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Investigation cannot be stalled on apprehension of contracting COVID-19

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Court :
Delhi High Court

Brief :
The Hon'ble Delhi High Court, in the case of P.V. Rao vs. Senior Intelligence Officer, DGGSTI [W.P.(C.) No. 8975/2020 (dated, November 18, 2020)] denied relief to P.V. Rao ("Petitioner") from appearing physically in Delhi to record statement in alleged GST evasion case and held that judicial interference at this threshold stage, in such matters relating to investigation, has to be exercised with circumspection. The concept of balance of convenience, therefore, cannot be tilted in favour of the Petitioner to be allowed to appear through video conferencing, merely because travelling from Bengaluru to New Delhi would be a risk factor for the Petitioner of contracting COVID-19.

Citation :
W.P.(C.) No. 8975/2020 (dated, November 18, 2020)

The Hon'ble Delhi High Court, in the case of P.V. Rao vs. Senior Intelligence Officer, DGGSTI [W.P.(C.) No. 8975/2020 (dated, November 18, 2020)] denied relief to P.V. Rao ("Petitioner") from appearing physically in Delhi to record statement in alleged GST evasion case and held that judicial interference at this threshold stage, in such matters relating to investigation, has to be exercised with circumspection. The concept of balance of convenience, therefore, cannot be tilted in favour of the Petitioner to be allowed to appear through video conferencing, merely because travelling from Bengaluru to New Delhi would be a risk factor for the Petitioner of contracting COVID-19.

Facts

The Petitioner is presently employed in the capacity of CFO by Think and Learn Private Limited ("Company"), engaged in the business of providing online courses, classes etc. through its website and mobile applications by the brand name "BYJU'S".

DGGI ("the Respondent") carried out an investigation in the company premises at Bengaluru,from 27 to 29 October 2020, under Section 67 of the Central Goods and Services Tax Act, 2017 ("CGST Act") for evasion of GST on books / printed material being supplied by the Company, by mis-declaring such supplies under an exempted category.

The Respondent summoned the Petitioner, requiring him to tender his statement and present evidence before him on November 05, 2020 at New Delhi. However, owing to his ill health and the rising number of COVID-19 infections across the country since it was not safe to travel to New Delhi for recording of his statement, the Petitioner prayed that he be permitted to appear through video conference. The Respondent had rejected the request for recording statement through video conferencing, after which the Petitioner moved to the Hon'ble Delhi High Court seeking relief in this regard.

Issue

Whether the current COVID-19 pandemic situation can ipso facto be cited as a ground to insist that the tendering of statement be done through video conferencing?

Held

The Hon'ble Delhi High Court, in W.P.(C.) No. 8975/2020 dated November 18, 2020 held as under:

· Observed that, concededly, the investigation is ongoing and the Respondent wants to unearth the role of the Petitioner in the alleged tax evasion by the Company. The Petitioner has been most uncooperative during the investigation and was afforded ample opportunities to record his statement when the officers had visited the business premises of the Company, at which stage, the Petitioner evaded the recording of his statement on one pretext or the other. Thus, having regard to the past non-cooperative conduct of the Petitioner, and the mere apprehension or fear of the Petitioner of contracting the COVID-19 infection, we would not like to interdict or interfere in the investigation process.

· Stated that, the Court is concerned with the investigation being carried out by an investigating agency. The evidence being recorded at this stage would impact the entire investigation of tax evasion. The questioning during investigation has to be on the basis of evaluation and examination of documents. During the process of interrogation, the investigating agency may come across certain relevant facts and discoveries which are germane and crucial for concluding the investigation. Judicial interference at this threshold stage, in such matters relating to investigation, has to be exercised with circumspection. The concept of balance of convenience, therefore, cannot be tilted in favour of the Petitioner to be allowed to appear through video conferencing, merely because travelling from Bengaluru to New Delhi would be a risk factor for the Petitioner of contracting COVID-19.

· While dismissing the writ petition the Court stated that while recording the statement of the Petitioner, as and when he appears before the Respondent, all safety measures and protocols would be in place, and that his statement would be recorded and concluded on a day-to-day basis so that the Petitioner would have to travel to Delhi only once.

Relevant Provisions

Section 67 of CGST Act

"Power of inspection, search and seizure.

