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Service tax on renting of immovable property

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In a recent landmark judgement, in Home Solution Retail India Ltd. & Others vs. UOI & Others, the High Court has pronounced its judgement with regard to several writ petitions which had challenged the applicability of the levy of on renting of immovable property.

The High Court has held that the taxable service in respect of renting of immovable property, as defined under the relevant Section 65(105)(zzzz) of the Finance Act 1994 thereof, was with regard to any service in relation to renting of property and was not on the renting of immovable property as such.

Consequently, the High Court has held that the levy of service tax on the renting of immovable property itself, in terms of the relevant notification issued consequent to the introduction of the taxable service, was ultra vires the provisions of the Act.

In arriving at its decision, the court has relied on the wordings of the particular taxable service in order to hold that since the activity of renting of immovable property was itself not a service, the expression ‘service in relation to renting of immovable property’, occurring in the definition of the taxable service, can only extend to services which are provided in relation to the renting of immovable property.

Accordingly, the Court distinguished the particular definition of service in relation to renting of immovable property from several other definitions in service tax which were similarly worded and held that in those other definitions, the expression ‘in relation to’ itself referred to a service and consequently not only was the core service taxable but also the allied and ancillary services in relation thereto were also taxable.

The court illustrated this distinction by referring to the taxable service of dry cleaning where the expression was a service in relation to dry cleaning and held the activity of dry cleaning was itself also a service which was taxable therein. As opposed to this situation, the taxable service provided by a real estate agent, for instance, was a service in relation to real estate and since real estate was not a service, the definition could only extend to services in relation thereto.

On a similar analogy, the court came to the conclusion that in the present case, the renting of immovable property could not be construed as a service by itself and hence the taxable service in question could only extend to services in relation to renting of immovable property and not to the activity of renting itself.

In arriving at the aforesaid finding, the court has relied on the decision of the Supreme Court in T N Kalyana Mandapam Association Vs. UOI (2004) 5 SCC 632) which, interestingly enough, was relied upon both by the appellants, who had challenged the legality of the levy, as well as by the respondents i.e. Government of India. Based on a detailed consideration of the aforesaid judgement, the Delhi High Court has come to a determination that the decision of the Supreme Court supported the argument of the appellants and not that of the respondents.

With regard to the nature of the service tax itself, the High Court has held that it is a value added tax and the tax is a tax on value addition done by the service provider and it must have a connection with the service. Consequently, since the mere renting of immovable property does not entail any value addition, it could not be regarded as a service for that reason as well.

Here again, the High Court has relied upon another decision of the Supreme Court, in All India Federation of Chartered Accountants Vs. UOI (2007) 7 SCC 527), which had held that just as excise duty was a tax on value addition in regard to goods, the service tax was a tax on value addition by rendition of services.

Accordingly, the Supreme Court, in that case, had distinguished property-based services and performance-based services and had arrived at a conclusion that the expression ‘in relation’, occurring in the various relevant definitions, needed to be construed in accordance with this principle of value addition.

The High Court h as, relying on the above decision, consequently come to the conclusion that the levy of service tax on the activity of renting of immovable property was ultra vires the relevant definition of the taxable service, as contained in the Finance Act, 1994.

While upholding the arguments contained in the writ petitions in regard to the above points, the High Court has held that it has therefore not been required to examine the alternate argument as contained in the petitions that the relevant definition, should it be construed as applicable to the activity of renting of immovable property as well, would be violative of the Constitution of India in that the Central Government could not, in terms thereof, impose a tax on land, as it was a State subject.

Hence, the decision is limited to the point that the taxable service as understood and interpreted through the relevant impugned notification and hence the tax so collected, was not in accordance with the statute and hence without basis in law and the decision is not with regard to whether or not the definition of taxable service itself is unconstitutional.

This judgement is applicable on an all India basis, as it is on a point of legality, and would have far reaching consequences for all and in particular for those who carry on business in rented premises and who do not have an output excise or a service tax liability so as to be able to offset this tax on rentals. The Retail Sector is thus a very major beneficiary, as the service tax on rentals is a very significant unrecovered tax cost for the sector. Further, the judgement has ramifications with regard to other taxable services as well since these are also similarly worded.

The Central Government is almost certain to file an appeal against the aforesaid judgement with the Supreme Court. It remains to be seen whether it will request a stay of the judgment in the interim and whether such a request would be granted. It is also possible that the Government may consider amending the provisions of the Finance Act, 1994, possibly with retrospective effect, in order to overcome the above judgement of the Delhi High Court. The picture will become clear in this regard in the near future.

However, until such time as these eventualities do not occur, taxpayers can take effective steps to avail the benefit of non payment of service tax on renting of immovable property. Several issues such as discontinuance of payment of tax for future period, filing of refund claims for past taxes paid on such rentals, for the period of one year and beyond, availment of CENVAT credits on such taxes, payment of such taxes to the Government, if already collected as such, the person entitled to file such claims will need to be addressed in detail, in order for the benefits to flow to tax payers.

The author is leader, indirect tax practice, PricewaterhouseCoopers
pwctls.nd@in.pwc.com  

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