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On several occasions I've needed clarification on tax rules and have asked at the public tax office, and officials have provided guidance that another official has contradicted and/or denied at a later occasion. This has lead to tax adjustments in both directions, but so far when I've informed them they haven't enforced overdue penalties in the times when I needed to make additional payments.

What worries me is that I feel they could demand I pay a penalty at any time and all I have is my word to back me.

Public officials are human and make mistakes, and my tax situation seems to be rather rare so I believe they are interpreting the regulations as they go sometimes.

Is there any way I can defend myself against penalties when mistakes are made in my favor?

Some options I've considered:

  • Asking via email: this doesn't seem to be an option in this case though or they ask me to visit the tax office to discuss sensitive specifics
  • Recording the conversation: I don't believe they'd allow audio recording due to the presence of other consultations in the room/building, not sure about recording laws over the phone (may be the same as 1)
  • Asking for a signed statement with the advice they provided, but I imagine that they would just say something to the effect of "this isn't a service we provide"
  • Asking for legal citations when they provide the advice. I'm not sure they know though or if they've gotten their information indirectly through training, if they'd be willing to look it up, and if there's a reasonable number of citations (it could be quite a lot, and there may be other background knowledge in their decisions).

My examples above are mostly about tax but I'd like a general answer if possible, for example for other fields or something I could further google if traveling abroad, etc.

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    If you want protection, get legal advice from a lawyer or accounting/tax advice from a chartered accountant.
    – user4657
    Jan 5, 2021 at 10:47
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    What jurisdiction is this in?What country, or if local taxes what locality? Jan 5, 2021 at 17:12

2 Answers 2

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Is there any way I can defend myself against penalties when mistakes are made in my favor?

Another option, in a similar vein to your suggestions, is to make a contemporaneous record of the conversations. Then send an email* to the public official detailing what was said and agreed, along with a request that they reply with any observations or amendments within a certain time frame. That way you have a date-stamped document properly addressed to the other party to use as evidence or leverage.

*or a recorded delivery letter etc

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  • This is always a good way to proceed when you are given verbal information that you want on the record. Jan 5, 2021 at 12:49
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In common law jurisdictions - no

This has to do with the separation of powers doctrine stemming from English common law and flowing into things like the US Constitution. Basically, the administrative arm of government, which includes tax collectors, does not have the power to decide what the law is; only the judiciary can do that. Further, the judiciary can’t get involved until there is a controversy, that is, until you sue the government or vice-versa.

Practically, anything the government tells you is not legally binding. It’s merely advice, just like your lawyer can give you. Worse in fact, because your lawyer owes you a duty of care.

Legally, you have to follow the law even in the face of erroneous statements from government officials.

However, most jurisdictions have a simple solution to this legal impasse. As a matter of policy, rather than law, the government won’t sue or prosecute you if you followed their advice even if that advice was wrong. This is all part of the cultural conventions that make society work because the law doesn’t actually do that. If every dispute had to be resolved by the law, the legal system would collapse tomorrow and society the day after.

Some jurisdictions have taken this further and actually authorised by law some decisions of government to have the force of law. However, this usually involves engaging a formal process to make that decision. Examples include private tax rulings and building approvals - if the government says its legal in those sort of contexts, then its legal.

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