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Service Tax on Commercial Rent Held Unconstitutional

Posted on 21 April 2009,    
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The Delhi High Court has struck down the levy of service tax on renting
of immovable property as "unconstitutional", while deciding 26 writ petitions of different petitioners, by a combined order. The division bench of the Delhi High Court comprised of Mr. Justice Badar Durrez Ahmed and Mr. Justice Rajiv Shakdher observed that service tax shall not be levied on renting of immovable property.

Alishan Naqvee, Advocate, LexCounsel Law Offices, who represented his clients in two of the petitions disposed off today, tells that the category of "renting of immovable property service" was introduced by the Finance Act of 2007. This, in effect brought renting, letting, leasing, licensing or other similar arrangements of immovable property for use in the course of furtherance of business and commerce, within the service tax net with effect from June 1, 2007. This new levy severely impacted business models across India as most of the rent arrangements did not even stipulate it beforehand.

The businesses across India opted to en masse challenge the constitutionality of levy of service tax on rent, on the primary grounds that renting does not involve any service, and the Central Government is not empowered to tax consideration for transfer of rights in immovable property, being a state subject as per the Constitution of India. Few High Courts, including the High Court of Mumbai, Delhi, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Kolkata and Chennai reportedly granted interim reliefs to the petitioners from payment of service tax until final disposal of their matters. The stays were however granted subject to undertakings by the petitioners, mainly tenants, to deposit the service tax amount with the Government if the tax was ultimately held constitutional. The Delhi High Court however is the first High Court to deliver the final order in the matter that would have persuasive value for the other High Courts.

The detailed order of the Delhi High Court is expected to be available within the next couple of working days. One issue that needs to be seen is whether the Delhi High Court has expressly limited the applicability of its judgment to its territorial jurisdiction. Notably, while granting interim orders, the Delhi High Court had expressed that the stays would be operative within the territorial jurisdiction of the Court. Consequently, a number of petitioners, having operations in multiple states, were constrained to knock at the doors of the other High Courts.

To avoid multiplicity of litigation, the Union of India preferred a transfer petition to the Supreme Court of India seeking transfer of all writ petitions pending before different High Courts of India, to the Delhi High Court for single window adjudication.

It is open for the Government to prefer an appeal before the Supreme Court of India, challenging the decision of the Delhi High Court. The judgment however delivers great relief to the business by helping liquidity in the current times.


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