Has the Supreme Court (SC) in SUNDARESH BHATT, LIQUIDATOR OF ABG SHIPYARD v CENTRAL BOARD OF INDIRECT TAXES AND CUSTOMS legitimised tax proceedings during the period of moratorium set under the Insolvency & Bankruptcy Code?
Rendered in context of the custom law, in the aforesaid matter, SC has held that IBC would prevail over the Customs Act, to the extent that once moratorium is imposed in terms of sections 14 or 33(5) of the IBC, the respondent authority only has a limited jurisdiction to assess/determine the quantum of customs duty and other levies. The respondent authority does not have the power to initiate recovery of dues by means of sale/confiscation, as provided under the Customs Act. The Court observed that issuance of demand notices to seek enforcement of custom dues during the moratorium period would clearly violate the provisions of Sections 14 or 33(5) of the IBC, as the demand notices are an initiation of legal proceedings against the Corporate Debtor (CD). Thus, the SC has fairly settled that recovery of tax dues cannot be made, otherwise than in the manner prescribed under IBC.
However, what is noteworthy is further examination of the powers which the tax authority can exercise during the moratorium period under the IBC. The court has importantly observed that authorities could however initiate assessment or re-assessment of the duties and other levies. The Resolution Professional has an obligation to ensure that assessment is legal, and he has sufficient power to question any assessment, if he finds the same to be excessive. The court relied on the ratio of the judgement in S.V. Kondaskar v. V.M. Deshpande, AIR 1972 SC 878, wherein the court had held that the authorities can only take steps to determine the tax, interest, fines or any penalty which is due. However, the authority cannot enforce a claim for recovery or levy of interest on the tax due during the period of moratorium.
There has been varying positions vis-à-vis initiating or continuing tax proceeding during the period of moratorium. For instance, the Calcutta HC in SREI Equipment Finance Ltd. vs. Additional/Joint/Deputy/Assistant Commissioner of Income Tax and others has held that tax proceeding cannot be continued during moratorium. However, given the ratio of the ruling, moratorium for prohibiting initiation or continuation of tax proceedings will now have limited bearing.
In my personal view, continuation of tax proceedings already initiated against the CD before admission under IBC is rational since this is necessary to quantify the legitimate claim of the authorities under a process which has already been set in motion. However, what it does not address is the practicality of contesting the demand before appellate authorities during the time bound CIRP period. It is not uncommon for the tax authorities to make high pitched demands only to be quashed or revised pursuant to appellate relief, and therefore right quantification for admitting a claim assumes importance. As regards initiation of new proceedings, moratorium is a calm period providing the CD a window to restructure in a financially viable manner. Granting the Revenue Authorities opportunity to initiate new assessment proceedings and raise new claim not contemplated before initiation of CIRP may however not be in the spirit of law. It is desirable that the law be clarified to accommodate such distinction in light of moratorium provisions.
Contributed by Yatin Sharma with Abhishek Dutta. Yatin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org