Case Law Details

Case Name : Director of Income Tax Vs New Skies Satellite BV (Delhi High Court)
Appeal Number : ITA 473/2012
Date of Judgement/Order : 08/02/2016
Related Assessment Year :
Courts : All High Courts (1346) Delhi High Court (462)

Pronounced by HMJ S. Ravindra Bhat & HMJ R. K. Gauba.

The Appeals were successfully argued by Mr. M. S. Syali, Senior Advocate, Mayank Nagi and Bhawna Bakshi Advocates for the Respondent / Assessee.

Appellant / IT Department was represented by Mr. Rohit Madan, Sr. Standing Counsel with Ruchir Bhatia and Akash Vajpai.

Importance

The decision is of importance on the following two propositions of law:

(i) Whether by a unilateral amendment in the Income Tax Act, an interpretation of the same term in the Double Taxation Avoidance Agreement can be changed?

(ii) Whether by merely terming an amendment as ‘clarificatory’ and making it retrospective infact renders its retrospectivity valid in law?

Although there were conflicting decisions on this issue, by a detailed judgment, the Hon’ble Delhi High Court has held that the earlier decisions said to be contrary to the proposition do not govern the answer.

It is held that no amendment to the Act whether retrospective or prospective can be read in a manner so as to extend its operation to the terms of an international treaty. The Parliament is not empowered to effect the amendments to the international instruments. An executive action which seeks to effectively amend the treaty by interpretative process lacks authority in law.

It was held by the Courts earlier that a payment for transmission by Satellite does not constitute royalty. However, vide Finance Act, 2012, an amendment was brought in section 9 to specifically include the Satellite transmission within the definition of ‘Royalty’. The question was whether such inclusion for the purposes of the Income Tax Act automatically leads to an identical construction for the purposes of the Treaties entered into by India with other foreign countries. The Court answered it in the negative. The decision explains the issue at length in about 50 pages.

The substance of judgment passed by the Hon’ble Delhi High Court is under:-

“41. This Court is of the view 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. In the context of international law, while not every attempt to subvert the obligations under the treaty is a breach, it is nevertheless a failure to give effect to the intended trajectory of the treaty. Employing interpretive amendments in domestic law as a means to imply contoured effects in the enforcement of treaties is one such attempt, which falls just short of a breach, but is nevertheless, in the opinion of this Court, indefensible…”

Reliance on Vienna Convention

“… 43. 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.

44. We do not however rest our decision on the principles of the VCLT, but root it in the inability of the Parliament to effect amendments to international instruments and directly and logically, the illegality of any Executive action which seeks to apply domestic law amendments to the terms of the treaty, thereby indirectly, but effectively amending the treaty unilaterally. As held inAzadi Bachao Andolan these treaties are creations of a different process subject to negotiations by sovereign nations. The Madras High Court, inCommissioner of Income Tax v VR. S.RM. Firms Ors. 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”.

The Hon’ble High Court interpreted the provisions of Article 3(2) of the DTAA in the following manner:-

“45. At the very outset, it should be understood that it is not as if the DTAAs completely prohibit reliance on domestic law. Under these, a reference is made to the domestic law of the Contracting States. Article 3(2) of both DTAAs state that in the course of application of the treaty, any term not defined in the treaty, shall, have the meaning which is imputed to it in the laws in force in that State relating to the taxes which are the subject of the Convention…”

… The treaties therefore, 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.

46. Though this has been the general rule, much discussion has also taken place on whether an interpretation given to a treaty alters with a transformation in, or amendments in, domestic law of one of the State parties. At any given point, does a reference to the treaty point to the law of the Contracting States at the time the treaty was concluded, or relate to the law of the States as existing at the time of the reference to the treaty? The former is the ‘static’ approach while the latter is called the ‘ambulatory’ approach. One opportunity for a State to ease its obligations under a tax convention comes from the ambulatory reference to domestic law. States seeking to furtively dodge the limitations that such treaties impose, sometimes, resort to amending their domestic laws, all the while under the protection of the theory of ambulatory reference. It thereby allows itself an adjustment to broaden the scope of circumstances under which it is allowed to tax under a treaty. A convenient opportunity sometimes presents itself in the form of ambiguous technical formulations in the concerned treaty. States attempting to clarify or concretize any one of these meanings, (unsurprisingly the one that benefits it) enact domestic legislation which subserves such purpose.”

