Customs: Introduction to the Commercial Invoice

I like the commercial invoice. It is the one document which touches on nearly every party involved in the international trade process in one way or another. It also provides allot of information without being overly technical.

          A single commercial invoice is used and/or viewed by the exporter and importer, at least two commercial banks, the SA Reserve Bank and its equivalent overseas, two Customs authorities, the insurance broker, the transporter, and at least one Customs Clearing and Forwarding Agent. They all act as major role players in relation to the invoice.

          A commercial invoice is somewhat different from a tax invoice. Tax on international trade is zero rated. No tax is reflected on it. A commercial invoice is used for international trade transactions. It contains Customs related information such as international commercial terms, origin criteria and currency codes.

          Documents which either support or depend on the commercial invoice include the packing list, indent order, insurance document, bank payment documents, exchange control documents, forward exchange risk cover, Customs declarations and its supporting documents on each side of the border, the contract of sale, regional trade agreements, and international sales and delivery terms such as Incoterms (International Commercial Terms).

          While the invoice is central to the commercial transaction between the buyer and the seller, it must meet with a number of Customs requirements. These are legislated in the Customs Acts and documented in numerous SARS Customs SOP’ (Standard Operating Procedures). Go to www.sars.gov.za and search under “Find a Publication”.

          Importing or producing blank or incomplete invoices which are capable of being completed is an offence.

          The Customs authorities recognise the following types of invoices namely the pro-forma invoice, the commercial invoice, and consular invoices (i.e. for diplomats and ambassadors). The former two will be covered in subsequent blogs.

          Some of the larger and more complex issues which also relate to the invoice will be discussed independently from the Blogs which specifically cover invoices. However, some (i.e. tariff, valuation and rules of origin) may be covered briefly in this section from time to time.

          Minimum Customs requirements pertaining to the commercial invoice will be discussed here. It will include issues such as language, when there is a lack of information on the invoice, amended invoices such as debit and credit notes, and the like.

Knowing your Rights: The Appeals Process

          Now that we have discussed searches, the Customs demand and the pre-appeals process, we can go through the formal appeals process.

          You have received the Letter of Demand and you have decided to go with the internal appeals process with SARS Customs. Also, you have paid up all the amounts demanded which will include the outstanding duties, taxes, penalties and interest.

You will have 30 working days from the date of the Letter of Demand within which to lodge the first appeal.

          The first level of appeal is with the local Customs Branch Office which made the adverse decision. This is called the IAA (Internal Administrative Appeal) process.

If this fails, the second level of appeal will be with the Office of the Commissioner for the SARS. This is called the ADR (Alternate Dispute Resolution) appeals process. Your appeal may be mailed directly to the Commissioner’s Office or alternatively, it may be addressed via the local Customs Branch Office.

          You will have 30 working days after the IAA response letter (if unsuccessful) from SARS to appeal by ADR. In each instance, SARS is required to establish a separate and independent review committee known as the Appeals Committee. You may also (in addition to written representations) elect to make representations in person to the Appeals Committee.

          In some cases (prior to appealing) you might require SARS Customs to provide further explanations or reasons for a decision made. If so, you should, within the 30 working days in any instance, request reasons from SARS in writing. Going forward, extensions of the 30 working days within which to respond to an appeal may also be granted, upon request. A maximum of 15 calendar days may be provided.

          In the new legislation SARS will have 60 calendar days within which to respond to any appeal with a decision. The Commissioner may extend this by an additional 30 calendar days. If SARS does not respond with a decision within this timeframe, the case will automatically be won by the applicant.

          The period 16 December to 15 January (inclusive of both dates) are excluded in any periods of limitation.

          There is also provision for an Ombudsman in the new legislation.

          You are in any event advised to consult with a professional prior to attempting to appeal any matter by yourself.

          Anyone involved in the appeals process may at any time still decide to follow litigation. The period of time normally allowed for litigation following the last decision made by SARS (whether in or outside of the internal appeals process) is 12 months.

          However, there are additional time constraints involved in this process which relates to the PAJA (Promotion of Administrative Justice Act) number 3 of 2000. Traders are advised to consult with a Customs Attorney in advance. Litigation however is normally reserved as a last resort.

Knowing your Rights: The Pre-Appeals Process

          Appeals with SARS Customs follow a logical process. The process was designed to comply with legislative requirements such as PAJA (Promotion of Administrative Justice Act) number 3 of 2000 and the Customs legislation.

          It is not frowned upon therefore to challenge the authority if you have a disagreement. You also do not need to concern yourself with any fear of reciprocity of additional audits. The days of old are long gone. On the contrary in fact, SARS Customs encourages their clients to follow the appeals process.

          The new Customs legislation makes provision for a lower order of appeals termed a “reconsideration of decision”. The process explained in the following paragraph will explain this to some degree.

          The first step after an assessment is that you will receive a notification from SARS containing an initial finding. For live shipments this will be an electronic notification received by the LSP (Logistics Service Provider).

          Disputing electronic notifications is more challenging.

          This was discussed in the former Blog (Knowing your Rights: The Customs Demand).

For post audits it will take the form of a Notice of Intent. A Notice of Intent is a notice of their (SARS) initial finding and their intention to issue a Letter of Demand. It provides the Trader with the ability to make representations to Customs. In a Notice of Intent you will generally be provided with a period of 7 or 14 days within which to respond. You do not need to pay any duties, VAT or penalties at this stage. You should assess the applicability of the Customs assessment and if in-applicable, you should write back to them with your own findings. It is extremely important to submit a well-motivated response during this early stage. It is also important to do so within the specified period of time. Failure to do so will result into a Letter of Demand being issued. You may request for an extension of the notice if you run out of time. Any win or termination of the process at this stage will result in the least intrusive consequence of the entire appeals process. If the result of the “reconsideration of decision” is not in your favour, you will then receive a Letter of Demand.

          In a Letter of Demand you will be expected to pay or alternatively to revert to litigation. In litigation you do not pay until such time as your case is formally lost in a court of law. However, it is generally advisable to engage in the SARS Customs appeals process prior to reverting to litigation.

          By choosing to appeal internally with SARS Customs you must first pay. In so doing, you are agreeing to abide by the Commissioners decision regardless of the outcome. However, there is a process of recourse for adverse decisions at every level of the appeals process. These will be discussed in the blog which follows.