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Powers of Arrest under GST: Unravelling the Phrase ‘Committed an Offence’

CGST Act, 2017 provides the Commissioner power to arrest under specific circumstances. Section 69, CGST Act, 2017 states that: 

Where the Commissioner has reasons to believe that a person committed any offence specified in clause (a) or clause (b) or clause (c) or clause (d) of sub-section (1) of section 132 which is punishable under clause (i) or (ii) of sub-section (1), or sub-section (2) of the said section, he may, by order, authorise any officer or central tax to arrest such person. (emphasis added)   

There are several aspects of the power to arrest under GST that were and are under scrutiny of courts. For example, scope and meaning of the phrase ‘reason to believe’ remains open-ended even though the same phrase has a long standing presence under the IT Act, 1961. In this post, I will focus on judicial understanding of the phrase ‘committed an offence’ and its implication. Similar phrase and powers of arrest were provided in pre-GST laws as well, e.g., under Finance Act, 1994 which implemented service tax in India. Section 91, Finance Act, 1994 provided that: 

If the Commissioner of Central Excise has reason to believe that any person has committed any offencespecified in clause (i) or clause (ii) of section 89, he may, by general or special order, authorise any officer of Central Excise, not below the rank of Superintendent of Central Excise, to arrest such person. (emphasis added)     

The tenor and intent of both the above cited provisions is similar. The power to arrest has been entrusted to a relatively senior officer, who must have a ‘reason to believe’ that the person in question has ‘committed an offence’. Courts have made divergent observations on the meaning of the phrase ‘committed an offence’. Typically, a person is said to have committed an offence under a tax statute once the adjudication proceedings are completed and the quantum of tax evaded/not deposited is determined by the relevant tax authority after receiving a statement from the accused. In some cases, the tax officers have been found wanting in patience and have initiated arrests without completing the adjudication proceedings of establishing commission of an offence. Courts have made certain observations on the validity and permissibility of such a course of action.  

Pre-GST Interpretation 

There are two broad ways to interpret the above arrest-related provisions vis-à-vis commission of offence. First, the officer in question is in possession of credible material which provides it a ‘reason to believe’ that a taxpayer or other person has committed the offence(s) in question. In such a situation, the officer can authorise arrest of such person without completing the adjudication proceedings. Second, the officer’s reason to believe cannot – by itself – trigger powers of arrest, but the adjudication proceedings need to be completed to ascertain the amount of tax payable. The adjudication proceedings typically require issuance of a showcause notice to the taxpayer, and on receiving representation from the taxpayer the proceedings are completed by issuance of an order/assessment determining the tax payable by such person. Arrests can only happen once the adjudication proceedings have been completed and quantum of tax payable has been determined. The Delhi High Court – interpreting the relevant provisions of Finance Act, 1994 – in MakemyTrip case affirmed that the latter constituted the position of law and stated that authorities cannot without issuance of a showcause notice or enquiry or investigation arrest a person merely on the suspicion of evasion of service tax or failure to deposit the service tax collected. The High Court added: 

Therefore, while the prosecution for the purposes of determining the commission of an offence under Section 89 (1) (d)of the FA and adjudication proceedings for penalty under Section 83 A of the FA can go on simultaneously, both will have to be preceded by the adjudication for the purposes of determining the evasion of service tax. The Petitioners are, therefore, right that without any such determination, to straightaway conclude that the Petitioners had collected and not deposited service tax in excess of Rs. 50 lakhs and thereby had committed a cognizable offence would be putting the cart before the horse. This is all the more so because one consequence of such determination is the triggering of the power to arrest under Section 90 (1) of the FA. (para 78)

The only exceptions to the above rule as per the High Court was that if the taxpayer is a habitual offender, doesn’t file the tax returns on time and has a repeated history of defaults. The Supreme Court, in a short order, upheld and endorsed the Delhi High Court’s interpretation of the law. Various other courts, such as the Bombay High Court in ICICI Bank Ltd case, also took the view that adjudication proceedings should precede any coercive actions by tax officers.       

