• Legal database reference manual

    The Legal database provides you with the legal and policy information that the ATO uses when we make decisions. Descriptions and links to this information are accessed from the Legal database home page.

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    Accessing the Legal database

    You can access our Legal database:

    Legal database content

    The database covers the following information:

    • Legislation and regulations

    The Legal database contains principal Acts and regulations, along with any amending Acts and regulations that govern Commonwealth tax law. It also contains extrinsic material such as explanatory memoranda and second reading speeches.

    • ATO rulings and determinations (including bulletins)

    Public rulings and determinations set out the Commissioner of Taxation's opinion about how a tax law applies.

    • ATO guidelines

    ATO guidelines include law companion and practical compliance guidelines. Law companion guidelines are a special set of public rulings on how recently enacted law applies to a class of taxpayers, or to taxpayers generally. Practical compliance guidelines are guidance material on how the ATO will allocate its compliance resources according to assessments of risk. They also outline administrative approaches that mitigate practical difficulties relating to the operation of tax laws.

    • Legislative determinations and declarations

    Legislative determinations are instruments issued by the Commissioner (or the Commissioner's delegate). The Legal database currently contains legislative determinations relating to compliance, excise, goods and services tax, income tax, mineral and resource rent tax (until the legislation was repealed on 30 June 2014), the pay as you go (PAYG) system and superannuation.

    • ATO interpretative decisions

    An ATO interpretative decision (ATO ID) is an edited version of a decision the Commissioner makes on an interpretative issue and is indicative of how the Commissioner might apply the law on that particular issue. ATO IDs are produced to help ATO staff apply the law consistently and accurately to particular situations.

    • Case decision summaries

    Case decision summaries (CDS) are a summary of decisions made on interpretative issues. They are no longer produced. They have been replaced by ATO IDs and remain on the Legal database for historical reference only.

    • Law administration practice statements

    Law administration practice statements provide direction and assistance to our staff on approaches to be taken when performing duties involving the laws administered by the Commissioner.

    • Taxpayer alerts

    Taxpayer alerts are intended to be an early warning of our concerns about significant, emerging or recurring higher-risk tax or superannuation arrangements we have under risk assessment.

    • Tax-related case law

    The Legal database contains published case judgments involving taxation matters from Australian courts. Case judgments from Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom are also available.

    • Decision impact statements

    Decision impact statements are a statement of our response to significant cases decided by the courts or tribunals.

    • Test case litigation register

    The Test Case Litigation Register contains the progress of cases approved for test case funding, cases declined for test case funding and the reasons why, and the outcome of all test case funded matters.

    • ATO policy

    These documents are policies used by our staff in making decisions. Withdrawn policies (for example the ATO Receivables Policy) remain on the Legal database for historical reference only. This also includes dispute resolution instruction bulletins.

    • Superannuation circulars

    Superannuation circulars explain the various legislative and regulative requirements that apply to the operation of self-managed superannuation funds under the Superannuation Industry (Supervisions) Act 1993 and associated regulations. These documents are no longer produced and remain on the Legal database for historical reference only.

    • Index of historical documents

    The index of historical documents provides references to technical rulings, guidelines, instructions, interpretations of the law and details of a number of procedures and practices issued prior to 1998.

    • Documents containing the precedential ATO view

    The precedential ATO view is our documented interpretation of any of the laws administered by the Commissioner. The documents listed in this schedule can be used as valid sources of our precedential view.

    • Miscellaneous papers

    These papers include interpretation NOW (a newsletter aimed at improving awareness of what courts are saying about statutory interpretation), and National Tax Liaison Group minutes.

    Finding documents in the Legal database

    There are three ways to find documents in the Legal database:

    • Search – for more complex searches
    • Browse – to navigate through a table of contents for all documents held on the Legal database
    • Quick access – can be used if you know the section of an Act or the reference number of a document, such as a public ruling.


    The Legal database has a quick (basic) and advanced search function.

    Quick search

    The quick search is the centrepiece of the Legal database home page:

     Image of Quick search on home page

    This function allows you to use free text searching to locate items in the Legal database relating to a particular area of interest.

    Type in your desired search terms or words and select the magnifying glass or press enter. The search results provided will find all documents with the exact phrase entered here. If you untick the exact phrase box, it will find all documents that include any word entered here.

    On this page you can also choose to expand your search criteria by including archived content. To make search results more precise, we archive withdrawn and some old documents to keep them out of standard search results. We also set the database to not search for archived content by default. Ticking this box will then extend the search to include archived content.

