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Govt heads to Appeal Court
Property owners can breathe a sign of relief after a High Court judge last evening granted a temporary halt with immediate effect to the enforcement and implementation of the Valuation Return Form, commonly called Property Tax Form.
Justice Frank Seepersad granted the interim stay as he also granted leave to former agriculture minister Devant Maharaj to file for judicial review to challenge the legality of the process adopted to enforce the Property Tax law. The stay will remain in effect until May 31, when the case management conference is heard or until further order.
However, in an immediate response last night acting Prime Minister and Finance Minister Colm Imbert announced that they will appeal the matter. The appeal has been listed for 9 am before the Court of Appeal on Monday.
The decision comes a month after the population was informed, via press release, that they would begin receiving the Property Tax forms in the mail, which were to be filled out and submitted to Valuation Division centres before a May 22 deadline.
This was met with strong opposition by Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar and other sections of the public. However, following a rush by property owners to meet the initial deadline, which resulted in long lines at the centres, Imbert two days ago announced an extension to June 5.
The tax is expected to bring in about $500 million in revenue for the Government, according to Imbert, who also revealed in the recent mid-year budget review that the country had lost $20 million in annual revenue since 2014.
Through his team of attorneys led by Anand Ramlogan SC, Maharaj is contending that the entire approach to enforcing the tax is unconstitutional, illegal and ultra vires.
Yesterday in the San Fernando High Court, Ramlogan argued before Seepersad that the implementation of the tax was being undertaken without the enactment of the necessary legislation and/or without amendments to the existing statutory framework.
Ramlogan also submitted that Maharaj was being coerced to submit the forms with a threat of prosecution if he failed to do so.
The ex-parte application was initially heard in the absence of the respondents, the Attorney General and the Commissioner of Valuations, or their attorneys. However, before the judgment was given the respondents’ attorney, Deborah Peake SC, saw an online article on the T&T Guardian website regarding the matter and she telephoned the judge asking to be heard. The judge granted her request.
Peake later argued, via video conference from the Port-of-Spain Supreme Court, that the act empowers the commissioner - subsequent to April 1, 2010, when the Property Tax was enacted-, to issue notice to property owners under a continuing obligation and an amendment to the law was not necessary.
She also said there was no indication that the population was being mandated to submit the forms and failure to do so would result in the imposition of a sanction. Peake further submitted that it was a voluntary exercise whereby citizens could engage in the process of valuation before the commissioner moved forward with any other action.
However, in his 15-page judgment Seepersad said the laws cannot be amended by ministerial decree or by way of press release. Noting that the press release did not reflect that the process was voluntary, the judge also alluded to a CNC3 interview with officials from the Valuation Division, who expressly stated that failure to submit the form would attract sanctions. In a democratic society, Seepersad said citizens have a right to understand why they are mandated to act in a certain way and more importantly, to be properly informed as to the sanctions to be imposed on them if they fail to comply.
“The public interest can never be served by the sanctioning of any process which imposes an obligation to act if that process is not premised upon a foundation that is lawful and constitutional,” Seepersad wrote.
“The executive arm of the state should never be able to exceed its jurisdiction and to eviscerate the authority vested in the legislative arm of the state and laws cannot be amended by ministerial decree or by way of press release.”
Seepersad thus granted leave on the condition of the filing and service of the substantive claim on or before 4 pm on May 22. Costs were reserved until the completion of the claim.
Maharaj was also represented by Alvin Pariagsingh, Kent Samlal, Robert Abdool-Mitchel, Chelsea Stewart, Douglas Bayley and Jayanti Lutchmedial.