What is “reason to believe”? Can Courts look into the sufficieny of the reasons?

By Merles' Law Firm on July 23rd, 2022

The expression “reasons to believe” is a component of many statutes such as in the case of reassessment of Income under the Income-tax Act, 1961, the Essential Commodities Act, 1955; the Foreign Exchange Regulation Act, 1973 as well as in respect of action of the Revenue in the matter search and seizure. In PRINCIPAL DIRECTOR OF INCOME TAX (INVESTIGATION) VERSUS LALJIBHAI KANJIBHAI MANDALIA CIVIL APPEAL NO. 4081 OF 2022 (ARISING OUT OF SLP (CIVIL) NO. 25046 OF 2019) the Supreme Court held that the view of the High Court that the authorization to search the premises of the assessee is invalid, cannot be sustained.

The Court relied upon S. Narayanappa v. CIT AIR 1967 SC 523, a case of re-assessment for the reason that income had escaped assessment where the Supreme Court held the Revenue must have reason to believe that the income, profits or gains chargeable to income tax had been underassessed. The Court held as under:

“2. ….. ….. But the legal position is that if there are in fact some reasonable grounds for the Income Tax Officer to believe that there had been any non-disclosure as regards any fact, which could have a material bearing on the question of underassessment that would be sufficient to give jurisdiction to the Income Tax Officer to issue the notice under Section 34″.

It was also held that whether these grounds are adequate or not is not a matter for the court to investigate. In other words, the sufficiency of the grounds which induced the Income Tax Officer to act is not a justiciable issue. It is of course open for the assessee to contend that the Income Tax Officer did not hold the belief that there had been such non-disclosure. In other words, the existence of the belief can be challenged by the assessee but not the sufficiency of the reasons for the belief. Again the expression “reason to believe” in Section 34 of the Income Tax Act does not mean a purely subjective satisfaction on the part of the Income Tax Officer. The belief must be held in good faith: it cannot be merely a pretence. To put it differently it is open to the court to examine the question whether the reasons for the belief have a rational connection or a relevant bearing to the formation of the belief and are not extraneous or irrelevant to the purpose of the section. To this limited extent, the action of the Income Tax Officer in starting proceedings under Section 34 of the Act is open to challenge in a court of law. (See Calcutta Discount Co. Ltd. v. Income Tax Officer, Companies District I, Calcutta [41 ITR 191] xxx xxx xxx 15 AIR 1967 SC 523
4. ………….. The earlier stage of the proceeding for recording the reasons of the Income Tax Officer and for obtaining the sanction of the Commissioner are administrative in character and are not quasi-judicial. The scheme of Section 34 of the Act is that, if the conditions of the main section are satisfied a notice has to be issued to the assessee containing all or any of the requirements which may be included in a notice under sub-section (2) of Section If the action of the officer issuing the authorization, or of the designated officer is challenged the officer concerned must satisfy the Court about the regularity of his action. If the action is maliciously taken or power under the section is exercised for a collateral purpose, it is liable to be struck down by the Court. If the conditions for exercise of the power are not satisfied the proceeding is liable to be quashed. But where power is exercised bona fide, and in furtherance of the statutory duties of the tax officers any error of judgment on the part of the Officers will not vitiate the exercise of the power. Where the Commissioner entertains the requisite belief and for reasons recorded by him authorises a designated officer to enter and search premises for books of account and documents relevant to or useful for any proceeding under the Act, the Court in a petition by an aggrieved person cannot be asked to substitute its own opinion whether an order authorising search should have been issued. Again, any irregularity in the course of entry, search and seizure committed by the officer acting in pursuance of the authorisation will not be sufficient to vitiate the action taken, provided the officer has in executing the authorisation acted bona fide.

Ultimately, the Court summed up the law as follows:

i) The formation of opinion and the reasons to believe recorded is not a judicial or quasi-judicial function but administrative in character;

ii) The information must be in possession of the authorised official on the basis of the material and that the formation of opinion must be honest and bona fide. It cannot be merely pretence. Consideration of any extraneous or irrelevant material would vitiate the belief/satisfaction;

iii) The authority must have information in its possession on the basis of which a reasonable belief can be founded that the person concerned has omitted or failed to produce books of accounts or other documents for production of which summons or notice had been issued, or such person will not produce such books of accounts or other documents even if summons or notice is issued to him; or

iv) Such person is in possession of any money, bullion, jewellery or other valuable article which represents either wholly or partly income or property which has not been or would not be disclosed;

v) Such reasons may have to be placed before the High Court in the event of a challenge to formation of the belief of the competent authority in which event the Court would be entitled to examine the reasons for the formation of the belief, though not the sufficiency or adequacy thereof. In other words, the Court will examine whether the reasons recorded are actuated by mala fides or on a mere pretence and that no extraneous or irrelevant material has been considered;

vi) Such reasons forming part of the satisfaction note are to satisfy the judicial consciousness of the Court and any part of such satisfaction note is not to be made part of the order;

vii) The question as to whether such reasons are adequate or not is not a matter for the Court to review in a writ petition. The sufficiency of the grounds which induced the competent authority to act is not a justiciable issue;

viii) The relevance of the reasons for the formation of the belief is to be tested by the judicial restraint as in administrative action as the Court does not sit as a Court of appeal but merely reviews the manner in which the decision was made. The Court shall not examine the sufficiency or adequacy thereof;

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This article is a mere general guide to the subject matter. It is not professional advice. Please consult a professional for advice on the specific circumstances of your case.

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