Supreme Court of appeal revisits simulation
07 April 2014
Posted by: Author: Heinrich Louw*
Author: Heinrich Louw (DLA Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr)
In our previous Tax Alerts of 23 and 30 November 2012 we reported on the judgment by the full bench of the Western Cape High Court in the case of Bosch and another v Commissioner for the South African Revenue Service 75 SATC 1, which dealt with the issue of simulated transactions and the interpretation of the case of Commissioner for the South African Revenue Service v NWK Limited 73 SATC 55.
In short, the judgment in NWK had sparked a debate as to whether it had changed the established legal principles regarding simulation, specifically in the context of tax avoidance.
The view had always been that parties are free to arrange their affairs (or structure their agreements) so as to avoid the application of a statutory provision, for example, a taxing provision. The mere existence of an avoidance motive or purpose, on its own, would not be sufficient to conclude that a transaction is simulated (Dadoo Ltd and others v Krugersdorp Municipal Council 1920 AD 530).
The only question is whether the parties truly intended for their agreement to have the legal effect, as between them, in accordance with its tenor or terms (Zandberg v Van Zyl 1910 AD 302 and Commissioner of Customs and Excise v Randles, Brothers and Hudson Ltd 1941 AD 369).
The NWK judgment has been interpreted by many commentators and practitioners to have established
a new rule to the effect that any agreement that has as its purpose the avoidance of tax, or a peremptory provision of law, is simulated (see Broomberg E "NWK and Founders Hill” The Taxpayer 2011 Vol 60 p 187).
The paragraph in the NWK judgment responsible for the debate reads as follows:
"In my view the test to determine simulation cannot simply be whether there is an intention to give effect to a contract in accordance with its terms. Invariably where parties structure a transaction to achieve an objective other than the one ostensibly achieved they will intend to give effect to the transaction on the terms agreed. The test should thus go further, and require an examination of the commercial sense of the transaction: of its real substance and purpose. If the purpose of the transaction is only to achieve an object that allows the evasion of tax, or of a peremptory law, then it will be regarded as simulated. And the mere fact that parties do perform in terms of the contract does not show that it is not simulated: the charade of performance is generally meant to give credence to their simulation.”
The controversy was most notably canvassed in the Bosch case. Davis J, writing for the majority, held the view that the NWK judgment did not establish a new rule, and should be interpreted as being consistent with established law. It only conveys that the absence of a commercial rationale in respect of a transaction, together with an avoidance motive, can indicate simulation in appropriate circumstances.
Wagley J, in a dissenting judgment, disagreed and was of the view that the NWK judgment fundamentally departed from the established principles as it was specifically held that an avoidance motive gives rise to simulation. However, Wagley J found that the NWK judgment could not be regarded as having created binding legal precedent.
New case on simulation
On 31 March 2014 judgment was handed down by the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) in the case of Roshcon (Pty) Ltd v Anchor Auto Body Builders CC (49/13)  ZASCA 40.
The appellant required certain modified trucks for its business. Accordingly, it ordered the trucks from a dealer. The dealer, in turn, ordered the trucks from a supplier. The supply of the trucks by the supplier to the dealer was to be financed by a bank.
Certain standing agreements were in place between the dealer and the bank, as well as between the bank and the supplier, governing such transactions.
Essentially, where the dealer ordered a vehicle from the supplier, the supplier would sell the vehicle to the bank, and the bank would pay the supplier. The bank would then on-sell the vehicle to the dealer, subject to the bank remaining the owner until the dealer has paid the bank in full. The supplier could directly deliver the vehicle to the dealer or the dealer's nominee.
This structure allowed for the provision of finance to the dealer in respect of the purchase of the vehicle, while affording the bank security through the retention of ownership.
The dealer could then sell the vehicle and use the proceeds to pay the bank.
In the current instance, the trucks that the dealer ordered on the appellant's request were sold by the supplier to the bank, and by the bank to the dealer. The trucks were delivered by the supplier to the first respondent, being a person nominated by the dealer. The first respondent was to make modifications to the trucks according to the appellant's requirements.
The appellant took possession of two of the trucks from the first respondent, but three trucks remained with the first respondent to undergo further modification. However, the appellant paid the dealer for all of the trucks, and not just for the two that it had received.
When the appellant wanted to take possession of the remaining trucks, the first respondent refused to
release them because it had not received payment for the modifications from the dealer. The appellant
then paid the first respondent for its work despite the fact that the dealer should have paid for it. Unfortunately, by that time, the dealer had gone into liquidation.
The bank then demanded that the first respondent release the trucks to it because it was the owner. The first respondent complied and released the trucks to the bank and not the appellant.
The appellant, having paid for the trucks, brought an application in the North Gauteng High Court for a
declaration of rights.
The appellant argued that the agreements in place between the supplier, dealer and the bank constituted a simulation. Specifically, the sale of the trucks to the bank, and the immediate further sale of the trucks to the dealer subject to the reservation of ownership (while the supplier directly delivered the trucks to the dealer's nominee), was a disguise.
