to his US political career, if any.

Not so if he had lived his life in Canada with his current apparent dual status. US citizens abroad now understand that discovering ties to the US means discovering a world of obligations and consequences flowing from citizenship that you were expected to know and obey. Ignorance of the law being no excuse, the punishments range from the merely ridiculous--many times any tax that would have ever been due--to the infuriating: life savings wiped out and many future tax savings sponsored by your home government, such as in education or health savings plans, treated as offshore trusts and therefore confiscated by the US. Moreover there is no ready escape hatch for the newly discovered and unwanted US citizenship: five years of full tax reporting compliance must be documented, appointments must be made with officials, fees must be remitted, interviews must be conducted, and in some cases exit taxes must be paid. If some in Congress get their way, renunciation could even mean life-time banishment from the US someday soon.

In the grand scheme of things Ted Cruz's citizenship is a non-story. But for what it illustrates about citizenship-based taxation, it could be the story of the century.

Friday, 16 August 2013

Collected Scholarly Work by Ivor Richardson being posted to SSRN

The Victoria University of Wellington SSRN Legal Research Papers has begun to publish the collected scholarly work of the Right Honourable Sir Ivor Richardson, one of the leading tax judges of the late twentieth century. He already has 96 papers posted, and over the rest of 2013, fifty papers are planned, in about ten issues, with more to come in future years. This is a tremendous resource for anyone looking at historical or comparative trends in international and national tax policy development: the most recent issue of the working paper series includes some older articles which are as timely now as they were when first published, for example:

Inaugural Address, Victoria University of Wellington, 1967
This paper discusses the growing importance of income tax law, the corresponding increase in tax avoidance, and the different perspectives on tax avoidance. A brief history of income tax is given, and an analysis of the competing objectives of an income tax system, its inherent problems, and the possible solutions to these. There follows an explanation of what is meant by tax avoidance, the features of the New Zealand income tax system which create opportunities for tax avoidance, and the arguments against permitting this on a large scale. The paper then outlines the attitudes towards tax avoidance of the legislature, judiciary, revenue, and taxpayers, before concluding with an observation as to the increased interest which income tax law holds for both lawyers and teachers and students of law. 
2 Australian Tax Forum 3, 1985
IVOR RICHARDSON, Victoria University of Wellington - Faculty of Law
The subject raises two questions for consideration: the interpretation of tax legislation, and the characterisation of transactions for tax purposes. This paper briefly outlines the problems of drafting tax legislation, before describing the different judicial approaches to interpretation of tax legislation, including the scheme and purpose approach of New Zealand courts. In considering when the scheme and purpose of the legislation will necessitate re-characterisation of transactions for income tax purposes, there is a discussion of the business purpose requirement, and an analysis of the tax effect of the assignment of personal exertion income to a third party. Concerning the manner in which the character of a transaction is to be determined at law, the paper provides a discussion on form and substance, analysing the English ‘fiscal nullity’ approach and its reception in other jurisdictions, and concluding that such an approach must be firmly grounded in the scheme and purpose of the legislation.

Much more at Ivor Richardson's SSRN page, linked above. Thanks to Prof. John Prebble for alerting me to this info.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Latest IRS Statistics of Income on Individual Tax Returns

The IRS has issued its latest SOI reports, including the 2011 Individual Income Tax Returns (Publication 1304)These are always interesting. This year's data shows that 145 million individual income tax returns were filed in 2011, about 108M showing a taxable income amount, and 95M showing income tax, for total revenues of just over $1 trillion from the individual income tax. Some highlights:
  • salary or wage income: 119M returns, $6T
  • unemployment comp: 13M returns, $92B
  • social security benefits: 25M returns, $490B
  • foreign earned income (i.e. residents of other countries): 445K returns, $28B
  • gambling earnings: 1.9M returns, $26B
The IRS also issued 2010 Corporation Research Credit Tablesderived from Form 6765, Credit for Increasing Research Activities, and 2010 Corporation Depreciation Dataderived from Form 4562, Depreciation and Amortization.

Monday, 12 August 2013

How Starbucks Lost its Social License--And Paid £20 Million to Get it Back

I have a new column in Tax Notes International [gated] today, pdf available here, about Starbucks's £20 million promise to the UK after a firestorm of controversy erupted last year when it was revealed to have paid no taxes despite 14 years of franchise expansion in the country. 