Static Vs. Ambulatory approach: While distinguishing the Judgment passed by Bombay High Court in CIT Vs. Seimens Aktiongessellschaft, it was laid down that:

“49. It is essential to note the context in which this judgment was delivered. There, the Court was confronted with a situation where the word royalty was not defined in the German DTAA. Following from our previous discussion on the bifurcation of terms within the treaty, in situations where words remain undefined, assistance is to be drawn from the definition and import of the words as they exist in the domestic “laws in force”. It was in this context that the Bombay High Court held that they were unable to accept the assesse’s contention that the law applicable would be the law as it existed at the time the Double Tax Avoidance Agreement was entered into.

This is the context in which the ambulatory approach to tax treaty interpretation was not rejected. The situation before this Court however is materially different as there is in fact a definition of the word royalty under Article 12 of both DTAA, thus dispensing with the need for recourse to Article 3.

50. There are therefore two sets of circumstances. First, where there exists no definition of a word in issue within the DTAA itself, regard is to be had to the laws in force in the jurisdiction of the State called upon to interpret the word. The Bombay High Court seems to accept the ambulatory approach in such a situation, thus allowing for successive amendments into the realm of “laws in force”. We express no opinion in this regard since it is not in issue before this Court. This Court’s finding is in the context of the second situation, where there does exist a definition of a term within the DTAA. When that is the case, 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. That is not to say that the Court may be inconsistent in its interpretation of similar definitions. What that does imply however, is that just because there is a domestic definition similar to the one under the DTAA, amendments to the domestic law, in an attempt to contour, restrict or expand the definition under its statute, cannot extend to the definition under the DTAA. In other words, the domestic law remains static for the purposes of the DTAA…

…52. Thus, an interpretive exercise by the Parliament cannot be taken so far as to control the meaning of a word expressly defined in a treaty. Parliament, supreme as it may be, is not equipped, with the power to amend a treaty. It is certainly true that law laid down by the Parliament in our domestic context, even if it were in violation of treaty principles, is to be given effect to; but where the State unilaterally seeks to amend a treaty through its legislature, the situation becomes one quite different from when it breaches the treaty. In the latter case, while internationally condemnable, the State’s power to breach very much exists; Courts in India have no jurisdiction in the matter, because in the absence of enactment through appropriate legislation in accordance with Article 253 of the Constitution, courts do not possess any power to pronounce on the power of the State to enact a law contrary to its treaty obligations. The domestic courts, in other words, are not empowered to legally strike down such action, as they cannot dictate the executive action of the State in the context of an international treaty, unless of course, the Constitution enables them to. That being said, the amendment to a treaty is not on the same footing. 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.”

Good faith interpretation

“… 53. Finally, 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)…”

Effect of punctuation in interpretation of the term ‘process’

“55. The slight but apparently vital difference between the definitions under the DTAA and the domestic definition is the presence of a comma following the word process in the former. In the initial determinations before various ITATs across the country, much discussion took place on the implications of the presence or absence of the “comma”. A lot has been said about the relevance or otherwise of punctuation in the context of statutory construction. In spoken English, it would be unwise to argue against the importance of punctuation, where the placement of commas is notorious for diametrically opposite implications. However in the realm of statutory interpretation, courts are circumspect in allowing punctuation to dictate the meaning of provisions…

…56. The courts have however created an exception to the general rule that punctuation is not to be looked at to ascertain meaning. That exception operates wherever a statute is carefully punctuated…

…57. However, the question, which then arises, is as follows. How is the court to decide whether a provision is carefully punctuated or not? The test- to decide whether a statute is carefully (read consciously) punctuated or not- would be to see what the consequence would be had the section been punctuated otherwise. Would there be any substantial difference in the import of the section if it were not punctuated the way it actually is? While this may not be conclusive evidence of a carefully punctuated provision, the repercussions go a long way to signify intent. If the inclusion or lack of a comma or a period gives rise to diametrically opposite consequences or large variations in taxing powers, as is in the present case, then the assumption must be that it was punctuated with a particular end in mind. The test therefore is not to see if it makes “grammatical sense” but to see if it takes on any “legal consequences”.

