A recent Inspector-General of Taxation and Taxation Ombudsman (IGTO) report has recommended improvements to the small business litigation funding program, aimed at delivering better access to justice and fairness for small businesses.

The original intention of the funding program was to mitigate the disadvantage that small business taxpayers face against the ATO, which is a well-resourced and experienced litigant in proceedings which are often complex and costly.

Taxpayers that are self-represented in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal Small Business Taxation Division in disputes with the Commissioner of Taxation are generally eligible for litigation funding where the ATO engages external legal representation. Eligible small business taxpayers will have reasonable costs of engaging an equivalent level of legal representation covered.

The report from the IGTO was mainly based on two completed dispute investigations, where taxpayers expressed concerns that the ATO had attempted to cap the funding to levels below that necessary to run their matter.

There were also questions as to the ATO’s calculation basis for reimbursements which taxpayers were not made aware of when entering these agreements, and the ATO’s “numerous emails to the taxpayers’ legal representatives questioning the bills which … detracted from case preparation”.

The IGTO notes that without the adoption of its suggested improvements to litigation funding by the ATO, further dispute investigations should be expected. Meanwhile, in response, the ATO considers itself to be no longer bound by the original policy intent of the program, and has continued to confine the findings of the report to the two cases investigated, notwithstanding similar ATO actions and decisions that have been subject to further complaints to the IGTO.

However, it is understood that the ATO does intend to consult with stakeholders before committing to any improvements and that the IGTO recommendations contained in the report will be considered as a part of this process. While changes may not be forthcoming for the small business litigation program, the takeaway for taxpayers is that they can always turn to the IGTO, which provides an independent body to investigate the ATO’s decisions.