The true transaction between the parties, according to the appellant, was a direct sale by the supplier to the dealer, coupled with a loan by the bank to the dealer. The loan was intended to be secured by a pledge of the trucks, but such a pledge could not operate because the bank was not in possession of the trucks. The reason for the disguise was therefore to provide the bank with the benefit of security without possession, which the law would otherwise not allow.
Accordingly, the bank was not the owner of the trucks.
The High Court found against the appellant and held that the agreements were genuine and that the bank became the owner of the trucks.
The appellant then appealed to the SCA.
Judgment by Shongwe JA
Shongwe JA wrote the main judgment, with Maya, Wallis, Petse and Saldulker JJA concurring.
The court noted that there is a long line of case law dealing with simulated transactions but, on the authority of Zandberg, confirmed that detecting simulation depends on the facts of each case.
The court referred to the case of Nedcor Bank Ltd v Absa Bank Ltd 1998 (2) SA 830, which appeared to have held that agreements between banks and dealers where ownership of the vehicles is reserved by the bank, similar to the agreement in the present matter, constitute simulated transactions.
However, the court held that this decision was clearly wrong.
On the authority of Dadoo, the court confirmed that "parties may arrange their affairs to avoid statutory provisions, provided their arrangement does not result in a simulated transaction and is consequently in fraudem legis”.
Further, on the authority of Randles, the court confirmed that the fundamental issue was "whether the parties actually intended that the agreement that they had entered into should have effect in accordance with its terms”.
On the facts, the court found that the parties had "no secret understanding between them” and, consequently, concluded that the appellant had "failed to discharge the onus of proving that the agreement is simulated or disguised”.
The court also held that the reservation of ownership in this case was "good in law”.
The application was accordingly dismissed.
Judgment by Wallis JA
For a case dealing with simulation, Shongwe JA did not make much of the NWK judgment, but merely mentioned it in passing – presumably because the matter did not as such concern tax.
However, Wallis JA, in a separate judgment (with which the full court concurred), seized the opportunity and acknowledged that "there may be a misconception regarding the proper approach to simulated transactions” in the context of the NWK case.
After briefly dealing with the principles established in the Zandberg, Dadoo and Randles cases (referred to above), it was confirmed that "[n]othing said subsequently in any of the judgments of this court dealing with simulated transactions alters those original principles in any way or purports to do so”.
However, the court did note that in the cases that the SCA had to deal with relating to tax, a feature of the relevant transactions was often the addition of elements or steps to an underlying transaction that are unrealistic and add no value other than procuring a tax benefit for the parties. Such elements or steps are often self-cancelling. According to Wallis JA, the court in NWK was faced with exactly such a transaction and found it proper to ignore the additional elements or steps.
The court noted that in NWK it was contended on behalf of the taxpayer that, by performing in respect of these additional elements or steps provided for in the agreements, a transaction could be defended from any allegation of simulation. That was the contention to which the problematic dictum in NWK (quoted above) was a response.
Wallis JA made it clear that interpreting the NWK judgment to mean that any transaction that has as its purpose the avoidance of tax is simulated is not correct because it fails to read it in context. Entire categories of transactions cannot be condemned simply because there is an avoidance motive. That would be contrary to the Zandberg judgment, in which it was held that "[t]he inquiry is in each case one of fact, for the right solution of which no general rule can be laid down”.
In this regard, the court confirmed Davis J's view expressed in the majority judgment in the Bosch case. Wallis JA summarised the position as follows:
"For those reasons the notion that NWK transforms our law in relation to simulated transactions, or requires more of a court faced with a contention that a transaction is simulated than a careful analysis of all matters surrounding the transaction, including its commercial purpose, if any, is incorrect. The position remains that the court examines the transaction as a whole, including all surrounding circumstances, any unusual features of the transaction and the manner in which the parties intend to implement it, before determining in any particular case whether a transaction is simulated.”
The judgment by Wallis JA is commended for addressing the controversy surrounding the NWK case and for providing guidance as to the current position regarding simulation and transactions having an avoidance motive.
There are however certain aspects of Wallis JA's judgment that are not entirely clear.
Firstly, after clarifying the legal position, the court briefly analysed the facts and concluded that there was a "clear commercial purpose” and the arguments of the appellant "ignores the commercial legitimacy” of the transaction. The presence of a commercial purpose therefore seemingly vindicated the transaction from any contention of simulation, even though the court specifically noted that a commercial purpose is only one of many factors that should be taken into account. Whereas the presence of a commercial purpose could perhaps fend off any argument to the effect that there is an avoidance purpose, it is not clear whether it would always automatically legitimise a transaction otherwise.
Secondly, Shongwe JA decided the matter on the basis that, on the facts, the appellant failed to show on a balance of probabilities that the transaction was simulated. The court came to this conclusion without relying on the NWK judgment – probably because the court was not dealing with a matter involving tax avoidance. It is therefore not entirely clear whether the comments made by Wallis JA on the NWK judgment forms part of the ratio decidendi of the court.
This article first appeared on cliffedekkerhofmeyr.com.