UK Uncut's logo for Starbucks Protests
It is well accepted that corporations require various legal licenses to do business in a state. But Starbucks’ recent promise to pay more tax to the UK regardless of its legal obligation to do so confirms that businesses also need what corporate social responsibility experts call a “social license to operate”. Companies may now in effect be required to pay some indeterminable amount of tax in order to safeguard public approval of their ongoing operations. This suggests that even as the OECD moves forward on a project to salvage the international tax system from its tattered, century-old remains, the tax standards articulated by governments will no longer be enough to guarantee safe passage for multinationals. Instead, companies may have to deal with a much more volatile, and fickle, tax policy regime: one developed on the fly by public opinion.
As always, I welcome comments.

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Caterpillar v Comm'r and the Rule of Law in International Tax

James P. Fuller has an interesting summary of the recently-filed Caterpillar case in his latest U.S. Tax Review [gated], in which he laments the competent authority breakdown and argues that the case would have been better off going to treaty-based arbitration, rather than to domestic judicial decision-making channels. I disagree with this conclusion because, given the structure of tax treaty arbitration today, it would--at best--provide a remedy for only one taxpayer at great cost, while the judicial route potentially creates rule of law upon which all can rely. If competent authority arbitration were instead to create a publicly viewable resolution, I could agree with Fuller because what is needed is (1) a multilateral solution to a multilateral problem and (2) a solution with precedent-making force.

Per Fuller:
Caterpillar Inc. has petitioned the Tax Court for a redetermination of income tax deficiencies that resulted from the IRS's allocation of royalty income to it from its Belgium and French subsidiaries. 
While the case was only recently docketed and has not yet been decided, I thought it worth discussing the case as it results from a breakdown in the competent authority process. It is, of course, the very process that is designed to prevent the consequences faced by Caterpillar. There should be no need for the taxpayer to litigate in one country or the other when treaty relief is an available remedy and the countries involved can settle the issue between themselves. 
Following a 1990 reorganization that pushed management power, responsibility, and accountability to subsidiaries such as Caterpillar Belgium and Caterpillar France, the taxpayer entered into amended license agreements with those subsidiaries limiting the maximum royalty in any given year to each subsidiary's net income from the sale of Caterpillar products. Also, if the subsidiary suffered a post-effective-date net operating loss, it would pay no royalty for that year and could carry the loss forward as a negative adjustment to future years' income for purposes of the royalty calculation. 
... The IRS ... concluded that the relief-from-royalty provision in the Belgian and French license agreements did not comport with the arm's-length standard under section 482.
 Fuller points out that there are "several Tax Court cases that permitted related-party license agreement provisions" like Caterpillar's, and as to which the IRS subsequently acquiesced. He goes on to discuss Caterpillar's attempt to obtain competent authority relief, which failed because the French and Belgian tax authorities disagreed with the US position, and US Appeals simply went along with the IRS decision despite these other rulings that would suggest reconsidering the issue, for litigation hazard purposes at minimum:
The Belgian and French tax authorities, having a thorough knowledge of the local operations of the Caterpillar subsidiaries in their respective countries, looked at the same facts that were addressed by the IRS exam team and found that Caterpillar's royalty limitation provision required no adjustment. Caterpillar subsequently had the adjustment reviewed in an IRS Appeals office proceeding. The IRS Appeals officer simply accepted the IRS exam team's economist's report. appears from Caterpillar's Tax Court petition that the IRS exam team's economist simply used that agreement as grounds for asserting that such a relief-from-royalties' provision is inappropriate, and not at arm's length.
Fuller notes the dual-bureaucracy created by two simultaneous review procedures, i.e., competent authority and internal appeals, and concludes that binding arbitration of the competent authority procedure, rather than resort to the US judiciary, would have been the better approach:
If the two countries' competent authority negotiators cannot reach an agreement, then there should be some form of compelled arbitration to bring about an agreement. Otherwise, the taxpayer is stuck in the middle. A taxpayer should not have to litigate its case in one country or the other (or both) simply because the U.S. competent authority negotiators could not reach an agreement with the foreign country's competent authority negotiators. This is especially true in a situation such as that faced by Caterpillar: The Tax Court has already held that such provisions are appropriate in related-party license agreements.
I appreciate Fuller's argument about the taxpayer's bind, but as I have noted before, if the case went the way of binding arbitration, in the long run the issue could potentially never be settled, since the decision in arbitration would be completely confidential and therefore not accessible or applicable to other taxpayers. That makes international tax dispute resolution much more expensive than it has to be, all because the powers that be have prioritized absolute taxpayer confidentiality over the rule of law. I think that is a miserable trade-off as well as being an unnecessary one: as this case shows, the taxpayer is willing to sacrifice some measure of its own confidentiality in order to get resolution in domestic law, so it is not clear why international law should be so different. (The arguments for difference are weak--see my analysis in the link above.)

