The courts and tribunals
As previously mentioned, prior to the court stage taxpayers may challenge the lawfulness of tax assessments internally within the tax authorities via the administrative claim procedure. Nevertheless, administrative claims prove to have little to no effect in successfully handling taxpayers' complaints. Indeed, especially when tax assessments result from a preceding tax audit procedure, it is very rare for the tax authorities to change their stance in administrative claim procedures. Realistically, a fair chance of success exists only regarding blatant errors of fact or law or if taxpayers can provide new documents or information that was not examined within the audit. Because of this, even if a decision is typically rendered within the four-month legal deadline, most taxpayer disputes end up in court. Likewise, the administrative appeal has similarly slim chances of success, with the added inconvenience that the 60-day deadline for a decision is a far cry from the 20 months such appeals take to be decided on average.22
All things considered, the tax courts play a decisive role in handling tax disputes. These are judicial courts and therefore independent from both the government and the tax authorities. There are 16 first instance tax courts covering the entirety of the Portuguese territory. Tax cases are decided by a single judge and on average take approximately six years to be decided.23 They have full jurisdiction to review and annul tax assessments, both on grounds of fact and of law.24
First instance court decisions may be appealed to either one of the two central administrative courts (for a review both of facts and law) or to the Supreme Administrative Court (for a review solely on matters of law). Panels of three judges rule on the appeals.25
Appeals vary significantly regarding the time taken for a decision, ranging from six months to several years depending on the complexity of the case.26 Such appeals tend to be final given that further appeals, either to the full panel of judges of the Supreme Administrative Court or to the Constitutional Court, are very restricted.
Be that as it may, a second level of appeal to the Supreme Administrative Court may be based on conflicting rulings by the central administrative courts (with prior decisions from either the central administrative courts or the Supreme Administrative Court)27 or by the Supreme Administrative Court (with prior decisions by the same Court).28 Another possibility of appeal to the Supreme Administrative Court exists when such appeal is deemed as clearly necessary for a better application of the law or owing to the legal or social importance of the questions at hand.29
Finally, cases pertaining to the constitutionality of legal provisions may ultimately be appealed to the Constitutional Court provided that such constitutionality issue has previously been raised during the proceedings before the lower courts.30