Show download pdf controls
  • Legal database reference manual

    The Legal database provides you with the legal and policy information that we use when we make decisions. You can access descriptions and links to this information from our Legal database home page.

    Copy of the legal database home page showing its menus and search functions.

    Accessing the Legal database

    You can access our Legal database:

    Find out about:

    Legal database content

    The Legal database provides content in relation to the laws administered by the Commissioner of Taxation.

    • Legislation and supporting material

    The Legal database contains

    • principal Acts and Regulations relating to tax and superannuation
    • amending Acts and Regulations relating to tax and superannuation
    • legislative determinations issued by the Commissioner of Taxation
    • extrinsic material relating to the amending Acts and Regulations such as explanatory memoranda and second reading speeches.
    • Public rulings

    Public rulings and determinations set out the Commissioner's opinion about how a tax law applies. Public rulings include Law companion rulings, which 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

    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.

    • Cases

    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. It also contains the Test case litigation register which details 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.

    • Decision impact statements

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

    • 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.

    • 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.

    • SMSF Regulator's bulletins

    Self-managed superannuation fund (SMSF) regulator's bulletins outline our concerns about new and emerging arrangements that pose potential risks to SMSF trustees and their members from a superannuation regulatory or income tax perspective.

    • Other ATO documents

    These are other documents produced by us that are relevant to interpretative issues. They include other documents containing the precedential ATO views, minutes of our external forums, such as the National Tax Liaison Group, technical discussion papers, Super CRT alerts and dispute resolution instruction bulletins.

    • ATO law aids

    The Legal database contains a number of other document types that assist in the interpretation and application of the law such as:

    • The National tax equivalent regime manual
    • interpretation NOW!
    • fact sheets for employers, individuals and small business
    • guidance notes for super changes
    • consolidation reference manual.
    • Edited private advice

    A public historical record of private written binding advice we have issued - edited for confidentiality purposes.

    • Archived document types

    A number of document types are no longer current and remain on the Legal database for historical reference only. These include:

    • ATO receivables policy
    • case decision summaries
    • an index of historical documents
    • superannuation circulars.

    Finding documents

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

    • Search – for a quick or advanced search
    • 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 provides both a quick search and advanced search functions.

    Quick search

    The quick search is on the Legal database home page:

     A copy of the home page search function detailing the free text search box and accessories allowing users to tailor their search

    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 then click the 'Search' button.

    Several options are available when using the quick search:

    • Search exact phrase – the search function looks for the exact phrase you have entered by default. If you untick the exact phrase box, the search will become an 'or' search, and will return all documents that include any word entered.
    • Include archived content – you can choose to expand your search 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.
    • Category selection – you can choose to restrict your search area to one or more specific categories of document types. You can choose from:
      • ATO view documents (which will include all documents which contain an ATO view)
      • Rulings, including Law companion rulings and taxation determinations
      • Practical compliance guidelines
      • Taxpayer alerts
      • Decision impact statements
      • ATO interpretative decisions
      • Advice under development program
      • Cases, both Australian and international
      • Legislation including principal legislation and regulations, amending legislation and regulations and legislative instruments
      • Extrinsic materials
      • Edited private advice.

    When entering a search term, the database allows for spelling or typographical errors. If it doesn’t find your search term due to a spelling or typographical error it will widen your search parameters, including plurals and words spelt like your search term.

    For example, if you mistakenly searched for 'dibidend' the search will not find that term but provide alternative results including the term 'dividend'. See search results for more on this feature.

    Advanced search

    Advanced search functionality can be accessed via either the:

    • link at the bottom of the quick search box

    Quick search box showing the location of the advanced search link by highlighting it.

    • menu on the left side of the page.

    Advanced search – left hand menu

    The Advanced search page appears as follows:

    Showing the functions and options of the advanced search page.

    The following additional options are available when you conduct an advanced search:

    • These words – every word entered will be searched for, and any document containing all the words entered here will be returned in search results.
    • Exact phrase – only documents which contain the phrase as entered will be returned as a search result.

    The Add function for this option allows you to add further phrases to search for.

    Documents which contain all phrases being searched for will be returned as search results:

    • Any of these words – this extends the search to include documents that contain one or more of the words entered.
    • Words near each other – a search using this option will return search results where the document contains the words entered 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.
    • Change to specific point in time – this allows you to search for a document as it read on a particular date.
      • Note: The search categories for this function are restricted to certain documents only - public rulings and determinations, practical compliance guidelines, ATO interpretative decisions, law administration practice statements, decision impact statements and technical discussion papers.
      • The default setting for searching 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 want to find out what the ATO ruling was at 30 June 2002 on the supplies of tertiary education courses that are GST-free.

    To do this, you type in two exact phrases (using the Add function) 'GST-free' and 'tertiary education', change the point in time date to '30/06/2002' and select 'Rulings' in the Refine search by box. The search results include GSTR 2001/1 and states it was 'Current from 17 January 2001 to 14 October 2003'.

    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 notices that have since amended it.

