Category Archives: Penalties

VAT due on property search fees? Whether they are disbursements

By   September 25, 2017

Latest from the courts – Brabners LLP

In the First Tier Tribunal case of Brabners LLP (Brabners) the issue was whether an external search agency used by the appellant correctly treated its supplies as VAT free, and if this was the case, whether the VAT free treatment continued to the appellant’s clients by way of a disbursement.

This is an interesting case and may create historic difficulties for conveyancing solicitors.


Brabners is a law firm with a real estate department. It offers conveyancing services, both to buyers and sellers, in relation to proposed property transactions, for both commercial and residential property. In order to fulfil certain legal requirements, it used an external third party entity to obtain online property searches. The Appellant stated that it uses the online system for the majority of its searches (as opposed to a postal search carried out by employees of a Local authority, or a personal search at the Local Authority’s premises). The online search is not carried out by the Appellant, but rather, a specialist online search agency (‘Searchflow’) engaged by Brabners. Searchflow obtained the required property searches from the Local Authority’s digitised or dematerialised files and registers, and passed those results back to Brabners.

Searchflow invoiced the appellant for the cost of obtaining access to documents without the addition of VAT. Brabners treated this as a disbursement and invoiced its clients for the same amount without VAT.

The issues were:

  • Should the supply by the search agency be subject to output tax?
  • Was there a Single or multiple supply?
  • Whether the charge to the end user of the services should be treated as a disbursement in respect of the search element
  • Which party consumed Searchflow’s services? (Brabners, or Brabners’ clients)

Note: the disbursement position is only (practically) relevant in this case if it was decided that the search fee was VAT free. Local Authorities now (from March 2017) charge VAT for searches, so the impact is only likely to impact on past situations.


The main thrust of the Brabners’ argument is that the firm was requested, or expressly authorised, to obtain a search on the client’s behalf. Consequently, this meant that the firm was simply acting as the client’s agent, and the report belongs to the client. Brabners, argued that the search fees qualified as a disbursement for the purposes of VAT, and were not part of the otherwise taxable supply. It also argued that this separate treatment is intelligible and sensible. HMRC formed the view that the relevant payments cannot be treated as a disbursement as all the tests to do so were not met.  For a guide to disbursements and the relevant tests please see here


The judge decided that the relevant expenses paid to Searchflow had been incurred by the appellant “in the course of making its own supply of services to” (its client) “and as part of the whole of the services rendered by it to” (its client). Therefore Brabners had consumed the service such that it could not be a disbursement. This point in this case proves academic as it was also, unsurprisingly, decided that Searchflow’s services were standard rated, so even if it were a disbursement, the VAT would still be payable by the appellant’s client.


All firms which carry out conveyancing should review the VAT treatment of searches. If they have erroneously treated similar transactions as disbursements in the past, this is likely to require correction. Clearly, HMRC will be alive to this decision and it is anticipated that legal firms will be the subject of close inspection.

This case may also mean that third party search entities may be issuing retrospective VAT invoices or work which was previously treated as VAT free. This needs to be recognised and arrangements in place to recover any input tax incurred.

We are able to assist conveyancing firms with a review of the VAT position in light of this case.

VAT: Output tax on credits? A Tax point case

By   September 18, 2017

Latest from the courts

In the Scottish Court of Session case of Findmypast Limited the issue was whether the sale of credits represented a taxable supply, the tax point of which was when payment was received.


Findmypast carries on a business of providing access to genealogical and ancestry websites which it owns or for which it holds a licence. If a customer wishes to view or download most of the records on the website, they will be required to make a payment. This may be done by taking out a subscription for a fixed period, which confers unlimited use of the records during that period. Alternatively, the customer may use a system known as Pay As You Go. This involves the payment of a lump sum in return for which the customer receives a number of “credits”. The credits may be used to view records on the website, and each time a record is viewed some of the credits are used up. The credits are only valid for a fixed period, but unused credits may be revived if the customer purchases further credits within two years; otherwise they are irrevocably lost.


Findmypast accounted for output tax on the price of the credits at the time when they were sold.  As a consequence, VAT was paid, not only on credits which were used, but also on credits that were not redeemed (The tax point therefore similar to the current rules on the sale of single use face value vouchers. Rules here).

