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High Court strikes out property tax lawsuit

Published: 
Friday, March 30, 2018

Former United National Congress (UNC) agriculture minister Devant Maharaj has been criticised over his lawsuit challenging Government’s move to implement property tax, last year.

Delivering a 22-page judgment in the Port-of-Spain High Court yesterday, Justice Jacqueline Wilson dismissed Maharaj’s lawsuit in which he was questioned a decision of the Valuation Division of the Ministry of Finance to require all property owners to complete and submit valuation return forms, necessary for the calculation of property tax.

Commenting on the ruling Finance Minister Colm Imbert posted on twitter “Government wins property tax (valuation of land) case. Claim made by Devant Maharaj dismissed with costs.” He also posted a link to the court ruling on the Ministry’s website.

While Wilson admitted that there was uncertainty over whether the submission of the forms was voluntary or could attract penalties for non-compliance, the position was clarified by the Commissioner of Valuations shortly after Maharaj filed his lawsuit in May, last year.

She also noted that the Court of Appeal had ordered the Commissioner to publicly announce the voluntary nature of the process, as Maharaj continued to pursue his claim.

As a result of the clarification, Wilson ruled that Maharaj’s challenge against the binding nature of the request could not stand.

In her judgment, Wilson criticised Maharaj for his inconsistent evidence in the lawsuit.

“The ambivalent statements, together with the Claimant’s approach in seeking the Court’s intervention before the Commissioner’s response to the pre-action protocol letter fell due and his tenacity thereafter in pursuing redress on the nature of obligations imposed by the forms when he had received the Commissioner’s unequivocal response thereto, called his motives into question and undermined the value of his evidence,” Wilson said.

As part of her judgment, Wilson ordered Maharaj to foot the State’s legal bill for defending the claim.

She also described the commissioner’s statement on voluntary nature of the process as reasonable and credible.

“It is reasonable that the Commissioner, in seeking to facilitate the taxation regime after a prolonged hiatus, would in the first instance seek to obtain information from landowners on a consensual basis while reserving the right to exercise more intrusive powers at a later stage,” she said.

She rejected Maharaj’s claim that the forms, which required information including utility bills, email addresses and telephone numbers, breached citizen’s constitutional right to privacy.

She said that Maharaj’s interpretation of the constitutional right was too wide.

Maharaj sued the commissioner and the Ministry of Finance after it issued a press release calling on property owners to complete and submit valuation return forms by May 22, last year, as it sought to enforce the Valuation of Land Act 2010 after a six-year tax moratorium.

Even as Finance Minister Colm Imbert extended the deadline due to long lines of property owners at Valuation Division offices, Maharaj applied for an injunction stopping the collection drive, on May 19.

The injunction was granted by High Court Judge Frank Seepersad but was overturned by the Court of Appeal on June 6.

The decision on the injunctions was largely based on procedural errors in filing the applications and the assurance from the Commissioner.

Maharaj was represented by Anand Ramlogan, SC, Alvin Pariagsingh and Jayanti Lutchmedial.

Deborah Peake, SC, and Ravi Heffes-Doon represented the Commissioner, while Fyard Hosein, SC, and Rishi Dass represented the Finance Ministry.

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