QUESTIONS have been raised on the role of the Minister of Finance to give directives to the population on the filing of Valuation Return Forms (VRFs), commonly called the Property Tax Forms. The concern was raised by the three appellate court judges who are presiding over the appeal of the Commissioner of Valuations against a judge’s decision to block the collection of completed VRF forms from members of the public.
Justice Frank Seepersad, on May 19 and May 31, granted a temporary stay and injunction preventing the Commissioner of Valuations from receiving the forms from members of the public. The order will remain in effect until June 27, when the judge will decide whether to continue it or if it will be varied.
The Commissioner as well as the Attorney General have filed separate appeals against Justice Seepersad’s two orders and Justices of Appeal Peter Jamadar, Gregory Smith and Judith Jones are expected to give their ruling today. At yesterday’s hearing, attorneys for the Commissioner and the AG held that the commissioner had independent legislative powers and had a duty to uphold the law by collecting VRFs to facilitate the collection of Property Taxes.
Senior Counsel Russell Martineau, who represents the Commissioner and Fyard Hosein, who appear for the AG, said the court had to be guided by the law as the related to the actions of the Commissioner and not the Minister of Finance or his agents. Both attorneys submitted that there may be a need for the minister to clarify what he said in press statements. Martineau further contended that the submission of VRFs were voluntary and the initial deadline of April 1 was irrelevant as it had nothing to do with the obligation to the obligation to submit the forms. He contended the Commissioner had the power under the law to ask for the forms, as he further contended that Justice Seepersad’s orders were unclear.
Martineau went further to complain about the breadth of the order, saying it protected much wider rights than was argued by former UNC senator Devant Maharaj in his judicial review claim. He further contended that the injunction granted by the judge on May 31, stymied the entire valuation process. “And why? Because one man says he doesn’t want to be forced to put in a form,” he submitted. “This is virtually killing the tax. You have to preserve the taxation process,” he argued. Martineau urged the court to ensure that the tax collection process was not frustrated as the government needed the revenue.
“If there is no money and no taxation, then government cannot provide citizens with education and with health care etcetera,” he said. Martineau also rubbished the claim to an invasion of the right to privacy by having the public submit their telephone numbers and emails. “You are not talking about DNA,” he contended.
Martineau further held that the injunction imposed by the judge was a waste of public resources as public officers were ‘sitting down doing nothing.’ “They were hired to do a job, and now they are being paid to do nothing,” he said. In his 28-page judgement, Seepersad said, “The balance of convenience and the interest of justice is not weighted in favour of the Respondents (AG and Commissioner) and a greater risk of prejudice lies in the continuation of a process which on the face of the existing law, may have been undertaken without measured consideration and without proper regard to the provisions of the act. The judge had set the matter, in which Maharaj is challenging the legality of the Property Tax, for trial on September 19 at the Port-of-Spain Supreme Court and September 21 at the San Fernando Supreme Court.