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.