Categories: Direct Tax

Is penalty Sec 271A & 271B levied simultaneously for same AY

Whether penalties u/s 271A & 271B can be levied simultaneously for same AY

On 24 August 2023, the Raipur Bench of India’s Income-tax Appellate Tribunal (ITAT) rendered a significant decision regarding the applicability of penalties under the Income-tax Act, 1961 (ITA). The ruling clarified that a penalty under Section 271B for failure to audit books of account is not applicable if the taxpayer did not maintain those books and has already been penalized under Section 271A for this failure.

Section 271A pertains to the failure to maintain books of account as required under Section 44AA, while Section 271B pertains to the failure to get the accounts audited and obtain an audit report as required under Section 44AB.

  • Section 44AA: Requires certain professionals and businesses to maintain specified books of account.
  • Under Section 271A: Imposes a penalty for failing to maintain such books of account.
  • Section 44AB: Requires specified persons to get their accounts audited by a specified date.
  • Under Section 271B: Imposes a penalty for failing to get the accounts audited and obtain a report as mandated by Section 44AB.

Judicial Interpretations:

  • The recent ruling by the Income Tax Appellate Tribunal (ITAT) addresses the issue of whether a penalty under Section 271B of the Income Tax Act (ITA) for failing to audit books of accounts is valid when the taxpayer has already been penalized under Section 271A for not maintaining those books in the first place. The ITAT made several critical observations:
  • Decision relied on earlier rulings that have established the principle that penalties under Sections 271A and 271B serve different purposes and are not interchangeable. Therefore, if a taxpayer is penalized for not maintaining books, imposing an additional penalty for not auditing those non-existent books is redundant and unjustified.
  • In the case under consideration, since the taxpayer had already faced a penalty under Section 271A, the ITAT concluded that imposing an additional penalty under Section 271B was not warranted. As a result, the ITAT quashed the penalty imposed by the Assessing Officer (AO) under Section 271B.

Reasoning and Analysis:

  • Mutual Exclusivity of Penalties: The rationale is that the failure to maintain books of account (Section 44AA) triggers a penalty under Section 271A, and without books, the requirement to audit (Section 44AB) cannot logically be fulfilled. Therefore, once a penalty under Section 271A is levied, a further penalty under Section 271B would be redundant and unfair. The ITAT emphasized that if a taxpayer has been penalized under Section 271A for not maintaining books of accounts, it is not feasible to further impose a penalty under Section 271B for failing to audit those same non-existent books. Essentially, the requirement to audit books of account only arises if those books are actually maintained. If the books are not maintained, then the appropriate penalty is under Section 271A. The moot point is can Penalty U/S 271A and Sec 271B overlap or are they mutually exclusive?
  • Judgements which have laid down that once penalty is levied U/S 271A, no penalty can be levied U/S 271B (mutually exclusive):
    • ALLAHABAD HIGH COURT in CIT vs. Bisauli Tractors
    • DELHI ITAT in MOHIT GARG VS ITO
    • ALLAHABAD HIGH COURT in  CIT Vs S.K. Gupta and Co
    • JAIPUR ITAT in Bhawani Shankar Gupta Vs ITO

The reasoning behind the above judgements is as follows:

  • Once the assessee found to have not maintaining the regular books of account as contemplated by Section 44AA of the Act the default was completed.
  • So after there is a default of not maintaining the books of accounts there cannot be a further default for not getting the same audited as required under Section 44AB of the Act.
  • Judgements which have laid down that Penalty under Section 271A and under Section 271B are separate provisions and are applicable separately (overlap):
    • RANCHI ITAT in Rakesh Kumar Jha Vs ITO
    • MP HIGH COURT decision in Bharat Construction Co. v. ITO

The reasoning behind the above judgements is as follows:

    • The earlier penalty levied by the Assessing Officer under Section  271A of the Act was only for non-maintenance of books of account and the same did not cover the penalty for not getting the books audited u/s 271B of the Act
    • Second notice issued by the Assessing Officer for levy of penalty under Section 271B of the Act was not barred by limitation by reckoning the limitation period from the date of issue of earlier notice for levy of penalty u/s 271A of the Act.
  • Separate Penalties: The counter-argument is that non-maintenance of books and failure to audit are distinct violations. A taxpayer could theoretically fail to maintain books but still have some form of financial records that could be audited, albeit not as per the standards of Section 44AA. Thus, both defaults could coexist, justifying separate penalties.
  • The predominant judicial view, particularly from the Allahabad High Court and various ITAT benches, supports the idea that penalties under Section 271A and Section 271B are mutually exclusive. This view emphasizes fairness, avoiding double jeopardy for the taxpayer for what is essentially a single continuous default (failure to maintain books leading to failure to audit). However, there are also authoritative judgements suggesting that the two penalties can be levied independently.
  • it aligns with previous ITAT decisions which prevent the imposition of a Section 271B penalty where a Section 271A penalty has already been applied. However, Deloitte highlights a contrasting perspective from the Ranchi Bench of the ITAT, which has previously noted that the responsibilities under Sections 44AA (maintenance of accounts) and 44AB (audit of accounts) are distinct, and thus, penalties under Sections 271A and 271B are not interchangeable. According to this view, taxpayers could potentially face penalties for both non-compliance issues if both obligations (maintenance and audit of books) apply to them.

Implications for Taxpayers:

  • Taxpayers facing similar circumstances should closely evaluate this ruling’s impact on their specific cases. While the recent ITAT decision provides a precedent for quashing redundant penalties, the differing views from other ITAT benches suggest that the application of these provisions may vary. Taxpayers should consider seeking professional advice to navigate these complexities and ensure compliance with all relevant requirements.
  • Understanding these rulings is crucial as it affects how they manage their bookkeeping and auditing responsibilities. The interpretation by the Jaipur Bench may offer some relief in cases of non-maintenance, while the Ranchi Bench’s ruling stresses the importance of fulfilling both obligations to avoid dual penalties.
  • In conclusion, the debate over whether penalties under Sections 271A and 271B of the ITA are mutually exclusive or cumulative continues, with significant implications for compliance and litigation strategies. Taxpayers and practitioners must stay informed about the jurisdictional tendencies of the ITAT benches relevant to their cases.
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Rajput Jain & Associates is a Chartered Accountants firm, with it's headquarter situated at New Delhi (the capital of India). The firm has been set up by a group of young, enthusiastic, highly skilled and motivated professionals who have taken experience from top consulting firms and are extensively experienced in their chosen fields has providing a wide array of Accounting, Auditing, Taxation, Assurance and Business advisory services to various clients and their stakeholders. Rajput jain & Associates, a professional firm, offers its clients a full range of services, To serve better and to bring bucket of services under one roof, the firm has merged with it various Chartered Accountancy firms pioneer in diversified fields. We have associates all over India in big cities. All our offices are well equipped with latest technological support with updated reference materials. We have a large team of professionals other than our Core Team members to meet the requirements of our prospective clients including the existing ones. However, considering our commitment towards high quality services to our clients, our team keeps on growing with more and more associates having strong professional background with good exposure in the related areas of responsibility.

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