Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Beekeeping, God and Taxes - Blackburn v HMRC

A couple of staunchly religious beekeepers who said their beliefs meant they could not meet HMRC’s requirement to file their Value Added Tax (VAT|) returns online have won their case in the Tax Chamber of the First Tier Tribunal case of Blackburn v HM Revenue & Customs [2013] UKFTT 525 (TC)

From the 1st April 2010 HMRC have required all businesses to serve VAT returns via the Internet. However Reg 25A(6) of the VAT Regulations states that

 A person who the Commissioners are satisfied is a practising member of a religious society or order whose beliefs are incompatible with the use of electronic communications, is not required to make a return required by regulation 25 using an electronic return system.

 Graham and Abigail Blackburn, who run Cornish Moorland Honey, in Bodmin, are both devout members of the Seventh Day Adventist Church and view the internet as an intrusion of 'worldliness' into their lives of 'righteousness'. They said that they should be allowed to continue with paper tax submissions, as they had before the new regulations came into force in April.

Graham Blackburn told the FTT that he and wife renounced the use of computers, the internet, televisions and mobile phones in their home. In para 14 of the judgment it was noted that the couple

" have chosen to entirely shun computers and television.  They do not possess a computer or television.  They do not use them.  Mr Blackburn gave unchallenged evidence that he would regard it as incompatible with his beliefs to go to the library to use a computer to make a VAT return or to ask someone (such as an agent) to make his online VAT return on his behalf.  They will not use computers nor have someone use them on their behalf."
However HMRC lawyers argued that the couple's stance was 'really a personal preference and not part of their religion.' It noted that the Seventh Day Adventist Church does not ban its members from using the internet , although it does require its members to avoid 'unwholesome' or 'sordid' influences in the mass media. The church does, for example, run its own website.

The Judge found therefore that the religious society of which Mr & Mrs Blackburn were members, the Seventh-day Adventist Church, did not consider its beliefs to be incompatible with the use of electronic communications and so her conclusion was that Regulation 25A(6) in relation to the Blackburns, if seen purely as a question of the normal rules of construction and without reference to the effect of the Human Rights Act 1998 (“HRA”), menat that the Blackburns were not entitled to the religious exemption from liability to file online contained within the Regulation

The Tribunal Judge however rejected this argument and ruled that by refusing to exempt the Blackburns from online filing, HMRC had breached their right to freely manifest their religion, as laid down in Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The judge said: ‘I find that, by entirely shunning computers, the Blackburns considered they were acting, as the Bible required them to do, in accordance with their religious conscience. They were manifesting their religious beliefs by refusing to use computers.’

The judge described the justifications put forward by HMRC for refusing to exempt the couple as 'clearly insufficient' and noted that for there to be a breach of Artcle 9 there was no requirement that the particular religious belief had to be a mandatory requirement of the particular religion all that was required was that the person was acting in accordance with a religious belief.  Once that was established HMRC had not put forward any argument that would justify overriding the religious beliefs of the Blackburn family and so insisting on them using the Internet to file their VAT returns was a breach of Article 9 and therefore unlawful under sections 3 & 6 of the Human Rights Act 1998 

In general terms this is a decision very much on its own facts but to be welcomed as much as anything else because Government Departments should not be able to boss everyone around.  Getting VAT returns via the Internet is undoubtedly convenient to HMRC but there is no reason why a person who, for whatever reason, prefers not to use the Internet should be forced to do so

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