The competent authority route, which (by being duplicative as in this case) already increases costs for producing the rule of law, would only be exacerbated by arbitration, because Caterpillar's problem would be perfectly preserved for another day, another taxpayer, and another expensive litigation involving multiple parties and governments.

Therein lies the conundrum for international tax law in the current status quo: either we can get taxpayer-specific outcomes but no rule of law (arbitration) or we can get unilateral rule of law but no international resolution (domestic appeals). I am not sure which to prefer, since both are bad for international tax law.

Accordingly, I am glad to see the Caterpillar case go forward in a forum which is open to public view and that, if not settled in the interim, then becomes a part of the body of law, creating more certainty for taxpayers going forward. However, I am unhappy that the forum is unilateral and potentially preserves an unsolvable problem for the taxpayer if the Court agrees with the US position, since France and Belgium will not be consulted in the process and can be expected to continue to disagree with the IRS view of things.

As a result, I can only agree with Fuller that the better route would be bilateral/multilateral decision-making via arbitration if that decision-making is, like internal judicial decision-making, open and accessible to public view.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

What the banks’ three-year war on Dodd-Frank looks like

A fascinating account from the Sunlight Foundation of the gutting of a regulatory initiative by the kind of methodical persistence that can only be sustained by special interest groups with much to be gained from weak regulation:
In the three years since President Barack Obama signed the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, federal regulators charged with implementing it have opened their doors to the biggest banks over and over again – 14 times as frequently as they have to representatives of consumer and pro-financial reform groups, a new Sunlight Foundation analysis finds. 
By most accounts, the banks’ besiege-the-regulators strategy has yielded rich rewards in sapping, slowing, and stymieing regulations intended to prevent another massive financial crisis. The emerging consensus is that Dodd-Frank implementation is limping, while the big banks are poised to return to being the most profitable industry in the U.S.
The website feature an interactive showing the number of meetings by sector over the three years; you can mouse over the dots to see their identities. Is it any surprise that the Giant Vampire Squid is at the top with a whopping 222 meetings, followed closely by JP Morgan with 207? Each of these giants independently dwarfs the entire "pro-reform" group, that tiny cluster of dots on the other end of the graph.

Here's a chart depicting meetings by sector over time:

From the discussion:
In the 152 weeks our data cover, we find 59 weeks in which regulators met with financial sector representatives at least once every single day (Monday through Friday), and 47 weeks in which they met with financial sector representatives at least four times. 
... By contrast, active pro-reform groups appeared in only 153 meetings logs – only about one meeting for every 14 regulators held with financial institutions and associations. Moreover, 24.2 percent of pro-reform group meetings took place on a single issue: the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. 
...Law and lobbying firms, largely working in service of financial institutions, appeared in 707 meetings. Other, non-financial corporate interests, largely energy and agricultural companies, participated in 381 meetings. These companies are major purchasers of derivative contracts, which they use to hedge against price risk.
Imagine you're a regulator. 3,000 meetings with finance industry lobbyists, lawyers, and other corporate interests over three years, each one doing their best to explain why you should undermine the law as written in some tiny way. Would you not want to tear your hair out? Quit in despair? Or just give in to the soothing balm of lobbyist favor? What could possibly be left of the law after this barrage? Meanwhile the anti-regulation crowd has worked very diligently to kill Dodd-Frank's provisions in other ways, such as the lawsuit against the corporate tax transparency provisions sponsored by the American Petroleum Institute.

Sunlight catalogues the delays and dismantling of Dodd Frank that has been accomplished by all this lobbying and litigating and concludes:
...Collectively, the data offer a powerful testament to the oldest and still perhaps most effective technique in the lobbyist’s playbook: sheer persistence. As the Dodd-Frank law passes its third anniversary, lagging on deadlines, and increasingly defanged, the meetings log data offer a compelling reason why: the banks have overwhelmed the regulators. 
Lobbying pays, and it pays whether it is done before, during, or after legislation has been passed. This represents a major governance crisis with no redress anywhere to be found.