India vs. M/s Redington (India) Limited, December 2020, High Court of Madras, Case No. T.C.A.Nos.590 & 591 of 2019

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Redington India Limited (RIL) established a wholly-owned subsidiary Redington Gulf (RG) in the Jebel Ali Free Zone of the UAE in 2004. The subsidiary was responsible for the Redington group’s business in the Middle East and Africa. Four years later in July 2008, RIL set up a wholly-owned subsidiary company in Mauritius, RM. In turn, this company set up its wholly-owned subsidiary in the Cayman Islands (RC) – a step-down subsidiary of RIL. On 13 November 2008, RIL transferred its entire shareholding in RG to RC without consideration, and within a week after the transfer, a 27% shareholding in RC was sold by RG to a private equity fund Investcorp, headquartered in Cayman Islands for a price of Rs.325.78 Crores.

RIL claimed that the transfer of its shares in RG to RC was a gift and therefore, exempt from capital gains taxation in India. It was also claimed that transfer pricing provisions were not applicable as income was exempt from tax.

The Indian tax authorities disagreed and found that the transfer of shares was a taxable transaction, as the three defining requirements of a gift were not met – that the transfer should be (i) voluntary, (ii) without consideration and that (iii) the property so transferred should be accepted by the donee. The tax authorities also relied on the documents for the transfer of shares, the CFO statement, and the law dealing with the transfer of property. The arm’s length price was determined by the tax authorities using the comparable uncontrolled price method – referring to the pricing of the shares transferred to Investcorp.

In the tax assessment, the authorities had also denied deductions for trademark fees paid by RIL to a Singapore subsidiary for the use of the “Redington” name. The tax authorities had also imputed a fee for RIL providing guarantees in favour of its subsidiaries.

RIL disagreed with the assessment and brought the case before the Dispute Resolution Panel (DRP) who ruled in favour of the tax authorities. The case was then brought before the Income Tax Appellate Tribunal (ITAT) who ruled in favour of RIL. ITAT’s ruling was then brought before the High Court by the tax authorities.

The decision of the High Court

The High Court ruled that transfer of shares in RG by RIL to its step-down subsidiary (RC) as part of corporate restructuring could not be qualified as a gift. Extraneous considerations had compelled RIL to make the transfer of shares, thereby rendering the transfer involuntary. The entire transaction was structured to accommodate a third party-investor, who had put certain conditions even prior to effecting the transfer. According to the court, the transfer of shares was a circular transaction put in place to avoid payment of taxes.

Thus, if the chain of events is considered, it is evidently clear that the incorporation of the company in Mauritius and Cayman Islands just before the transfer of shares is undoubtedly a means to avoid taxation in India and the said two companies have been used as conduits to avoid income tax” observed the Court.

The High Court also disallowed deductions for trademark fees paid by RIL to a Singapore subsidiary. The court stated it was illogical for a subsidiary company to claim Trademark fee from its parent company (RIL), especially when there was no documentation to show that the subsidiary was the owner of the trademark. It was also noted that RIL had been using the trademark in question since 1993 – long before the subsidiary in Singapore was established in 2005.

Regarding the guarantees, the Court concluded these were financial services provided by RIL to it’s subsidiaries for which a remuneration (fee/commission) was required.

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