© FT montage / Noun project
Experimental feature

Listen to this article

00:00
00:00
Experimental feature

Many FT Money readers will have already filed their tax returns, but some people will find any excuse to put off the dreaded chore. Few, however, will be as eye-catching as “my wife has been seeing aliens and won’t let me enter the house”.

This is one of the many “imaginative and intriguing” excuses offered by taxpayers to HM Revenue & Customs for not completing tax returns on time. They ranged from the mundane, such as “I spilled coffee on it” — to the ridiculous, as in “my business doesn’t really do anything”.

Some use pathos: “My ex-wife left my tax return upstairs, but I suffer from vertigo and can’t go upstairs to retrieve it.” Others stress the taxpayer’s self-importance: “I’ve been far too busy touring the country with my one-man play.”

By issuing a list of the most outlandish excuses of the past year, HMRC is trying to draw attention to the risk that missing the deadline leaves taxpayers — even those who have no extra tax to pay — exposed to penalties. HMRC says it is sympathetic to those who have genuine excuses and urges those who think they might miss the January 31 deadline to get in touch. “The earlier we’re contacted, the more help we can offer,” the tax authority said.

But not everyone who needs to file a return will be aware of their obligations. A shake-up in the way savings and dividends are taxed means that since April 2016, tax credits on dividends have been abolished and interest on savings has been paid gross, with no tax deducted. That means that those who received more than £5,000 from dividends or £1,000 of interest in the last tax year might have additional tax to pay.

Lynne Rowland, a tax partner with Kingston Smith, an accountancy firm, says that some pensioners with relatively modest levels of income could face unexpected tax liabilities and penalties for non-disclosure. She said: “It is highly likely that many pensioners will not understand their obligations, will miss the deadlines and be faced with penalties.”

But the affected individuals might question how they are expected to know that they should file a return. Given that most tax specialists admit they cannot keep up with fast-changing tax legislation, should ignorance of the law be a valid excuse? Recent tribunal cases show this argument cannot be relied on, although some judges are sympathetic to it.

The cases showed that following rule changes, some non-residents selling UK residential property have been caught out by tight deadlines for reporting capital gains — within 30 days of the sale. When they later notified HMRC in their next self-assessment return, they found themselves landed with fixed penalties of £700, along with additional “daily” penalties although these were later withdrawn after representations from taxpayers.

Some judges have been sympathetic to their plight. Last September, Richard Thomas, a tribunal judge, sided with Rachel McGreevy, a taxpayer who lived in Australia, against HMRC, which argued that she should have stayed up to date with UK legislation.

He dismissed HMRC’s argument that she should have been aware of legislation announced in the Autumn Statement as an example of “nerdview”. He said: “Only a small coterie of people obsessed by tax (of which I am no doubt one) would admit that the chancellor’s Autumn Statement on tax matters is something that should register in anyone’s consciousness.”

The area of law that HMRC seemed to think the taxpayer should have known about was “arcane, difficult to find and counterintuitive”, the judge said. Even with his better than average grasp of tax law, when he read the relevant provisions “my eyes have glazed over and my senses reeled”.

He ruled that the penalty for late filing received by Ms McGreevy when she sold her property in Orpington, Kent, was unfair because of “a lack of meaningful and sensible communication from HMRC”.

But last month, another tribunal took a different view, in a case about the sale of a London property by a Singapore-based couple. Judge Barbara Mosedale took issue with the idea that HMRC had failed in its duty to publicise changes to the law.

She argued that it was impossible for HMRC to identify and notify every possibly affected taxpayer of every possibly relevant change in the law. She added that “if they were to attempt to do so, one can imagine few taxpayers would read the mountain of letters sent to them by HMRC on a regular basis”.

She concluded that citizens were expected to take responsibility for obeying the law, and added: “While I recognise that the reality is that even just the statutory tax laws applicable in this country run to thousands of pages and no one can know it all — and I certainly do not — ignorance of the law is not a ‘reasonable excuse’ for failing to comply with it.”

Get alerts on Tax returns when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018. All rights reserved.

Follow the topics in this article