The taxpayer claimed repayment of the VAT accounted for on the sale of unredeemed vouchers during a period which ran up to May 2012 when the legislation was changed.

The question was whether output tax should have been accounted for at the time when the vouchers were sold or at the time the vouchers were redeemed. If the tax point was the date of redemption, then the claim would be valid. The court identified the following issues:

  • What is the nature of the supply made by the taxpayer to customers?
    • Was it was the supply of genealogical records selected by the customer and viewed or downloaded by them?
    • Or was the supply a package of rights and services, which conferred a right to search the records and download and print items from the taxpayer’s websites?

If the former is accurate, the supply only takes place if and when a particular record is viewed or downloaded.  If the latter, the supply includes a general right to search which is exercisable as soon as the credits are purchased, with the result that the supply takes place at that point.

A subtle distinction, but one which has an obviously big VAT impact.


The Court decided that where credits were not redeemed, the taxpayer is entitled to be repaid the output tax previously declared as no tax point was created. In the Court’s view, Findmypast was making the relevant documents available in return for payments received. HMRC’s contention that there was a complex, multiple supply of the facility to find and access genealogical documents such that payment created a tax point was dismissed. The court further found that the relevant payments did not qualify as prepayments (deposits) because it was not known at the time of purchase whether the credits would be redeemed (many were not) or indeed at what time they would be redeemed if they were.  It was also decided that the credits were not Face Value Vouchers per VAT Act 1994, Schedule 10A, paragraph 1(1) as they are rather mere credits that permit the customer to view and download particular documents on the taxpayer’s website, through the operation of the taxpayer’s accounting system.  And that they are not purchased for their own sake but as a means to view or download documents.


Readers of my past articles will have identified that multiple/single supplies and tax points create have been hot topics recently, and this is the latest chapter in the story.

This case highlights that any payments received by a business must be analysed closely and the actual nature of them determined according to the legislation and case law. Not all payments received create a tax point and

Some will not represent consideration such that output tax is due. Careful consideration of the tax point rules is necessary.  Not only can the correct application of the rules aid cashflow, but in certain circumstances (such as set out in this case) it is possible to avoid paying VAT on receipts at all.

VAT – Do as HMRC say…. and if you do… they may still penalise you!

By   September 13, 2017

Can you rely on a VAT ruling received from HMRC when they have been provided with full information in writing?

You would like to think so wouldn’t you? And in the past, you have been able to.

However, the long standing protection from assessments for deemed underdeclared VAT as a result of incorrect advice or actions by HMRC has been withdrawn. This was commonly known as “Sheldon Statement” protection. HMRC now state that there are some circumstances in which their primary duty is to collect tax according to the statute and it may mean that they can no longer be bound by advice they have given.  Despite all the publicity of their National Help Line and Advice Centre, plus the clearance procedures introduced to assist taxpayers with their obligations, HMRC can still renege on their advice! Even if you are fortunate enough to actually get a decision from HMRC (which is increasingly difficult and frustrating) you can’t necessarily rely on it. This is the case even if you have provided full information in writing (as required) and made a comprehensive disclosure of your position.

This makes it even more important to avoid errors and the increased risk of VAT penalties and interest. Details of the penalty regime here

This leaves the question as to whom businesses can rely on for accurate, cost effective VAT saving advice and guidance on getting VAT right?  The answer, clearly, is to contact their friendly local VAT consultant…

The Default Surcharge for late VAT payments

By   September 5, 2017

A Default Surcharge is a civil penalty issued by HMRC to “encourage” businesses to submit their VAT returns and pay the tax due on time.

VAT registered businesses are required by law to submit their return and make the relevant payment of the VAT by the due date.

A default occurs if HMRC has not received your return and all the VAT due by the due date. The relevant date is the date that cleared funds reach HMRC’s bank account. If the due date is not a working day, payment must be received on the last preceding working day.

Payments on Account (POA)

If a business is required to make POA it must pay them and the balance due with the VAT Return by electronic transfer direct to HMRC’s bank account. The due dates for POA are the last working day of the second and third month of every quarterly accounting period. The due date for the balancing payment is the date shown on the business’ VAT Return. It is important to ensure that payments are cleared to HMRC’s bank by these dates or there will be a default.

