Latest from the courts
The Littlewoods Limited case
This is a long running case on whether HMRC is required to pay compound interest (in addition to simple statutory interest) in cases of official error (Please see below for details of how the overpayment initially arose). Such errors are usually in situations where UK law is incompatible with EC legislation. Previous articles have covered the progress of the case: here and here
Littlewoods was seeking commercial restitution for overpayments of VAT previously made. It’s view was that an appropriate recompense was the payment of compound interest. It was accepted by all parties that statutory interest amounted to only 24% of Littlewoods’ actual time value loss from the relevant overpayments. There are many cases stood behind this case, so it was important for both taxpayers and HMRC.
The Supreme Court rejected Littlewoods’ claim for compound interest of circa £1.25 billion on VAT repayments of £205 million for the years 1973 to 2004. The court held that the correct reading of the VAT Act is that it excludes common law claims and although references are made to interest otherwise available these are clearly references to interest under other statutory provisions and not the common law. To decide otherwise would render the limitations in the VAT Act otherwise meaningless. Further, it held that the lower courts were wrong to construe the Court of Justice of the European Union’s (CJEU) requirement of an “adequate indemnity” as meaning “complete reimbursement”. The Supreme Court construed the term as “reasonable redress”.
The above reasoning was based on the following reasons:
- They read the CJEU’s judgment as indicating that the simple interest already received by Littlewoods was adequate even though it was acknowledged to be only about 24% of its actual loss
- It is the common practice among Member States to award simple interest with the repayment of tax. If the CJEU intended to outlaw that practice they would have said so
- The reading “reasonable redress” is consistent with the CJEU’s prior and subsequent case law.
The Supreme Court ruling means that claims for compound interest in cases of official error cannot be pursued through a High Court claim. It would appear that, unless other appeals which are currently listed to be heard are successful, (extremely unlikely given the comments of the Supreme Court) this is the end of the road for compound interest claims.
History of the overpayment
During the period with which this case is concerned, the claimants Littlewoods carried on catalogue sales businesses. It distributed catalogues to customers and sold them goods shown in the catalogues. In order to carry on its businesses, it employed agents, who received a commission in return for their services. They could elect to be paid the commission either in cash or in kind. Commission was paid in cash at the rate of 10% of the sales achieved by the agent. Commission paid in kind took the form of goods supplied by Littlewoods, equal in price to 12.5% of the sales achieved by the agent.
As suppliers of goods, Littlewoods were obliged to account to HMRC for the VAT due in respect of their chargeable supplies. Between 1973 and 2004, they accounted for VAT on the supplies which it made to its agents, as commission paid in kind, on the basis that the taxable amount of those supplies was reduced by the enhancement in the commission, that is to say by 2.5%. On a correct understanding of VAT law, the taxable amount of the supplies was actually reduced by the entire 12.5% which constituted the agents’ commission. Consequently, Littlewoods accounted for and paid more VAT to HMRC than was due.