    End of example
    • Refine search by - this allows you restrict your search to one or more specific categories or document types.
    • Include archived content – you can choose to expand your search 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.
    • Order results by relevance - You are able to order the search results we provide you by the relevance they have to the search terms and parameters you chose.

    There are also options on the search results page that allow you to refine your results. So we suggest keeping the 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. See search results for more information on these features.


    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 have the ability to browse the entire database using Browse All, or focus your browsing on specific document types:

    • Legislation
    • Public rulings
    • Practical compliance guidelines
    • Cases
    • Decision impact statements
    • ATO interpretative decisions
    • Law administration practice statements
    • Taxpayer alerts
    • Edited private advice.

    Selecting these will take you straight to where these document types sit in the browse page.

    You also have the option to browse by topic, by using the Topic tab when you select Browse All.

    Example 1: Viewing taxation rulings from a specific year

    To view taxation rulings issued in 2011, you could click on Browse > Public rulings > Rulings > Taxation > 2011.

    Alternatively you could select Browse > Browse All > Public rulings > 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).

    Alternatively you could select Browse > Browse All > Taxpayer Alerts > 2011

    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 > Legislation > Legislation and supporting material > Extrinsic materials > Explanatory memorandum and second reading speeches > 1986 > Fringe Benefits Tax Assessment Act 1986 > Second reading speech – House of representatives.

    Alternatively, you could select Browse All > Legislation and supporting material > Extrinsic materials > Explanatory memorandum and second reading speeches > 1986 > Fringe Benefits Tax Assessment Act 1986 > Second reading speech – House of representatives

    Example 4: Finding documents issued on a topic

    You want to find all the documents we have produced on 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


    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). You can also view a listing of each section (by selecting the View list of provisions option).

    Legislation browse view

    Quick access

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

    • Public rulings and determinations
    • Practical compliance guidelines
    • ATO interpretative decisions
    • Law administration practice statements
    • Taxpayer alerts
    • Legislation
    • Edited private advice.

    Example: Quick access

    • 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 can be used on each specific quick access page.

    An example of a quick access page, this one being for public rulings and determinations


    • If you are searching for a ruling, 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).
    • When you are using quick access to view legislation, you will first need to select the relevant Act or regulation.

    Search results

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

    A sample of a search results page showing the term searched, number of results per page and the total number of results found.

    The search results page will show you:

    • your search term at the top of the page (circled in red above)
    • total results (circled in green above)
    • how many results are showing per page (circled in blue above). You can change the amount of results you show per page.

    The search results page also allows you to:

    • search within the search results to further refine the results
    • order your search results by relevance
    • include archived content in your search results.


    • If the database cannot find your search term (for example, if you made a spelling mistake or typographical error in your search term), it will provide you with alternative results:


    On 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:

    Refine search

    The following options are provided:

    Document category

    This allows you to limit your search results to categories of documents, for example public rulings, cases or other documents which contain an ATO view.

    You can choose as many or as few of these filters as you like by ticking the boxes alongside them, and then selecting Refine now. The search results will then be limited to show only the results from the categories you selected.

    The filters will also change to provide sub-categories which will allow you to further refine the search results.

    • You need to click Refine now (not enter) to apply the filters you choose.
    • 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 (< >). If there is more than one occurrence of your search term in the document, click on > to move to the next occurrence 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 'motorcycle' and 'FBT' in the home page search box, and remove the tick from 'search exact phrase'.
    • Select the search button.
    • On the results page, select the Public rulings filter and click Refine Search

    Example 2: Is pet food exempt from GST?

    • 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 use the 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

    Download PDF icon

    Where this is indicated, you can use this option to download/open a PDF version of the document. It is not available for all document types.

    • Email

    Email icon

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

    • Printable version

    Printable version icon

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

    • Back to browse

    Takes you into the browse page with the menu expanded to show you where the document you were looking at is placed.

    • Back to search results

    If you accessed the document through a search, this allows you to go back to your search results.

    • Related documents

    Provides a list of other documents that make reference to the document you are viewing.

    Example: Searching for rulings related to section 102AF of the Income Tax Assessment Act 1936

    1. Browse to or search for 'section 102AF'
    2. When the section is displayed, select the 5 related documents link at the top of the document.
    End of example
    • 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 (when viewing legislation results)

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

    • View surrounding sections (when viewing legislation results)

    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 (because there isn't one) it displays like this:

    Previous/next result links

    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 and provide the history of the particular section – for example, when it was inserted into the Act or amended.

    • Select View history note to display the history note:

    View history note link

    • Select Hide history note to close the note:

    Hide history note link

    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.

    Finding references

    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.

    Finding reference link

    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 the relevant ITAA 1997 provisions.

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

    Document history

    This applies to certain document types that we produce only - including public rulings, practical compliance guidelines, law administration practice statements.

    When one of these documents 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, there will also be links to the relevant addendum and erratum notices.

    History view with changing documents

    Full document history view

    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
    • Public rulings
    • 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 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:

    RSS feed view

      Last modified: 16 May 2018QC 17372