    Also on this page you can choose to refine your search area to one or more specific categories of the database. You can choose from:

    • ATO view documents
    • other ATO documents
    • cases
    • legislation
    • extrinsic material.

    Advanced search

    The Advanced search option has the same functions as Quick search but provides additional search options.

    You can access it by selecting the Advanced search link at the bottom of the quick search box:

    Image of Advanced search link

    You can also access Advanced search by using the menu on the left side of the page:

    Image of Advanced search – left menu

    Selecting the link takes you to the Advanced search page:

    Image of Advanced search page

    This page allows you to search using multiple factors. Fill in or select the appropriate fields for your search then click the Advanced search button at the bottom of the page.

    This is how it works:

    • These words

    Every word entered here will be searched for, and any document containing all the words entered here will be returned in search results.

    • Exact phrase

    This allows the search to be limited to a phrase. Only documents with that phrase will be returned as a search result. Performing only this search in Advanced search will produce the same search results as doing a quick search from the home page.

    The Add function for this option allows you to add further phrases to search for. Any document with phrases being searched for will be returned as search results.

    • Any of these words

    This extends the word search to include documents that contain one or more of the words entered.

    • Words near each other

    Entering two words at this option will return search results with these two words within five words of each other somewhere in their content.

    The Add function allows you to do multiple 'words near each other' searches at once.

    • None of these words

    Any documents that contain the words entered here will be excluded from search results.

    • Narrow your search results

    This allows you to search for a document as it reads on a particular date.

     Image of Narrowing advanced search

    Note: The search categories for this function are restricted to documents with 'point in time' functionality. This includes public rulings and determinations, ATO interpretative decisions, law administration practice statements, decision impact statements and technical discussion papers.

    The default setting for this date is today. The point in time search will only be performed if a date other than today is entered as the point in time.

    Example: Searching for a ruling

    You wish to find what the ATO ruling was at 30 June 2002 on the supplies of tertiary education courses that are GST-free.

    To do this, type 'GST-free' and 'tertiary education' in the exact phrase field and change the point in time date to '30/06/2002'. The search results include a GST ruling, GSTR 2001/1.

    A note at the top of that ruling states that the document has changed over time. The history at the end of the document indicates that the version you are viewing is for the period 17 January 2001 to 14 October 2003. The history allows you to navigate to later versions of the ruling and to the addendum notice that has amended it.

    End of example
    • Include archived content

    To make search results more precise, we archive withdrawn and some old documents to keep them out of standard search results. So we set the database to not search for archived content by default. Ticking the box will then extend the search to include archived content.

    • There are options on the search results page that allow you to refine your results. So we suggest keeping search criteria broad here to ensure you find what you want. After results are provided, you can 'filter' them to pinpoint what you are looking for. For more information see search results.


    Select Browse on the left side menu of the home page if you don't know the exact title or any content of the document you are searching for. You'll first be provided with the ability to browse the entire database using Browse All, or focus your browsing on:

    • ATO rulings and determinations
    • ATO guidelines
    • decision impact statements
    • law administration practice statements
    • taxpayer alerts
    • legislation
    • cases.

    If you select Browse All, you will access a hierarchical view of the information held in the Legal database.

    Example 1: Viewing taxation rulings from a specific year

    To view taxation rulings issued in 2011, click on Browse > ATO Rulings and Determinations > By type > Rulings > Taxation > 2011.

    Alternatively you can do this using the full database browse by selecting Browse > Browse All > ATO Rulings and Determinations (Including GST Bulletins) > By type > Rulings > Taxation > 2011.

    Example 2: Viewing taxpayer alerts from a specific year

    You have been told that the ATO is investigating the deductibility of unpaid directors' fees and had released a taxpayer alert in 2011 on the topic.

    To find the details, click on Browse > Taxpayer alerts > 2011 (TA 2011/4 refers to this topic).

    Example 3: Finding a second reading speech for an Act

    To find the second reading speech for the Fringe Benefits Tax Assessment Act 1986, click on Browse All > Extrinsic Materials > Explanatory Memorandum and SRS > 1986 > Fringe Benefits Tax Assessment Act 1986 > Second reading speech.

    Example 4: Finding legislation by searching by browsing by topic

    You want to find all the documents the ATO has produced in regard to the GST treatment of beverages.

    To find these, select Browse > Browse All > [select the Topic tab] > Goods and services tax > Food > Beverages.