Consequence of default

A business will receive a warning after the first default ‐ the Surcharge Liability Notice (SLN). Do not ignore this notice. If you fail to pay the VAT due on the due date within the next five quarters, the surcharge will be 2% of the outstanding tax. The surcharge increases to 5% for the next default, and then by 5% increments to a maximum of 15%.  Each default, whether it is late submission of the return or late payment, extends the surcharge liability period, but only late payment incurs a surcharge.

If you can’t pay the VAT you owe by the due date or are having difficulties, contact the Business Payment Support Service immediately.

Special arrangements for small businesses

There are special arrangements if a business’ taxable turnover is £150,000 or less to help if there are short term difficulties paying VAT on time. HMRC send a letter offering help and support rather than a Surcharge Liability Notice the first time there is a default. This aims to assist with any short-term difficulties before a business formally enters the Default Surcharge system. If the business defaults again within the following 12 months a Surcharge Liability Notice will be issued.

Minimum surcharges

There is a minimum of £30 for surcharges calculated at the 10% or 15% rates. There will not be a surcharge at the 2% and 5% rates if it is calculated it to be less than £400. However, a Surcharge Liability Notice Extension extending the surcharge period will be issued and the rate of surcharge if you default again within the surcharge period will be increased.

Circumstances when HMRC will not levy a surcharge

There’s no liability to surcharge if a business:

  • submits a nil or repayment return late
  • pays the VAT due on time but submit your return late

HMRC will not issue a surcharge in these circumstances because there is no late payment involved. If a business had defaulted previously HMRC will issue a Surcharge Liability Notice Extension extending the surcharge period because the return is late, but they will not increase the rate of surcharge.

Time limit

A business’ liability to surcharge will expire if a business submits all of its returns and payments for tax periods ending on or before the end of the surcharge liability period on time.

Reasonable excuse

If a business has a reasonable excuse for failing to pay on time, and it remedies this failure without unreasonable delay after the excuse ends, it will not be liable to a surcharge.

There’s no statutory definition of reasonable excuse and it will depend on the particular circumstances of a case. A reasonable excuse is something that prevented the business meeting a tax obligation on time which it took reasonable care to meet. The decision on whether a reasonable excuse exists depends upon the particular circumstances in which the failure occurred. There is a great deal of case law on this particular issue. Please contact us should there be doubt about a reasonable excuse.

Disagreement over a surcharge

If you disagree with a decision that you are liable to surcharge or how the amount of surcharge has been calculated, it is possible to:

  • ask HMRC to review your case
  • have your case heard by the Tax Tribunal

If you ask for a review of a case, a business will be required to write to HMRC within 30 days of the date the Surcharge Liability Notice Extension was sent. The letter should give the reasons why you disagree with the decision.

Examples when a review may be appropriate are if a business considers that:

  • it has a reasonable excuse for the default
  • HMRC applied the wrong rate of surcharge
  • HMRC used the wrong amount of VAT when calculating the surcharge
  • there are exceptional circumstances which mean the default should be removed

A business will still be able to appeal to the Tribunal if it disagrees with the outcome of the HMRC review.

We are very experienced in dealing with disputes over Default Surcharges, so if you feel that one has been applied unfairly, or wish to explore your rights, please let us know.

VAT Public Notice 700 Updated

By   August 25, 2017

Notice 700: The VAT Guide has been updated.

This HMRC Notice is a “starting point” for general VAT information and provides a guide to all the main VAT rules and procedures. It also provides assistance with the problems faced by business and includes an index which helps users find further information by referring to a particular section or paragraph in one of HMRC’s other, more specialised publications. There have been over 30 changes to the Notice which was last updated in 2016.

A full list of changes is set out in the Notice, but the most salient are as follows:

  • Additional guidance on MOSS – para 4.8.4
  • Single and mixed supplies – para 8.1
  • Continuous supplies to connected persons – para 14.3.1
  • Various commentary on invoices (including electronic invoicing) – paras 16.6, 16.8, 17.7 17.8
  • Accounting schemes – para 19.2
  • Agents registered for VAT acting in their own name when the customer is not registered – para 1.2
  • Penalties for inaccuracies – para 27.3
  • Integrity of supply chains – para 27.5.2

The number of changes in just one year highlights the fast pace of the tax and the number of challenges which taxpayers have won. I cannot see this pace letting up in the future either.

