‘Citizens should be able to rely on information provided by Tax and Customs Administration’
Information provided by the Tax and Customs Administration is something that concerns every citizen. So it is not surprising that the Tax hotline receives around 10 million calls each year. The Benefits Affair emphasised the citizen’s perspective in communications with the Tax and Customs Administration. Can and should you be able to rely unquestioningly on the information provided by the Tax and Customs Administration? PhD defence on 12 October.
Providing information to citizens is an important but also very complicated task of the Tax and Customs Administration. Complex tax legislation needs to be explained in a clear manner, or ‘translated’, but still be accurate. That creates an area of tension, says PhD candidate Tirza Cramwinckel. She studied both Dutch Language and Culture and Tax Law and combined both disciplines in writing her PhD thesis at Leiden Law School.
‘As a linguist I was optimistic, but as tax specialist, I could see that it was very difficult to translate complex tax rules and regulations ‘perfectly’, says Cramwinckel. ‘It is only natural that inaccuracies, inadequacies, or ambiguities occur in translations. That leads to the question how tax law should deal with situations in which citizens derive expectations based on information that turns out to have been not quite what it should have been. Should citizens be able to rely on the information? And how should that be assessed? All kinds of interests and perspectives are involved here, that should be carefully weighed. For example, constitutional principles such as legal security and legal equality.’
Mistake on website
Until now, little research has been done into the legal consequences of the information provided by the Tax and Customs Administration. ‘Traditionally, tax law has been leading from a legal perspective. But most citizens do not read tax laws: they tend to call the tax hotline or visit the Tax and Customs Administration website. That is something that tax law cannot simply ignore. At the same time, information provided by the Tax and Customs Administration is not equal to the law of the democratically legitimatised legislature. As such, tax law cannot simply be set aside because of a mistake on the website.’
The starting point in tax law is that citizens should not rely solely on the information provided by the Tax and Customs Administration. The rule of thumb for applying the principle of legitimate expectations is ‘no, unless’. According to the High Council it is in the interest of taxpayers that the Tax and Customs Administration can commit to executing their information provision task ‘unobstructed’ and ‘with a broad scope’. The risk of inaccurate information is still incurred by the taxpayer.
The PhD defence of the dissertation ‘Voorlichting door de Belastingdienst’ by Tirza Cramwinckel will take place on Wednesday 12 October 2022 at the Academy Building of Leiden University.
This school of thought by the Supreme Court dates back to the 1980s. Is that principle still valid now that tax law has become so much more complicated? To answer this question, the PhD candidate combined language and communications science with legal science. She wrote her dissertation under the supervision of professors in tax law and linguistics. ‘The combined perspective was especially useful because information is a form of communication. Communicative insights help to inform the legal perspective on how communication between the Tax and Customs Administration and citizens works and the expectations and obligations that have been raised. The legal perspective is not only reassessed, but also enriched. The multidisciplinary approach sheds a new light on the issue.’
Cramwinckel concludes in her PhD thesis that applying the principle of legitimate expectations to the information provided by the Tax and Customs Administration to citizens should be reassessed. The current application of the principle of legitimate expectations no longer suffices in light of judicial and societal developments. The legal perspective collides with the citizens’ perspective when it comes to being able to rely on the information.
The researcher makes several recommendations for improvement. The main rule ‘no, unless’ should be replaced with an assessment framework, with more attention for the citizens’ perspective and an improved balance between legal protection and legal enforcement. This reassessed application of the principle of legitimate expectations does not mean, however, that the Tax and Customs Administration should always be held accountable for the information it has provided and that each expectation should be protected. This all depends on the circumstances of the incident. But the legal intent should be that citizens should be able to rely on the information provided by the Tax and Customs Administration. This reassessment will contribute to a more trustworthy government.
The main message is that information is much more important for both the Tax and Customs Administration, the citizens and taxation than is currently known in tax law. Adequate legal protection is part of that.
‘The different perspectives are refreshing’
Cramwinckel looks back on her PhD research with a lot of pleasure. ‘It was a challenging project that I could really submerge myself in. It was also very special to collaborate with my three supervisors, who had either a legal or a linguistics background. That worked well. The different perspectives were refreshing.’ She highly recommends it to anyone considering a PhD track. ‘That's to say, as long as writing comes easily, and you enjoy emerging yourself in a topic for a longer period. So, choose a topic that really interests you.’