    End of example

    Image of Browse view


    • Depending on the browse category, documents can be browsed by type (for example, rulings or determinations), by topic (for example, income tax or superannuation) or year.
    • When browsing legislation, you can view the list and select a single provision, or view the whole act in one document (by selecting the Full document option):

    Image of Legislation browse view

    Quick access

    Quick access allows you to go directly to some commonly used documents including:

    • public rulings and determinations
    • ATO guidelines
    • ATO interpretative decisions
    • law administration practice statements
    • taxpayer alerts.
    • legislation.

    Using quick access to view a document

    This function is a quick way of viewing a ruling or other document when you know its reference number.


    • select Quick access on the left side menu of the home page
    • select Public rulings and determinations
    • type TR 2015/1 in the Reference Number field and click search (the magnifying glass) or press enter.
    End of example

    There are examples of what reference number format to use on each specific quick access page.

    Image of Quick access

    • Use four-digit years for all 1999 and subsequent year documents (for example, TR 2010/1). Use only the last two digits of the year for all earlier documents (for example, TR 97/11).

    Using quick access to view legislation

    This function provides a quick way of viewing sections of the most commonly used Acts or regulations.


    • select Quick access on the left side menu of the home page then select legislation
    • select an Act or Regulation from the drop-down menu (for example, Income Tax Assessment Act 1997 (38 of 1997))
    • type the section number in the provision box (for example, 25–95) and click search (the magnifying glass) or press enter.
    End of example

    Search results

    After performing a search of any sort, you will be presented with the search results:

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    You're told:

    • what was searched for at the top of the page (circled in red above)
    • how many total results there are (circled in green above)
    • how many results are showing per page (circled in blue above).

    Note: You can change the option of how many results to display per page.

    Down the left hand side of the page you are presented with options to refine your results. Each of the listed options has a number beside it indicating how many results would be returned if you choose that option:

    Image of Refining your search

    For every set of search results the following options will be provided:

    Document category

    This allows you to limit your search results to categories of documents, such as ATO view documents, other ATO documents, cases or legislation, or extrinsic material.

    Inside each of those categories are sub-categories which allow further refinement of the search results.

    You can choose as many or as few of these filters as you like by ticking the boxes alongside them, and then select Refine Search. The search results will then be limited to show only the results from the categories you selected. The filters will change to show you what further refinements are available at this new stage.

    Available refinements depend on the search results but can include, for example, document type, year, topic, court and tax type.

    You are able to refine by searching within the results of your previous search. Type your additional search term in the field located near the top of the search results screen, then tick Within these results and select the Search button.


    Document references

    If you have performed a search for a document such as TR 2014/2 or ATO ID 2014/1, selecting Document references will return that document as a search result.

    This is an easy way to narrow your search to the specific document you were looking for. Refer to Quick access for ways this can be achieved without having to perform a search and apply this refinement.


    This will show all documents with the term you searched for in its title. So searching for 2014/2 will list documents including ATO ID 2014/2, TD 2014/2 and TR 2014/2.


    • You're told what you have searched for at the top of the search results page.
    • You need to click Refine Search, not enter, to apply the filters you choose.
    • Choose the Document references filter if your search was for a specific document for which you entered the ATO name. For example if you entered TD 2014/4, document references should allow you to limit your search result to that document alone.
    • You can expand your search to include archived content at this level.
    • Only those filters which will have results are shown, all those with no results are excluded.

    Navigating within search results

    • Select the document you want to view from the search results list by clicking on the title link.
    • Click on Jump to first hit … at the top of the document to move to the first occurrence of your search term in the document.


    • Each search term is enclosed within angled brackets (< >). Click on > to move to the next occurrence of the search term in the document or < to move back to the previous occurrence of the search term.

    Example 1: Where are rulings on FBT liability of owners of motorcycles?

    • Type 'motorcycles' and 'FBT' in the home page search box, and remove the tick from 'search exact phrase'.
    • Select the search button (the magnifying glass) or press enter.
    • On the results page, use the filters ATO view documents (remember to click Refine Search after each filtering), then ATO rulings to display the results for rulings.  

    Example 2: Is pet food GST-exempt?

    • Click on Advanced search just below the main search box on the home page.
    • Type 'GST' in the first search term box and 'pet food' in the exact phrase box.
    • Click on Advanced search at the bottom of the page.
    • In your search results you can apply filters or just scan the list of results to find what you are looking for.
    End of example

    Viewing documents

    Additional document information and navigation aids are available when viewing a document.