58. Nevertheless, whether or not punctuation plays an important part in statute interpretation, the construction Parliament gives to such punctuation, or in this case, the irrelevancy that it imputes to it, cannot be carried over to an international instrument where such comma may or may not have been evidence of a deliberate inclusion to influence the reading of the section. There is There is sufficient evidence for us to conclude that the process referred to in Article 12 must in fact be a secret process and was always meant to be such.

Judgments of Delhi High Court in TV Today Network and Verizon Communications passed by Madras High Court distinguished:-

“31. In a judgment by the Madras High Court in Verizon Communications Singapore Pte Ltd. V. The Income Tax Officer, International Taxation, the Court held the Explanations to be applicable to not only the domestic definition but also carried them to influence the meaning of royalty under Article 12. Notably, in both cases, the clarificatory nature of the amendment was not questioned, but was instead applied squarely to assessment years predating the amendment. The crucial difference between the judgments however lies in the application of the amendments to the DTAA. While TV Today recognizes that the question will have to be decided and the submission argued, Verizon cites no reason for the extension of the amendments to the DTAA.”

The Hon’ble Delhi High Court has also cast doubt on the retrospectivity of Amendment introduced by the Finance Act, 2012, even under the Act, by merely terming it ‘clarificatory’, though not conclusively adjudicated upon:-

“32. Explanations 4-6 are designed as clarificatory amendments. Unarguably they have all the apparent characteristics of one. The words “for the removal of doubts, it is hereby clarified…includes and has always included” qualify the interpretation in Explanation 5. In Explanation 6, the same words have been modified and they state “includes and has always deemed to have always included”. This is the standard language used to communicate an intended retrospective effect…”

“37. An important question, which arises in this context, is whether a “clarificatory” amendment remains true to its nature when it purports to annul, or has the undeniable effect of annulling, an interpretation given by the courts to the term sought to be clarified. In other words, does the rule against clarificatory amendments laying down new principles of law extend to situations where law had been judicially interpreted and the legislature seeks to overcome it by declaring that the law in question was never meant to have the import given to it by the Court? The general position of the courts in this regard is where the purpose of a special interpretive statute is to correct a judicial interpretation of a prior law, which the legislature considers inaccurate, the effect is prospective. Any other result would make the legislature a court of last resort. United States v. Gilmore Wall, Peony Park v. O’Malley. It does not mean that the legislature does not have the power to override judicial decisions which in its opinion it deems as incorrect, however to respect the seperation of legal powers and to avoid making a legislature a court of last resort, the amendments can be made prospective only (Ref. County of Sacremento v. State35, In re Marriage of Davies).

38. The circumstances in this case could very well go to show that the amendment was no more than an exercise in undoing an interpretation of the court which removed income from data transmission services from taxability under Section 9(1)(vi). It would also be difficult, if not impossible to argue, that inclusion of a certain specific category of services or payments within the ambit of a definition alludes not to an attempt to illuminate or clarify a perceived ambiguity or obscurity as to interpretation of the definition itself, but towards enlarging its scope. Predicated upon this, the retrospectivity of the amendment could well be a contentious issue.”

Conclusion

“… 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.

60. Consequently, since we have held that the Finance Act, 2012 will not affect Article 12 of the DTAAs, it would follow that the first determinative interpretation given to the word “royalty” in Asia Satellite59,when the definitions were in fact pari materia (in the absence of any contouring explanations), will continue to hold the field for the purpose of assessment years preceding the Finance Act, 2012 and in all cases which involve a Double Tax Avoidance Agreement, unless the said DTAAs are amended jointly by both parties to incorporate income from data transmission services as partaking of the nature of royalty, or amend the definition in a manner so that such income automatically becomes royalty.”

A number of vexed legal issues have been answered by the Hon’ble Delhi High Court vide this judgment, which will, without doubt, have far-reaching effect on the subject.

Submitted by -Advocate Mayank Nagi

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