A recent decision has created some interest in whether the taxpayers failing to pay over the correct amounts of VAT can be charged – in addition to other statutory crimes prescribed by the VAT Act, 89 of 1991 – with the common law crime of theft.
In Director of Public Prosecutions, Western Cape v Parker the Director of Public Prosecutions (“DPP”) appealed a decision by the Western Cape High Court that Parker, in his capacity as sole representative of a close corporation, had not committed common law theft in relation to the misappropriation of VAT due and payable by the close corporation to SARS. (Parker had been convicted of common law theft earlier in the Bellville Regional Court and sentenced to five years’ imprisonment, which conviction he appealed to the High Court.)
The Supreme Court of Appeal dismissed the appeal by the DPP as related to the charge of common law theft levied against Parker as related to the misappropriation of VAT amounts, due and payable to SARS. Essentially to succeed, the DPP had to show that the monies not paid over to SARS were in law monies received and held effectively by VAT vendors as agents or in trust on behalf of SARS, i.e. that SARS had established ownership over such funds even before it having being paid over. The court directed that no relationship could be established whereby VAT amounts due were received and held by VAT vendors prior to payment thereof over to SARS. In other words, the DPP could not show that Parker had misappropriated property which belonged to another – an essential element of common law theft that had to be present to secure a conviction.
VAT remains a tax in the proper sense of the word: monies received from customers were that of the taxpayer. Only once monies were paid over to SARS did it become SARS’ property. Even when the VAT in question became payable, such obligation did not per se create a right of ownership over the funds for SARS. Admittedly SARS has a legal claim against the taxpayer for an amount of tax, but it cannot be said to have established right of ownership over any specific funds held by the taxpayer.
It should be noted that Parker only appealed his conviction of common law theft. He was also convicted in the Regional Court of those crimes provided for in the VAT Act (section 28(1)(b) read with section 58(d)) which he did not appeal. His sentence in this regard was maintained, being either a fine of R10,000 of two years’ imprisonment, suspended for four years.
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