    Document toolbar

    • PDF

    Image of Download PDF icon

    Use this option to download/open a PDF version of the current document. Not available for all document types.

    • Email

    Image of Email icon

    Generates a draft email in your default email program containing a link to the document you are viewing.

    • Printable version

    Image of Print icon

    This provides a version of the document that is more suited to printing.

    • Related documents

    Provides a list of other documents that make reference to the document you are viewing. It is useful to determine whether there are any rulings, cases or other documents relevant to a particular provision of legislation.

    Example: Searching for rulings related to legislation

    Has the ATO issued any rulings or taxpayer alerts relevant to section 102AF of the Income Tax Assessment Act 1936?

    1. Type '102AF' in the Search box and select Search
    2. Select the link to section 102AF from the results screen. You can also filter using legislation to find it.
    3. Inside the document it states '5 related documents'. If you click this statement it will list those documents in the search results format.
    End of example

    Note: You could also have looked for your answer by choosing Browse All > [selecting the Topic tab] > Income tax > Assessable income > Other types of income > Income of certain children.

    • Previous result/Next result

    Moves to the previous or next document listed in your search results (only available when viewing a document accessed through a search).

    • Previous section/Next section

    Moves to the previous or next section in legislation (or between pages of large documents that have been split into several parts).

    • View surrounding sections

    Use this option to view both the current section and a number of other sections before or after it.


    • Not all document toolbar commands are available in all documents. Commands which are not available will either not be presented or will not be underlined. For example, if Previous result is available, but Next result is not it displays like this:

    Image of Previous/next result icon

    Viewing full versions of legislation

    You're now able to view full versions of Acts in the Legal database. Select View entire document when viewing a provision from an Act and the database will generate a scrollable version of the entire Act.

    This can also be done from inside the Browse menu by clicking Full document.

    Legislative history

    Two forms of legislative history are provided in the Legal database: History notes and history references.

    History notes

    History notes are presented in an expandable/collapsible control.

    • Select View history note to display the history note:

    Image of View history note icon

    • Select Hide history note to close the note.

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    History references

    A View history reference link in legislation will take you to a table showing the history of amendments to that section, with links to related explanatory memoranda and second reading speeches.

    Document history

    Point-in-time functionality is provided for public rulings and determinations, law administration practice statements, decision impact statements and technical discussion papers. When a document has been updated, there will be:

    • a note at the top of the document indicating that it has changed over time
    • a document history at the end of the document that indicates the version you are viewing and provides links to other versions. For public rulings and determinations, there will also be links to the relevant addendum and erratum notices.

    Image of History view with changing documents

    Image of Full document history view

    Cross-referencing of the ITAA 1997 and ITAA 1936

    In legislation where there is a View Finding reference button, it indicates that there is a cross-reference to the provision in the 'other' Act.

    Image of Finding reference icon

    In the example above, subsection 6(1) of the Income Tax Assessment Act 1936 has a cross reference to the Income Tax Assessment Act 1997. Clicking the View Finding reference button will produce the 'findings table' (see below) that indicates what the relevant ITAA 1997 provisions are.

    An example of what will open if you select 'View Finding reference'

    Subscription service

    The Legal database subscription service allows you to see when the database has been updated with new or revised information. Two types of subscriptions are available:

    • email subscriptions
    • really simple syndication (RSS) newsfeeds.

    Both types of subscriptions are available by selecting the subscription service link on the home page of the Legal database.

    Subscriptions are available for:

    • ATO interpretative decisions
    • ATO policy papers
    • decision impact statements
    • law administration practice statements
    • legislative determinations
    • rulings and determinations
    • taxpayer alerts.

    Email subscriptions

    You can subscribe to receive email updates when new information is added to the legal database.

    The emails contain the number and title of new documents together with their links to the Legal database. You can elect to receive the email updates daily, weekly or monthly.

    RSS news feeds

    RSS news feeds allow you to receive updates on new content as soon as it is added to the database. When one of the feeds (categories) you subscribe to is updated, you will receive an alert. The headlines come with the title and links to the full document.

    An RSS feed reader is required to access the news feeds. The latest versions of most web browsers have built-in feed readers.

    The easiest way to set this up is to select Subscribe to RSS updates or find out more information about RSS on the Subscribe page and follow the instructions.


    • The Subscribe to this feed link appears when you click on any of the available RSS feeds. The example below is a subscription to 'ATO – All Rulings and Determinations'.

    Image of RSS feed view

      Last modified: 20 Dec 2016QC 17372