Pursuant to the European Directive on administrative cooperation in the field of taxation (2011/16/EU), Member States must cooperate with each other with a view to exchanging information relevant for tax purposes. The directive allows, inter alia, that a Member State (the requesting Member State) requests another Member State (the requested Member State) to provide information concerning a specific taxpayer. The requested information must be ‘ foreseeably relevant ‘ to the tax authorities of the requesting Member State.
Based on the aforementioned directive, the tax authority of the requested Member State may request information from e.g. an affiliated company, a financial institution, an employer, … of the taxpayer. The tax authority of the requested Member State forwards the collected information to its counterpart in the requesting Member State.
A question that arises is whether that affiliated company, financial institution, employer, … may ask its national courts to verify the legality of the sanction imposed by its tax authority because of an incomplete answer and whether it may ask to vary the penalty. Another question is whether a court in the requested Member State may verify the relevance for tax purposes of the requested information.
These questions were raised in the Berlioz case of the Court of Justice (judgement of 16 May 2017): Berlioz (a Luxembourg company) only partially answered the request for information from the Luxembourg authorities (at the request of France). Berlioz stated in this regard that certain questions were irrelevant for tax purposes in the requesting Member State.
The answers to the questions raised are not obvious, as the starting point is that the requesting State has a margin of discretion as to what is foreseeably relevant for its tax purposes. This explains why (in this case the Luxembourg) courts doubted whether a relevance test was possible. The questions were referred for a preliminary ruling to the Court of Justice.
In its assessment, the court took into consideration the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and, more specifically, the right to a fair hearing by an impartial judge.
The Court of Justice ruled that courts in the requested Member State may review the foreseeable relevance for tax purposes of the requested information and that they may vary the penalty imposed. The courts in the requested Member State should be reluctant however upon review of the legality of the request for information: the review is limited to verification whether the requested information manifestly has no relevance for tax purposes.
To this end, the courts must have access to the request for information. The affiliated company, financial institution, employer, … is only entitled to receive the identity of the person under investigation and to be informed about the tax purpose for which the information is sought. The Court of Justice indeed emphasizes in the interest of the investigation the principle that the request for information must remain secret.
Relevance of the judgment: When requested by a national tax authority to respond to a request for information from another Member State, it is important to check the relevance for tax purposes of the requested information. If the information requested is irrelevant to the tax investigation, a proceeding against the request for information or against the penalty may succeed. Regarding the foreseeable relevance for tax purposes, the national courts may only review whether the requested information manifestly has no relevance to the tax investigation in the requesting Member State.