Tax Exceptionalism: A UK Perspective

Stephen Daly


In her article in this issue of the Journal of Tax Administration, Professor Kristin Hickman explores the relationship between the US Treasury and Internal Revenue Service (‘IRS’), and exceptionalism to general administrative law principles, dubbed “tax exceptionalism”. It builds upon work that Hickman has produced in response to the 2011 case of Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research v. United States in which the Supreme Court is generally considered to have rejected the idea of tax exceptionalism. Indeed, Hickman’s article deals a decisive blow to the idea of tax exceptionalism by noting that the functions of the IRS are not dissimilar to those of other administrative agencies. Why then “should the IRS avoid general administrative law requirements when other agencies administering substantially similar programs must follow them?” That does not mean that questions do not remain. Whilst it can be accepted easily that there should be no general exceptionalism, that tells us little about “which administrative practices are susceptible to legal challenge under general administrative law principles” or whether provisions of the tax code might in fact “justify certain tax-specific departures from general administrative law requirements, doctrines, and norms.”

A similar dichotomy can be said to arise in the UK between, on the one hand, the idea that there are no special principles of public law which apply to tax law and, on the other hand, the fact that the application of general principles of law in respect of the tax administration, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (‘HMRC’), will differ from treatment given to other administrative agencies. This article will explore this dichotomy by first exploring briefly the history of the prospect of tax exceptionalism in the UK, and thereafter looking in depth at instances where HMRC may be said, in practice, to benefit from distinct treatment. The article will further assess situations where greater tolerance was given to HMRC actions than ought to have been afforded.




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