67. (1) Where the proper officer, not below the rank of Joint Commissioner, has reasons to believe that––

(a) a taxable person has suppressed any transaction relating to supply of goods or services or both or the stock of goods in hand, or has claimed input tax credit in excess of his entitlement under this Act or has indulged in contravention of any of the provisions of this Act or the rules made thereunder to evade tax under this Act; or

(b) any person engaged in the business of transporting goods or an owner or operator of a warehouse or a godown or any other place is keeping goods which have escaped payment of tax or has kept his accounts or goods in such a manner as is likely to cause evasion of tax payable under this Act,

he may authorise in writing any other officer of central tax to inspect any places of business of the taxable person or the persons engaged in the business of transporting goods or the owner or the operator of warehouse or godown or any other place.

(2) Where the proper officer, not below the rank of Joint Commissioner, either pursuant to an inspection carried out under sub-section (1) or otherwise, has reasons to believe that any goods liable to confiscation or any documents or books or things, which in his opinion shall be useful for or relevant to any proceedings under this Act, are secreted in any place, he may authorise in writing any other officer of central tax to search and seize or may himself search and seize such goods, documents or books or things:

Provided that where it is not practicable to seize any such goods, the proper officer, or any officer authorised by him, may serve on the owner or the custodian of the goods an order that he shall not remove, part with, or otherwise deal with the goods except with the previous permission of such officer:

Provided further that the documents or books or things so seized shall be retained by such officer only for so long as may be necessary for their examination and for any inquiry or proceedings under this Act.

(3) The documents, books or things referred to in sub-section (2) or any other documents, books or things produced by a taxable person or any other person, which have not been relied upon for the issue of notice under this Act or the rules made thereunder, shall be returned to such person within a period not exceeding thirty days of the issue of the said notice.

(4) The officer authorised under sub-section (2) shall have the power to seal or break open the door of any premises or to break open any almirah, electronic devices, box, receptacle in which any goods, accounts, registers or documents of the person are suspected to be concealed, where access to such premises, almirah, electronic devices, box or receptacle is denied.

(5) The person from whose custody any documents are seized under sub-section (2) shall be entitled to make copies thereof or take extracts therefrom in the presence of an authorised officer at such place and time as such officer may indicate in this behalf except where making such copies or taking such extracts may, in the opinion of the proper officer, prejudicially affect the investigation.

(6) The goods so seized under sub-section (2) shall be released, on a provisional basis, upon execution of a bond and furnishing of a security, in such manner and of such quantum, respectively, as may be prescribed or on payment of applicable tax, interest and penalty payable, as the case may be.

(7) Where any goods are seized under sub-section (2) and no notice in respect thereof is given within six months of the seizure of the goods, the goods shall be returned to the person from whose possession they were seized:

Provided that the period of six months may, on sufficient cause being shown, be extended by the proper officer for a further period not exceeding six months.

(8) The Government may, having regard to the perishable or hazardous nature of any goods, depreciation in the value of the goods with the passage of time, constraints of storage space for the goods or any other relevant considerations, by notification, specify the goods or class of goods which shall, as soon as may be after its seizure under sub-section (2), be disposed of by the proper officer in such manner as may be prescribed.

(9) Where any goods, being goods specified under sub-section (8), have been seized by a proper officer, or any officer authorised by him under sub-section (2), he shall prepare an inventory of such goods in such manner as may be prescribed.

(10) The provisions of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 (2 of 1974), relating to search and seizure, shall, so far as may be, apply to search and seizure under this section subject to the modification that sub-section (5) of section 165 of the said Code shall have effect as if for the word "Magistrate", wherever it occurs, the word "Commissioner" were substituted.

(11) Where the proper officer has reasons to believe that any person has evaded or is attempting to evade the payment of any tax, he may, for reasons to be recorded in writing, seize the accounts, registers or documents of such person produced before him and shall grant a receipt for the same, and shall retain the same for so long as may be necessary in connection with any proceedings under this Act or the rules made thereunder for prosecution.

(12) The Commissioner or an officer authorised by him may cause purchase of any goods or services or both by any person authorised by him from the business premises of any taxable person, to check the issue of tax invoices or bills of supply by such taxable person, and on return of goods so purchased by such officer, such taxable person or any person in charge of the business premises shall refund the amount so paid towards the goods after cancelling any tax invoice or bill of supply issued earlier."

 

Bimal Jain
on 02 January 2021
Published in GST
Views : 19
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