Provisional Attachment Power ‘Draconian’; Not Intended To Authorize Commissioners To Make Preemptive Strikes On Assessee’s Property: Supreme Court

The Supreme Court has held that the power of provisional attachment under GST laws must be strictly construed, being a draconian power, and that the same should be exercised only on the basis of tangible material.

The power to order a provisional attachment of the property of the taxable person including a bank account is draconian in nature and the conditions which are prescribed by the statute for a valid exercise of the power must be strictly fulfilled, the Supreme Court observed while interpreting Section 83 of the Himachal Pradesh Goods and Service Tax Act.

The bench comprising Justices DY Chandrachud and MR Shah, while allowing an appeal against a judgment of Himachal Pradesh High Court observed that, the exercise of unguided discretion cannot be permissible because it will leave citizens and their legitimate business activities to the peril of arbitrary power.

“The Commissioner must be alive to the fact that such provisions are not intended to authorize Commissioners to make preemptive strikes on the property of the assessee, merely because property is available for being attached. There must be a valid formation of the opinion that a provisional attachment is necessary for the purpose of protecting the interest of the government revenue, the bench observed while issuing the following guidelines:

  1. The exercise of the power for ordering a provisional attachment must be preceded by the formation of an opinion by the Commissioner that it is necessary so to do for the purpose of protecting the interest of the government revenue. Before ordering a provisional attachment the Commissioner must form an opinion on the basis of tangible material that the assessee is likely to defeat the demand, if any, and that therefore, it is necessary so to do for the purpose of protecting the interest of the government revenue.
  2. The expression “necessary so to do for protecting the government revenue” implicates that the interests of the government revenue cannot be protected without ordering a provisional attachment;
  3. The formation of an opinion by the Commissioner under Section 83(1) must be based on tangible material bearing on the necessity of ordering a provisional attachment for the purpose of protecting the interest of the government revenue;

In this case, the provisional attachment was ordered against the appellant while invoking Section 83 of Himachal Pradesh Goods and Service Tax Act, 2017 and Rule 159 of Himachal Pradesh Goods and Service Tax Rules, 2017. The High Court had dismissed the writ petition instituted under Article 226 of the Constitution challenging orders of provisional attachment on the ground that an ‘alternative and efficacious remedy’ of an appeal under Section 107 of the HPGST Act is available.

In appeal, the Apex Court bench considered these two issues: (i) Whether a writ petition challenging the orders of provisional attachment was maintainable under Article 226 of the Constitution before the High Court; and (ii) If the answer to (i) is in the affirmative, whether the orders of provisional attachment constitute a valid exercise of power.?

The court noted that, in this case, the order passed by the Joint Commissioner as a delegate of the Commissioner was not subject to an appeal under Section 107(1) and the only remedy that was available was in the form of the invocation of the writ jurisdiction under Article 226 of the Constitution.

“(i) The Joint Commissioner while ordering a provisional attachment under section 83 was acting as a delegate of the Commissioner in pursuance of the delegation effected under Section 5(3) and an appeal against the order of provisional attachment was not available under Section 107 (1); (ii) The writ petition before the High Court under Article 226 of the Constitution challenging the order of provisional attachment was maintainable; (iii) The High Court has erred in dismissing the writ petition on the ground that it was not maintainable;”, the court held.

To allow the appeal, the bench observed that there was a clear non-application of mind by the Joint Commissioner to the provisions of Section 83, and therefore the provisional attachment was illegal. The court has made following important observations in the judgment:

The formation of the opinion must bear a proximate and live nexus to the purpose of protecting the interest of the government revenue.

Before the Commissioner can levy a provisional attachment, there must be a formation of “the opinion” and that it is necessary “so to do” for the purpose of protecting the interest of the government revenue. The power to levy a provisional attachment is draconian in nature. By the exercise of the power, a property belonging to the taxable person may be attached, including a bank account. The attachment is provisional and the statute has contemplated an attachment during the pendency of the proceedings under the stipulated statutory provisions noticed earlier. An attachment which is contemplated in Section 83 is, in other words, at a stage which is anterior to the finalization of an assessment or the raising of a demand. Conscious as the legislature was of the draconian nature of the power and the serious consequences which emanate from the attachment of any property including a bank account of the taxable person, it conditioned the exercise of the power by employing specific statutory language which conditions the exercise of the power. The language of the statute indicates first, the necessity of the formation of opinion by the Commissioner; second, the formation of opinion before ordering a provisional attachment; third the existence of opinion that it is necessary so to do for the purpose of protecting the interest of the government revenue; fourth, the issuance of an order in writing for the attachment of any property of the taxable person; and fifth, the observance by the Commissioner of the provisions contained in the rules in regard to the manner of attachment. Each of these components of the statute are integral to a valid exercise of power. In other words, when the exercise of the power is challenged, the validity of its exercise will depend on a strict and punctilious observance of the statutory preconditions by the Commissioner. While conditioning the exercise of the power on the formation of an opinion by the Commissioner that “for the purpose of protecting the interest of the government revenue, it is necessary so to do”, it is evident that the statute has not left the formation of opinion to an unguided subjective discretion of the Commissioner. The formation of the opinion must bear a proximate and live nexus to the purpose of protecting the interest of the government revenue.

The exercise of unguided discretion cannot be permissible because it will leave citizens and their legitimate business activities to the peril of arbitrary power

By utilizing the expression “it is necessary so to do” the legislature has evinced an intent that an attachment is authorized not merely because it is expedient to do so (or profitable or practicable for the revenue to do so) but because it is necessary to do so in order to protect interest of the government revenue. Necessity postulates that the interest of the revenue can be protected only by a provisional attachment without which the interest of the revenue would PART D 36 stand defeated. Necessity in other words postulates a more stringent requirement than a mere expediency. A provisional attachment under Section 83 is contemplated during the pendency of certain proceedings, meaning thereby that a final demand or liability is yet to be crystallized. An anticipatory attachment of this nature must strictly conform to the requirements, both substantive and procedural, embodied in the statute and the rules. The exercise of unguided discretion cannot be permissible because it will leave citizens and their legitimate business activities to the peril of arbitrary power. Each of these ingredients must be strictly applied before a provisional attachment on the property of an assesses can be levied. The Commissioner must be alive to the fact that such provisions are not intended to authorize Commissioners to make preemptive strikes on the property of the assessee, merely because property is available for being attached. There must be a valid formation of the opinion that a provisional attachment is necessary for the purpose of protecting the interest of the government revenue.

While ordering a provisional attachment the Commissioner must in the formation of the opinion act on the basis of tangible material

These expressions in regard to both the purpose and necessity of provisional attachment implicate the doctrine of proportionality. Proportionality mandates the existence of a proximate or live link between the need for the attachment and the purpose which it is intended to secure. It also postulates the maintenance of a proportion between the nature and extent of the attachment and the purpose which is sought to be served by ordering it. Moreover, the words embodied in sub-Section (1) of Section 83, as interpreted above, would leave no manner of doubt that while ordering a provisional attachment the Commissioner must in the formation of the opinion act on the basis of tangible material on the basis of which the formation of opinion is based in regard to the existence of the statutory requirement

Case: Radha Krishan Industries vs State of Himachal Pradesh [CA 1155 of 2021]
Coram: Justices DY Chandrachud and MR Shah
Counsel: Sr. Adv Puneet Bali, Adv Akshay Amritanshu
Citation: LL 2021 SC 222

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