Courts in the above cases seem to be guided by at least two things: first, that the powers of arrest and recovery of tax are coercive actions and shouldn’t be resorted to in a whimsical fashion; second, establishing the ‘commission of an offence’ can only happen through adjudication proceedings and not based on opinion of the relevant officer, even if the opinion satisfies the threshold of ‘reason to believe’. Insisting on completion of adjudication proceedings also ensures that the ingredient of ‘commission of an offence’ prescribed in the provision is satisfied. Again, this is for the simple reason that an officer’s reason to believe that an offence has been committed is not the same as establishing that an offence has been committed in adjudication proceedings. The latter also provides the accused an opportunity to respond and make their representation instead of directly facing coercive action. 

Rapidly Swinging Pendulum under GST

Similar question has repeatedly arisen under GST, with no satisfactory answer one way or the other. While some High Courts have relied on the MakemyTrip case, others have suggested otherwise. The contradictory opinions can be highlighted by two cases. In Raj Punj case, the Rajasthan High Court deciding a case involving false invoices and fake ITC held that the petitioner’s contention that tax should be first determined under Sections 73 and 74 of CGST Act, 2017 does not have any force and the Department can proceed straightaway by issuing summons or if reasonable grounds are available by arresting the offender. (para 21) The High Court curiously added that determination of tax is not required if an offence is committed under Section 132, CGST Act, 2017. The observation is curious because Section 132(l), CGST Act, 2017 clearly links the penalty and imprisonment to the amount of tax evaded or amount of ITC wrongfully availed.  

The Madras High Court in M/s Jayachandran Alloys (P) Ltd case though had a different opinion. The High Court held that use of the word ‘commits’ in Section 132, CGST Act, 2017 made it clear that an act of committal of an offence had to be fixed before punishment was imposed. And that recovery of excess ITC claimed can only be initiated once it has been quantified by way of procedure set out in Sections 73 and 74 of the CGST Act, 2017. The High Court endorsed the approach and interpretation adopted in the MakemyTrip case and added that its view was similar in that an exception to the procedure of assessement is available in case of habitual offenders. 

What is the reason for invoking arrest powers before completing adjudication proceedings? Various. First, the Supreme Court’s observations in Radheshyam Kejriwal case that criminal prosecution and adjudication proceedings can be launched simultaneously, and both are independent of each other. While the Supreme Court was right in noting that both proceedings are independent of each other, it did not specifically opine on the inter-relation of adjudication proceedings and arrest. Second, if there is reason to believe that a large amount of tax has been evaded, arrests are justified by tax officers by arguing that they are necessary for protection of revenue’s interest. Third, evidentiary or other reasons can be invoked as failure to arrest the suspects may lead to destruction of evidence of tax evasion. And various other reasons that can be clubbed under the broader umbrella of expediency and revenue’s interest. The exceptions will always be recognized – as in the MakemyTrip case – the question is the boundary and scope of such exceptions tends to be malleable and there is little that can be done to address the issue.     

Way Forward 

The Supreme Court is currently seized of the matter involving scope of the powers of arrest under GST. While I’m unaware of the precise grounds of appeal before the Supreme Court, the issues broadly involve the scope of powers of arrest, pre-conditions for invoking the powers of arrest, the exceptions, and possibility of the misuse of powers of arrest. The latter have been indirectly acknowledged and ‘Guidelines’ have been issued, exhorting officers not invoke powers of arrest in a routine and mechanical manner. And only make arrest where ‘palpable’ guilty mind is involved. There is empirical data – yet – that can establish the efficacy or otherwise of the guidelines. And Supreme Court may enunciate its own set of guidelines in its judgment. But, as the cliché goes, the proof pudding is in its eating. Powers of arrest are necessary to create the necessary deterrent effect: minimize and detect tax evasion. At the same time, frequent resort to coercive powers under a tax statute adversely affects business freedoms. The balancing act is tough to achieve. I’ve written elsewhereabout the uncertainty that bedevils this area of law, and I suspect little is going to change in the instantly. Supreme Court’s judgment may provide a guiding light, but one should temper one’s expectations and not hope for a magic wand that may, at once, resolve a tricky issue.