Onus of Proof in Tax Disputes

For taxpayers engaged in matters with the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) where facts are in dispute, the ATO will point out that the taxpayer bears an onus to prove facts it asserts.

This onus is well established through case law, the most often referenced being the Full High Court decision in Federal Commissioner of Taxation (FCT) v Dalco (1990) 168 CLR 614 (Dalco).

The ATO have seen themselves as able, in audits where documentary evidence corroborating a taxpayer’s explanation of the source of receipts is not available, to rely on Dalco to treat the receipts as income from unexplained sources or, as in Dalco, as attributable to an individual, not an entity claimed to have derived the amounts, and consequently to add the receipts to the assessable income of the individual. This simply on the basis that the individual has been unable to discharge their onus to prove the receipts not to be assessable income of theirs.

The application of this decision has recently been considered in the context of a dispute where the taxpayer sought to rely on the evidence of company financial statements by the Full Court of the Federal Court of Australia (Full Court) in FCT v Cassaniti [2018] FCFCT 213 (Cassaniti).

In Cassaniti, the taxpayer proffered in evidence company financial statements and sought to rely on them as supporting proof of his claims concerning the amounts they reported and their characterisation. In support of his position, the taxpayer relied on section 1305 of the Corporations Act 2001 (Cth) which provides that a book kept by a company under a requirement of that Act is considered prima facie evidence of its contents.

The Commissioner, while not evidencing grounds for doing so, in submissions disputed the authenticity or the veracity of the financial statements and relied on Dalco to assert that the taxpayer had failed to discharge their onus of proof.

The Commissioner’s claim was rejected by the Full Court. In particular, the Full Court:

  • rejected the notion that a taxpayer can be required to undertake a sisyphean task of recreating and corroborating individual transactions or components of transactions to prove amounts recorded in financial statements or evidenced by a recipient.
  • held that, for transactions such as loans recorded in the financial statements, it should suffice for them to have been shown as such in the financial statements and verified as such by the recipient.

Cassaniti is important because prior to this decision the onus resting on the taxpayer was thought to include an onus to prove the authenticity and veracity of the taxpayer’s financial records in any case that came before the Court. Cassaniti makes it clear that, in the absence of a challenge based on more than mere submissions of the Commissioner, the Court should accept the taxpayer’s financial records which have apparently been kept pursuant to the Corporations Act 2001 (Cth) as, for all intents and purposes, authentic.

In other words, the Commissioner cannot make out his case merely by asserting that he does not accept the evidence of the taxpayer, as supported by the taxpayer’s financial records, as either true or authentic.

In this regard Steward J, at [65], followed what was concluded by Perram J in Australian Competition and Consumer Commission v Air New Zealand Limited (No 1) (2012) 207 FCR 448, at [92], that the provenance of a document could be inferred from its contents.

In addition, he held, following the observation of Heerey J in Guest v Federal Commissioner of Taxation [2007] FCA 193; 65 ATR 815 at [25], that business records may be admitted and used as proof of the truth of any facts they recite without the need to identify the author of the document.

With respect to authenticity, Steward J held that the terms of s 69(2)(a) of the Evidence Act 1995 (Cth) do not suggest that it is an essential precondition of admissibility that the “person” in question be identified. The ordinary meaning of the language is that it is sufficient that the person who made the representation, whoever he or she is, had or might reasonably be supposed to have had, personal knowledge of the asserted fact. The policy behind the provision was clear enough, that routine business records, made before any legal proceeding arises or is contemplated, have an inherent likelihood of reliability which outweighs the common law’s aversion to hearsay evidence where the maker of a statement cannot be tested by cross-examination. The utility of s 69 would be greatly diminished if it were necessary to locate among large organisations, perhaps over a long period of time, persons who made representations, often in circumstances where the practical needs of the organisation did not require any identification at the time the representations were made.

Cassaniti accordingly tells us that if authenticity is not challenged then, absent evidence to the contrary, veracity should be assumed.

Both the Judge at first instance and the Full Court accepted the veracity of the financial records because of the authenticity of the documents and the fact that the Commissioner did not seek to challenge the financial statements other than to make a submission that there was insufficient proof by the taxpayer of the veracity of the documents.

First published in the Law Society Bulletin.

For more information, please contact:
John Tucker

John Tucker
Director
p.  +61 8 8124 1807
e.  Email me

This communication provides general information which is current as at the time of production. The information contained in this communication does not constitute advice and should not be relied upon as such. Professional advice should be sought prior to any action being taken in reliance on any of the information. Should you wish to discuss any matter raised in this report, or what it means for you, your business or your clients' businesses, please feel free to contact us.

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