Paying Tax on Bitcoin: The Case

The Administrative Appeals Tribunal’s recent decision to a court case we ran against the ATO has significant consequences on the tax status of Bitcoin. In the first article of this four part series, we explain the crux of the case, summarise our submissions and lay out the judge’s conclusion.

The heart of the issue 

Do you have to pay tax on bitcoin? The answer lies in whether Bitcoin is considered a foreign currency for the purposes of the Income Tax Assessment Act 1997. If it is a foreign currency, then tax requirements under div 775 are applicable. Section 995-1.1 defines a foreign currency as ‘a currency other than Australian currency.’ The interpretation of this section will solve the question.

Part 1 of Submissions: How Currency should be interpreted

We submitted that the word ‘currency’ should be interpreted widely, aligned with previous cases. For example, in Watson v Lee, the High Court noted that the word ‘currency’ in a constitutional context need not be confined to money of a particular nation. Further, things like rum and bank issued notes were considered currencies and within the Commonwealth’s regulating powers. The High Court of Australia again had a similar approach in the case of Goldsbrough Mort & Co Ltd v Hall, where it noted that currency need not be issued by governmental entities. 

We also referred to the Explanatory Memorandum of the Bill to shed light on the purpose behind the foreign currency definition. In paragraph 2.7, it is clear that the intention was to create a framework where foreign currency gains and losses arising out of business transactions do not fall outside the income tax net. Reference was made to the ERA case, where a taxpayer did not have to pay tax on their foreign currency gains because they dealt only with US dollars and did not convert the proceeds into Australian dollars. The parliament, at paragraph 2.21, noted that the new law was intended to bring to account all foreign currency gains and losses for tax purposes, regardless of whether it has been converted into an equivalent amount of A$.

Part 2 of Submissions: Bitcoin fits the definition of foreign currency

Having regard to the purpose of bitcoin, we argued that it fit the definition of foreign currency. The Satoshi Paper, the blueprint used to code and develop bitcoin, written by its founder Satoshi Nakamoto, describes the purpose of bitcoin as to allow payments to be sent directly from one party to another without engaging a financial institution. 

WE assessed that Bitcoin was programmed solely for this function, it has no other use. We gave mathematical support for this premise by reference to the developer guide, which explains how it uses cryptography to create security for transactions between two willing parties. ‘

We also supported our argument by pointing out its current usage, in both general transactions and complicated arrangements. It is possible to lend and earn interest on bitcoin, as well as invest in derivatives and securities using it. We gave examples of foreign governments such as Sweden and Switzerland which have accepted it as legal tender. 

Therefore, within the legal definition of currency and with regard to the intention of Parliament in enacting the definition, we argued that Bitcoin fits the definition of currency. And if it is accepted to be currency, it would automatically qualify as ‘foreign currency’ as per the Income Tax Assessment Act 1997, since it is a currency ‘other than Australian currency’.

The Tribunal’s Decision:

Ultimately, the Tribunal held that the phrase ‘foreign currency’ should be read down to not include decentralised ‘unofficial’ currencies such as Bitcoin. 

While admitting that the s 995-1 definition is awkward, the Tribunal noted that ‘an Australian currency’ should be interpreted as a reference to the unit of exchange established in the Currency Act, and therefore ‘another currency’ must be a similar office currency issued by a sovereign state. 

Although Bitcoin may satisfy the usual definition of currency since it is a fungible, measurable and used as a medium of exchange for goods and services, it was held not to satisfy the narrow definition under the Income Tax Assessment Act.

The Tribunal made a final note that the question of whether cryptocurrencies should be dealt with as a foreign currency for the purposes of income tax is a question for the Parliament. 

This finding would presumably extend to all other cryptocurrencies that are not issued by a government.

Conclusion

In conclusion, since Bitcoin currently does not fall within the definition of foreign currency for the purposes of the Income Tax Assessment Act, the tax requirements set under div 775 are not applicable. 

In the following three articles and videos of this series, we explain the implications of this. 

To read the Tribunal’s findings: http://www.austlii.edu.au/cgi-bin/viewdoc/au/cases/cth/AATA/2020/1840.html

PDFs to our submissions and the ATO’s submissions are also below. 

If you have any questions, please feel free to contact us here or call us on our number: 02 7200 8200, mentioning that you read this article.

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