As always, if you have any queries about the changes, please contact us.

VAT – Business Entertainment Flowchart. What input tax may I recover?

By   June 26, 2017

VAT – Recovery of input tax incurred on entertainment

One of the most common questions asked on “day-to-day” VAT is whether input tax incurred on entertainment is claimable.  The answer to this seemingly straightforward question has become increasingly complex as a result of; HMRC policy, EC involvement and case law.

Different rules apply to entertaining; clients, contacts, staff, partners and directors depending on the circumstances.  It seems reasonable to treat entertaining costs as a valid business expense.  After all, a business, amongst other things, aims to increase sales and reduce costs as a result of these meetings.  However, HMRC sees things differently and there is a general block on business entertainment.  It seems like HMRC does not like watching people enjoying themselves at the government’s expense!

If, like me, you think in pictures, then a flowchart may be useful for deciding whether to claim entertainment VAT.  It covers all scenarios, but if you have a unique set of circumstances or require assistance with some of the definitions, please contact me.

We have recently carried out a series of presentations, which, amongst other subjects, covered business entertainment. Should you require VAT training or presentations, don’t forget our comprehensive service here which can be tailored to your needs.

VAT -Business Entertainment Flowchart

Business Entertainment flow chart

Download here: VAT Business Entertainment Input tax recovery flowchart

VAT: Hardship applications

By   May 15, 2017

The recent case of Elbrook (Cash & Carry) Ltd here brings into focus the concept of “hardship”.  In this case Elbrook successfully appealed to the Upper Tribunal (UT) against HMRC decision that the appellant should seek additional finance to pay the VAT said to be due rather than allow the case to be heard without that payment on the grounds of hardship.

So what is the process and what is “hardship”?


If a taxpayer wishes to appeal to the Tribunal against a decision made by HMRC he must pay any disputed VAT before the case can be heard. The reason for this is understandable, without this rule taxpayers could make an appeal merely to delay the payment of tax and it is a difficult test to satisfy. However, if the applicant is able to demonstrate that payment of the VAT would cause financial hardship the rule may be waived  by HMRC. This decision is an appealable matter. (NB: There is no requirement to pay interest or penalties before appealing but interest will continue to accumulate on an assessment).  If a business believes that paying the amount it wishes to appeal against would cause it hardship it can ask HMRC not to collect the payment due until the appeal has been considered by the tribunal. It will need to:

  • write to the officer who made the original decision
  • explain how paying this amount before the appeal hearing would cause the business hardship

Depending on the size of the business, the explanation should include detailed evidence of its financial position and the impact of paying the disputed tax. I have seen many applications fail as a result of incomplete evidence, or general statements that are not evidenced by documentation.  It pays to put a comprehensive application together and have this reviewed by an adviser before it is submitted.

HMRC will write and tell you whether or not they agree with delaying the payment. If they do not, the business can go to Tribunal

The law

The rules where applicable are set out in the VAT Act 1994, section 84(3)

 “Where the appeal is against a decision… it shall not be entertained unless—

 “(a) the amount which the Commissioners have determined to be payable as VAT has been paid or deposited; or

 (b) on being satisfied that the appellant would otherwise suffer hardship the Commissioners agree or the tribunal decides that it should be entertained notwithstanding that that amount has not been so paid or deposited.”

Section 84(3) is intended to strike a balance between, on the one hand, the desire to prevent abuse of the appeal mechanism by employing it to delay payment of the disputed tax, and on the other to provide relief from the stricture of an appellant having to pay or deposit the disputed sum as the price for entering the appeal process, where to do so would cause hardship.


