Many years ago, I read an article in some legal magazine or other which, to my mind, pointed out something that I had always presumed was obvious.
Namely, that unlike his English Counterpart, the Scottish solicitor is not just a drafter and processor of legal documents, he ( or she ) is a man of business who furnishes advice, and as often as not, will recommend a course of action – possibly involving many different steps or procedures- in any given situation.
Without going into an academic analysis of what this means, may I suggest that a simple definition is that the Scottish solicitor does not always simply do what they are told but will furnish the client with advice for, or against, a certain course of action.
The same applies to accountants and other professionals in my experience. When discussing any business situation, the client should always be aware of the pros and the cons. From there he or she makes a decision based on the advice given – which advice may be taken or rejected.
That is how things work.
If you think about what I have said above, then it follows that one of the principal things an adviser should do for any client, is to suggest a course of action that keeps the client out of court.
Court is a place of last resort. Litigation of any kind is expensive, brings uncertainty, is time consuming and acts as a barrier to unfettered and uninterrupted business planning, strategy and progress because no one can ever be sure of the outcome or the consequences of a court case.
In olden days, court meant choosing your champion to fight against your adversary’s champion. If your guy knocked the other guy of the horse and killed him outright with the lance then you won. It didn’t matter if your guy was also hit with your opponents lance and died a week later as a result – you were still the winner because the other guy died first.
Eventually, society did away with such courts and replaced them with courts of law and the men and women with wigs and gowns as opposed to the lance.
However, you can still win a court battle and suffer a fatal defeat as a consequence.
That is why a court of law should always be regarded as a place of last resort. No one should ever set out on a course of action which runs a high risk of ending up being disputed in court.
Sometimes, of course, a court action is inevitable. On other occasions, people adopt a course of action where the risk of things ending up in court is seen an as an acceptable risk.
This morning’s Daily Record ( and indeed yesterday’s edition ) is spouting David Murray’s mantra that HMRC knifed Rangers but adds there are no winners here. How very MSM. How very lacking in business understanding or searching for the truth.
So, let me explain something.
When you sit down with a firm of accountants who specialise in aggressive tax avoidance schemes such as an EBT scheme or a DOS scheme, one of the things that are spelt out to you is that the scheme you are about to embark upon may well be, indeed is likely to be, challenged in a court of law. Especially if you do not administer it to the letter.
Often as not, the client will be asked to sign up to a contract which specifies that the client will pay hefty fees to lawyers and accountants for setting up the scheme and that fee will include a contribution towards legal fees arising in the event of a legal challenge to the scheme.
That is stipulated at the very outset. You pay £x in advance because you know you are likely to be sued. You also get the benefit of advice which is designed to ensure that your scheme is absolutely watertight in terms of the law, but crucially, there is a rider which states that in the event that the court rules against you then the accountants or lawyers will not be held accountable as you are entering into the whole process knowing that there is a big risk of litigation – and you are told in writing that while you shouldn’t lose, you might lose.
This too is the way it works.
The business advisers will not want litigation, but from the outset they will cover their backs and make it plain to the client that if you sign on the dotted line for an aggressive tax avoidance scheme then you can expect HMRC to take you to court.
Accordingly, the protestations screaming out from the Daily Record this morning about how HMRC killed Rangers are balderdash and bunkum of the highest order.
HMRC did not knife Rangers, they did exactly what was expected of them in the circumstances and the people at MIH knew that the day they started off on any one of their tax avoidance schemes.
Taking the risk in the first place killed Rangers or Rangers PLC if you prefer.
However, the events of yesterday and the day before throw up some other matters worth considering and remembering.
The first is the woeful state of the Rangers accounts by 2005 when there had been yet another share issue underwritten by David Murray. Those accounts showed Rangers PLC to be in a shocking financial state, despite all the rhetoric and dressing from the Directors and the Accountants.
More or less immediately Murray chose to put the club up for sale as it was obvious that the financial traincrash could simply not continue.
However, despite years of searching no buyer could be found.
Further, it should also be remembered that Rangers PLC knew all about the small tax case long before Craig Whyte came along. Those liabilities stemmed from around 2001 but at no time during the Murray era at Ibrox did Sir David put aside the money to pay a bill which no one at Rangers disputed as being due at any time.
Whyte stressed the need for this to be paid long before he ever got the keys to the Marble Staircase, but it wasn’t and there can be only one of two reasons for that.
Either Sir David just didn’t pay the bill concerned ….. or he couldn’t!
The fact is that long before Craig Whyte appeared David Murray could have paid that bill or reached an agreement to pay that bill. However he didn’t and for a period of several years he simply decided he wanted out …. Needed out ….. at any cost!
