Safe harbour provisions

From 1 March 2010, the Tax Agent Services laws take effect. The new laws make sure that services that registered tax agents provide to the public are of an appropriate ethical and professional standard. They also provide taxpayers with a safe harbour from some administrative penalties.

Under the safe harbour provisions, taxpayers who use a registered tax agent or BAS agent, and provide them with all relevant information, will not be liable for a penalty for:

  • making a false or misleading statement that results in a shortfall amount if the shortfall amount occurred because their agent didn’t take reasonable care
  • not lodging a document on time where they provided the agent with the information soon enough for their agent to lodge on time.

The taxpayer must provide proof to show that they provided all relevant information as required and within enough time to allow the agent to prepare and lodge the document on time. The Tax Office will look at the individual facts and circumstances of each case to work out whether the taxpayer must pay the administrative penalties. The safe harbour provisions will apply to:

  • statements given on or after 1 March 2010 for a false or misleading statement penalty
  • a return, notice or statement that had to be lodged on or after 1 March 2010 for a failure to lodge on time penalty.

The safe harbour provisions will not apply where the shortfall amount or the failure to lodge on time penalty came about because the agent or the taxpayer:

  • applied a tax law recklessly
  • intentionally disregarded a tax law.

Also, there is no safe harbour if a scheme is involved.

The safe harbour provisions will not affect taxpayers’ ability to seek remission of administrative penalties from the ATO.

New laws for Tax Agents and taxpayers using them

The new legislative framework for tax agent services was first announced on 6 April 1998.

The Bill is designed to give effect to reforms to the registration and regulation of tax practitioners, including bookkeepers who provide a business activity statement (BAS) service for a fee.

The key elements of the regulatory reforms in this package are:

  • a national Tax Practitioners Board (Board) to replace the existing state based Boards
  • registration and regulation of entities providing BAS services as BAS agents
  • a legislated Code of Professional Conduct to govern tax agents and BAS agents
  • a wider and more flexible range of disciplinary sanctions which may be imposed by the Board
  • civil penalties and injunctions to replace criminal penalties for certain misconduct by agents and unregistered entities, and
  • ‘safe harbours’ which provide that, in certain circumstances, taxpayers who engage a tax agent or a BAS agent are not liable to certain administrative penalties that would otherwise apply for making a false or misleading statement resulting in a tax shortfall amount, or for lodging a document late.

The Government introduced the Tax Agent Services Bill 2008 into Parliament on 13 November 2008.