Unhelpfully, this term is not defined in the legislation, nor in HMRC guidance. Consequently, we must look at case law.  The following comments in the “original” Elbrook case – (2016) UKFTT 0191 (citing various previous cases, mainly “ToTel 1 and 2”) assist in understanding a hardship appeal:

  • Decisions on hardship should not stifle meritorious appeals
  • The test is one of capacity to pay without financial hardship, not just capacity to pay
  • The time at which the question is to be asked is the time of the hearing. This may be qualified if the appellant has put themselves in a current position of hardship deliberately (eg; by extraction of funds otherwise readily available from a company by way of dividend), or if there is significant delay on the part of the appellant
  • The question should be capable of decision promptly from readily available material
  • The enquiry should be directed to the ability of an appellant to pay from resources which are immediately or readily available (a business is not expected to seek funding outside its normal sources, nor sell assets)
  • The test is all or nothing. The ability to pay part of the VAT without hardship does not matter
  • If the Tribunal has fixed a cut off point for the admission of material, it is not an error of law for the Tribunal to ignore any later furnished evidence
  • The absence of contemporaneous accounting information is a justification for the Tribunal to conclude that it can place little if any weight on the appellant’s assertion that it is unable to afford to pay

The onus of proof in such cases is on the taxpayer to demonstrate hardship and without persuasive evidence such applications are unlikely to succeed.


If your business, or your client’s business is the subject of a disputed decision, it should review its financial position and consider appealing against the decision even if paying the disputed amount would cause hardship.  A business should not be put off appealing just because it would suffer hardship. We are able to assist in any review required.

VAT evasion by non-EU online sellers

By   April 26, 2017

Investigation by The National Audit Office (NAO) into overseas sellers failing to charge VAT on online sales.

The NAO have investigated concerns that online sellers outside the EU are avoiding charging VAT. Full report here

The NAO has published the findings from its investigation into the concern that online sellers based outside the EU are not charging VAT on goods located in the UK when sold to UK customers. Online sales accounted for 14.5% of all UK retail sales in 2016, just over half of these were non-store sales, mainly through online marketplaces.

VAT rules require that all traders based outside the EU selling goods online to customers in the UK should charge VAT if their goods are already in the UK at the point of sale. In these cases, sellers should pay import VAT and customs duties when the goods are imported into the UK and charge their customers VAT on the final selling price. The sellers should also be registered with HMRC and are required to submit regular VAT returns.

Some of the key findings of the investigation are as follows:

HMRC estimates that online VAT fraud and error cost between £1 billion and £1.5 billion in lost tax revenue in 2015-16 but this estimate is subject to a high level of uncertainty. This estimate represents between 8% and 12% of the total VAT gap (The VAT gap is the difference between the amount of VAT that should, in theory, be collected by HMRC, against what is actually collected) of £12.2 billion in 2015-16. UK trader groups believe the problem is widespread, and that some of the biggest online sellers of particular products are not charging VAT. These estimates exclude wider impacts of this problem such as the distortion of the competitive market landscape.

HMRC recognised online VAT fraud and error as a priority in 2014, although the potential risk from online trading generally was raised before this. In 2013 the NAO reported that HMRC had not yet produced a comprehensive plan to react to the emerging threat to the VAT system posed by online trading. The report found HMRC had developed tools to identify internet-based traders and launched campaigns to encourage compliance but had shown less urgency in developing its operational response. Trader groups claim that online VAT fraud has been a problem as early as 2009, which has got significantly worse in the past five years. The Chartered Trading Standards Institute shares this view. Based on the emergence of the fulfilment house (a warehouse where goods can be stored before delivery to the customer) model, HMRC recognised online VAT fraud and error as one of its key risks in 2014 and began to increase resources in this area in 2015.

HMRC’s assessment is that online VAT losses are due to a range of non-compliant behaviours, but has not yet been able to assess how much is due to lack of awareness, error or deliberate fraud. Amazon and eBay consider that lack of awareness of the VAT rules is a major element of the problem. Amazon and eBay have focused on educating overseas sellers and providing tools to assist with VAT reporting and compliance. HMRC’s strategic threat assessment, carried out in 2014, concluded it was highly likely that both organised criminal groups based in the UK and overseas sellers in China were using fulfilment houses to facilitate the transit of undervalued or misclassified goods, or both, from China to the UK for sale online.

HMRC introduced new legal powers to tackle online VAT fraud and error in September 2016. The new joint and several liability power gives HMRC a new way to tackle suspected non-compliance, and is the first time any country has introduced such a power for this purpose. The new powers include making online marketplaces potentially jointly and severally liable for non-payment of VAT when HMRC has informed them of an issue with a seller, and they do not subsequently take appropriate action.


