The Office of the Tax Ombud was established in October 2013 to enhance the tax administration system. Until then, there was no independent redress channel for taxpayers who had exhausted the normal SARS complaints mechanisms. Our Office is based on best international practice and was modelled on the Tax Ombud systems of Canada, the United States of America and United Kingdom.
The Office works specifically with taxpayers who have been unable to resolve a service, procedural or administrative complaint through the normal complaints management channels of SARS. We do our utmost to assist these taxpayers to resolve their complaints speedily, amicably and free of charge before it becomes necessary for them to consider entering into protracted court processes. In this way, the Office facilitates access to justice in South Africa and contributes to a culture of respect for the tax system and for taxpayers’ rights.
The Tax Ombud plays a unique taxpayer complaints resolution role and aligns with the Public Protector. The Public Protector exists to ensure administrative justice by being a check on the exercise by government and its agencies of their authority, and on the other hand, the Tax Ombud exists to ensure administrative justice by being a check on the exercise of authority by SARS. OTO was created on best international standards and has largely drawn from the Canadian, US and UK models.The Office is independent of, but funded through, SARS.
The Tax Ombud is appointed and reports directly to the Minister of Finance and may only be removed by the Minister. The Tax Ombud’s term of office is five years and can be renewed. The first Tax Ombud, Judge Bernard Ngoepe, served for nine years, from October 2013 to September 2022. Currently, the position is held in an acting capacity by Prof. Thabo Legwaila.
The institution is built on a structure supported by four units, namely Operations, Communications and Stakeholder Relations, Office Enablement and Support Services, and Legal Services and Systemic Investigations. Each is led and supported by hard-working and committed experts in their fields pursuing excellence to ensure delivery on the mandate.
HOW WE CAME INTO BEING
The concept of establishing a Tax Ombud in South Africa was first raised in 1995 in the Third Interim Report of the Katz Commission of Inquiry into the tax system.
The commission’s report stated that “while the role of the Public Protector as ultimate watchdog over taxpayer and other rights should be recognised and strongly encouraged, the underlying foundation of trust between taxpayers and authorities would be better served by the more direct mediatory role of a Tax Ombudsman or Adjudicator along the lines of the United Kingdom example”.
At that time the country’s Joint Standing Committee on Finances did not support the establishment of the Office, mainly due to the proliferation of similar oversight bodies. However, the committee mentioned the possibility of establishing a specialised and skilled tax unit within the Public Protector’s Office.
Seven years later, in 2002, the SARS Service Monitoring Office was created as the first step in improving tax administrative complaint resolution. Next, the Finance Minister at the time announced that once SARS’ processes and procedures had improved sufficiently, the next important step towards meeting international standards would entail an important role for an Ombud.
When the Tax Administration Bill was published for public comment, many commentators stated that there seemed to be no consequences should SARS abuse the powers entrusted to it by the Bill. This led to numerous proposals that the Bill should provide for criminal and civil penalties against SARS. As a result of public comments, a proposal for the creation of a Tax Ombud was inserted in the second draft of the Bill published for comment in October 2010.
In considering the best model for a South African Tax Ombud, the criteria included ensuring that the Tax Ombud’s responsibilities and powers would fit into the country’s constitutional dispensation and be aligned with existing international precedent.
In 2013, through the Tax Administration Act (TAA), the Tax Ombud was appointed with the mandate to review and address any taxpayer complaint regarding a service, procedural or administrative matter arising from SARS’ application of the provisions of a tax Act. The Tax Act includes the Customs and Excise Act.
WHAT WE DO
One of the key responsibilities of the Office of the Tax Ombud is to maintain a balance between SARS’ powers and duties, on the one hand, and taxpayer rights and obligations on the other. Achieving this balance will enhance the degree of equity and fairness in tax administration and improve taxpayers’ perception of the country’s tax system as being fair and equitable. International experience shows that taxpayers are then more inclined to fully and voluntarily comply with their tax obligations.
When resolving complaints from taxpayers, the OTO communicates with SARS officials. The Tax Ombud also has access to SARS’ systems and taxpayer information, and this aids in resolving complaints lodged.
We maintain our independence at all times and are committed to delivering on our mandate informally, fairly and free of charge. Where necessary, we use mediation or conciliation to resolve complaints. It is important to note that the Tax Ombud may only review a request if the requester has exhausted the available complaints resolution mechanisms in SARS. The exception is when there are compelling circumstances for not doing so.
OUR GUIDING STATEMENT
As the Office of the Tax Ombud, we strive to align our activities, strategies, policies, structure and operations towards ensuring that we become an institution that taxpayers can rely on, providing a service they can be proud of. Who we are, what we value, how we do it, and where we are going forms the cornerstone of our Vision, Mission and Values.
The vision of the Tax Ombud is to strengthen taxpayers’ confidence in tax administration.
The Tax Ombud is committed to being an efficient, independent, impartial and fair redress channel for taxpayers.
Taxpayers are entitled to a rational and fair reason for decisions and actions taken.
In dealing with taxpayer complaints, the Tax Ombud operates independently of SARS.
The Tax Ombud ensures that all taxpayer complaints are resolved promptly and efficiently.
The Tax Ombud acts in fairness at all times.
The Tax Ombud holds all communications with taxpayers in strict confidence unless authorised by the taxpayer.
The Tax Ombud will review taxpayers’ complaints fairly.
The Office of the Tax Ombud aims to build a brand that is trusted and respected by taxpayers to deliver on our promises of impartiality and fairness.
Our role is to bring about the best resolution for taxpayers who have tax complaints against SARS. We believe that people are central to our brand. We are not bureaucratic or unapproachable, and we are serious about the problems we deal with on a daily basis.
Through our actions we strive to be seen as fair, professional, trustworthy and empathetic to people’s needs.