Case Law Details

Case Name : DIT Vs New Skies Satellite BV. (Delhi High Court)
Appeal Number : ITA 473/2012, ITA 474/2012, ITA 500/2012 & ITA 244/2014, C.M. APPL.9724/2014
Date of Judgement/Order : 08/02/2016
Related Assessment Year : 2006-07 to 2009-10
Courts : All High Courts (1346) Delhi High Court (462)

Brief of the Case

Delhi High Court held In the case of DIT vs. New Skies Satellite BV that the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, 1969 (VCLT) is universally accepted as authoritatively laying down the principles governing the law of treaties. Article 39 therein states the general rule regarding the amendment of treaties and provides that a treaty may be amended by agreement between the parties. The rules laid down in Part II of the VCLT that these rules apply to such an agreement except insofar as the treaty may otherwise provide. This provision therefore clearly states that an amendment to a treaty must be brought about by agreement between the parties. Unilateral amendments to treaties are therefore categorically prohibited. Further the Madras High Court, in Commissioner of Income Tax v VR. S.RM. Firms Ors [1994] 208 ITR 400 (Mad) held that “tax treaties are considered to be mini legislation containing in themselves all the relevant aspects or features which are at variance with the general taxation laws of the respective countries”. Therefore, mere amendment to Section 9(1) (vi) cannot result in a change to DTAA i.e. such amendments are not applicable to the DTAAs.

Facts of the Case

The assessee is a company incorporated in Netherlands that engages in providing digital broadcasting services. On filing a return of NIL taxable income for the relevant years, the AO again under Section 143(3) r/w 144C applied Section 9(1) (vi) to tax the income of the assessee as royalty. This section has however, since the time of the first assessment order in this case, undergone an amendment. The question is therefore, whether in an attempt to interpret the two definitions uniformly, i.e. the domestic definition and the treaty definition, the amendments will have to be read into the treaty as well. In essence, will the interpretation given to the DTAAs fluctuate with successive Finance Act amendments, whether retrospective or prospective?

Held by High Court

High Court held that no amendment to the Act, whether retrospective or prospective can be read in a manner so as to extend in operation to the terms of an international treaty. In other words, a clarificatory or declaratory amendment, much less one which may seek to overcome an unwelcome judicial interpretation of law, cannot be allowed to have the same retroactive effect on an international instrument effected between two sovereign states prior to such amendment.

The Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, 1969 (VCLT) is universally accepted as authoritatively laying down the principles governing the law of treaties. Article 39 therein states the general rule regarding the amendment of treaties and provides that a treaty may be amended by agreement between the parties. The rules laid down in Part II of the VCLT apply to such an agreement except insofar as the treaty may otherwise provide. This provision therefore clearly states that an amendment to a treaty must be brought about by agreement between the parties. Unilateral amendments to treaties are therefore categorically prohibited. The Madras High Court, in Commissioner of Income Tax v VR. S.RM. Firms Ors [1994] 208 ITR 400 (Mad) held that “tax treaties are considered to be mini legislation containing in themselves all the relevant aspects or features which are at variance with the general taxation laws of the respective countries”.

However, the treaties create a bifurcation between those terms, which have been defined by them (i.e the concerned treaty), and those, which remain undefined. It is in the latter instance that domestic law shall mandatorily supply the import to be given to the word in question. In the former case however, the words in the treaty will be controlled by the definitions of those words in the treaty if they are so provided. In the given case, there exists a definition of a term within the DTAA, so the same meaning only can be applied. There is no need to refer to the laws in force in the Contracting States, especially to deduce the meaning of the definition under the DTAA and the ultimate taxability of the income under the agreement. In other words, the domestic law remains static for the purposes of the DTAA.

This Court in Director of Income Tax v Nokia Networks 2013 (358) ITR 259 specifically dealt with the question of the effect of amendments to domestic law and the manner of their operation on parallel treaties. The Court delivered its judgment in the context of the very amendments that are in question today; the Explanations to Section 9(1)(vi) vis a vis the interpretation of a Double Tax Avoidance Agreement. This Court rejected that any amendment could change the situation and render the service or activity taxable.

The Parliament is simply not equipped with the power to, through domestic law, change the terms of a treaty. A treaty to begin with, is not drafted by the Parliament; it is an act of the Executive. Logically therefore, the Executive cannot employ an amendment within the domestic laws of the State to imply an amendment within the treaty. Moreover, a treaty of this nature is a carefully negotiated economic bargain between two States. No one party to the treaty can ascribe to itself the power to unilaterally change the terms of the treaty and annul this economic bargain. It may decide to not follow the treaty, it may chose to renege from its obligations under it and exit it, but it cannot amend the treaty, especially by employing domestic law. The principle is reciprocal. Every treaty entered into be the Indian State, unless self-executory, becomes operative within the State once Parliament passes a law to such effect, which governs the relationship between the treaty terms and the other laws of the State. It then becomes part of the general conspectus of domestic law. Now, if an amendment were to be effected to the terms of such treaty, unless the existing operationalizing domestic law states that such amendments are to become automatically applicable, Parliament will have to by either a separate law, or through an amendment to the original law, make the amendment effective. Similarly, amendments to domestic law cannot be read into treaty provisions without amending the treaty itself.

High court further held that States are expected to fulfill their obligations under a treaty in good faith. This includes the obligation to not defeat the purpose and object of the treaty. These obligations are rooted in customary international law, codified by the VCLT, especially Article 26 (binding nature of treaties and the obligation to perform them in good faith); Article 27 (Internal law and observance of treaties, i.e provisions of internal or municipal law of a nation cannot be used to justify omission to perform a treaty); General rule of interpretation under Article 31 (1) i.e that it shall be interpreted in good faith, in accordance with ordinary meaning to be given to the terms of a treaty) and Article 31 (4) (A special meaning shall be given to a term if it is established that the parties so intended).

High court finally held that it is fallacious to assume that any change made to domestic law to rectify a situation of mistaken interpretation can spontaneously further their case in an international treaty. Therefore, mere amendment to Section 9(1)(vi) cannot result in a change. It is imperative that such amendment is brought about in the agreement as well. Any attempt short of this, even if it is evidence of the State’s discomfort at letting data broadcast revenues slip by, will be insufficient to persuade this Court to hold that such amendments are applicable to the DTAAs.

Accordingly appeal of the revenue dismissed.

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