Online VAT fraud and error causes substantial losses to the UK Exchequer and undermines the competitiveness of UK businesses. Compliance with the VAT rules is a legal requirement. Not knowing about the rules does not excuse non-compliance. The UK trader groups who raised the issue report having experienced the impact of this problem through progressively fewer sales. They consider HMRC has been slow in reacting to the emerging problem of online VAT fraud and error and that there do not seem to be penalties of sufficient severity to act as a substantial deterrent.

It is too soon to conclude on the effectiveness and impact of HMRC’s new powers and whether the resources devoted by HMRC to using them match the scale of the problem. We recognise that HMRC must consider effort and efficiency in collecting VAT but its enforcement approach to online trade appears likely to continue the existing unfair advantage as perceived by UK trader groups. This is contrary to HMRC’s policy of encouraging voluntary compliance and it does not take account of the powerful effect that HMRC’s enforcement approach has on the operation of the online market as a whole. We intend to return to this subject in the future.

Further to the above, this article suggests that HMRC should have acted even earlier.

VAT Latest from the courts – Allocation of payments

By   March 13, 2017

cash-register-78741_960_720 (2)VAT payment problems

In the Upper Tribunal (UT) case of Swanfield Limited (Swanfield)

The matter was whether HMRC had the right to allocate payments made by the applicant to specific periods against the wishes of the taxpayer.


Swanfield was late with returns/payments such that it was subject to the Default Surcharge (DS) mechanism.  Details of the DS regime here

HMRC issued DSs to Swanfield, many at the maximum rate 15%. The total involved was said to be over £290,000. However, if the payments made by Swanfield had been allocated in a certain way (broadly; to recent debts as desired by the taxpayer) it would have substantially reduced the amount payable. However, HMRC allocated the payments to previous, older periods which were not the subject of a DS.

The Issue

The issue was relatively straightforward; did HMRC have the authority to allocate payments as they deemed fit, or could the taxpayer make payments for specific periods as required?

The Decision

The UT found that Swanfield were entitled to allocate payments made to amounts which would become due on supplies made in the (then) current period, even though the due date had not yet arrived.  Additionally, HMRC did not have the authority to unilaterally allocate payments made by the taxpayer to historical liabilities as they saw fit, in cases where the taxpayer has explicitly made those payments in relation to current periods.  In cases where there is no specific instruction in respect of allocation of the payment, HMRC was entitled to allocate payment without any obligation to minimise DS. The UT remitted this case back to the First Tier Tribunal to decide, as a matter of fact, whether Swanfield had actually made the necessary allocation.


This is a helpful case which sets out clearly the responsibilities of both parties.  It underlines the necessity of a taxpayer to focus on payments and how to manage a debt position to mitigate any penalties.  Staying silent on payments plays into the hands of HMRC. It is crucial to take a proper view of a business’ VAT payment position, especially if there is difficulties lodging returns of making payment. Planning often reduces the overall amount payable, or provides for additional time to pay (TTP).  A helpful overview of payment problems here

Things can be done if a business is getting into difficulties with VAT; whether they are; reporting, submitting returns, making payments, or if there are disputes with HMRC. There are also structures that may be put in place to assist with VAT cashflow.

We would always counsel a business not to bury its head in the sand if there are difficulties with HMRC.  Please make contact with us and, in almost all cases, we can improve the situation, along with providing some relief from worries. VAT may be payable, but there are ways of managing payments – as this case demonstrates.

Office of Tax Simplification reports on VAT

By   March 6, 2017

Government_Offices_Great_George_Street (2)The Office of Tax Simplification has recently published its interim report on VAT simplification.

Full details here

The main areas covered are:

  • The UK’s high VAT registration threshold
  • Incidental exempt supplies
  • Complexity of multiple rates
  • Option to Tax and Capital Goods Scheme
  • Treatment of VAT overpayments
  • Alternative Dispute Resolution (details of ADR here)
  • Non-Statutory clearances by HMRC
  • Special schemes eg; Flat rate Scheme and TOMS
  • Penalties

Please contact us should you have any queries on any of the issues covered by the report.