There is no doubt that he gambled hard and fast with Rangers Football Club, and their finances and their supporters loyalties. He knew , or ought to have known, well in advance that a prolonged and regularly used aggressive tax avoidance scheme, legal or not, was bound to attract the adverse interest and attention of HMRC.
Sir David Murray has been lauded up and down the country for his so called business acumen and business knowledge. He was knighted for the same and received all sorts of unprecedented backing from banks and other institutions.
Does anyone reading this really believe that such a man did not have the foresight, or the advisers around him who had the foresight, to see and know that a large and prolonged dispute with the revenue authorities may well have an adverse effect on the viability and sellability of his business?
Such a suggestion is simply not credible.
Further when the HMRC interest came, Murray’s men, if not Murray himself, did their very best to try and hide the existence of the scheme, the documents surrounding the scheme, the details of the scheme and the intention of the scheme.
They hid all this away from HMRC, The SFA, The SPL and anyone else in authority, with the result that those authorities and bodies had no option but to run to the courts, set up tribunals and convene formal hearings.
When someone does not tell you the truth, starts hiding documents and obfuscating that is the way it works.
However, that is not all that yesterday brought.
The news that Collier Bristow have apparently agreed ( through their insurers no doubt ) to pay the liquidator of Rangers some £20M shows that taking into account the litigation risk, someone somewhere thought it worth making a payment to make a bad situation go away.
Imagine that? What bad situation could that be?
Would it be that somehow or other, creditors, officials and all sorts of other people were misled by a leading firm of solicitors in relation to the affairs of Rangers PLC? Could it really be the case that things were so bad financially at Ibrox, that the only way for even Whyte to be able to get the sale to go through at the princely sum of £1 plus the official bank debt was to have his people mislead funders and eventual creditors?
What does that say about David Murray’s stewardship and the absolute urgent need to get Lloyds TSB out of the picture? Was there really no one else or no other way to take on the debts of Rangers PLC? Apparently not — and that can only be because someone chose to gamble with the finances of the club and leave it in a precarious state.
I am told that when Lloyds took over that account they expressed amazement at how MIH and Rangers PLC were allowed to run up the debts they had with HBOS. Apparently there was incredulity at some of the figures and covenants.
So , when we read in the Record this morning that the HMRC Big Tax case inadvertently brought down Rangers it is very easy to overlook the debt due to the bank, how it arose, the sums due to the same bank through MIH, the extent of the sums due, the banks attitude and the possible attitude and course of action had Whyte not taken them away.
Remember that the same bank stepped straight into MIH and began selling off its assets, and that low and behold the same management team who engineered the EBT scheme have openly admitted that there is an unexplained shortfall in the employees’ pension scheme of over £20 Million.
Do you think the employees who have lost out on pension provision are the slightest concerned about whether the tax avoidance scheme funds and their use are legal or not ? – or do you think they might argue that the money used for these so called “discretionary payments” should have been used to fund a proper legally constituted pension scheme which the company and its directors undertook to pay into under contract?
There is still substantial debt due to Lloyds by MIH and part of that debt is the amount by which David Murray and MIH underwrote and guaranteed that last share issue of Rangers PLC in 2004/2005. The principal sum due under that guarantee ( excluding interest and charges ) was greater than the principal sum claimed by HMRC in the big tax case.
However, this saga is far from over especially with regard to “contractually due” severance payments which look as if they will come back to the FTT in the event of the parties concerned not reaching agreement on the tax allegedly due.
Now, this is interesting because apparently there are a number of documents in existence which show that certain players received a payment of £x at the end of their contract as part of a severance deal.
At the time these were made, my recollection is that under normal severance agreement legislation the first £30,000 would be tax free but after that any sums were taxable.
The FTT has never been asked to rule on these payments, and has never heard any evidence about the legality or otherwise of paying these sums gross of tax into an offshore trust. All of that may yet be to come.
However, the most interesting part of this for me is that further court action may be taken in relation to these matters failing agreement between HMRC… and whom?
Rangers PLC ( the employer ) is in Liquidation so perhaps HMRC might claim some of the money from the Liquidator who has just received the £20M from Collier Bristow – then again it could well be that Ticketus have something to say about that.
In his last statement about MIH, David Murray openly proclaimed that the company was all but finished and revealed the pension shortfall and so on – so I doubt if any agreement of any meaning will be reached there.
That then leaves those who supposedly benefited from the contractually due severance payments – namely the players.
Maybe, in the absence of a now defunct employer, they will be asked to cough up the tax.
No doubt they will all go and consult their lawyers and accountants – the men and woman of business – who will give them their best advice – but you can bet your bottom dollar that any such advice will include a paragraph or ten which starts something along the lines of “ However, here is the potential risk in the event of you deciding to …………. “
That is the way it works……. And always has done.