Minicab group VAT case heads for Lords

Roger Pearson reports on a long-running wrangle over an Eastbourne association's bid to be exempt from VAT payments.

An Eastbourne car hire communications network is at the centre of a complex and long-running VAT test case that is now heading for the House of Lords.

The Law Lords have given the Eastbourne Town Radio Cars Association (ETRCA) leave to challenge a May 1998 Court of Appeal decision that requires the association to be registered for VAT in respect of the service it provides.

The case is now in its fourth year and has considerable general implications in respect of VAT eligibility.

ETRCA was set up in order to provide premises and a communications network for its members, who were independent private car hire drivers.

In August 1994 ETRCA changed its constitution to avoid the need for VAT registration.

And since then, the battle over its right to be de-registered has raged.

Initially, a VAT tribunal in December 1995 rejected the association's claims that it did not need to be registered.

However, in October 1996 Mr Justice Turner ruled in the High Court that the VAT tribunal had got it wrong and allowed an appeal by ETRCA. He held that the VAT tribunal had been wrong in its interpretation of the association's new constitution in relation to VAT supplies to members.

The case then went on hold until May 1998, when the Court of Appeal ruled that the VAT tribunal had been right in the first place.

Three of the country's senior judges, Lords Justices Simon Brown, Swinton Thomas and Potter, took the view that under the provisions of the Value Added Tax Act 1994, associations such as ETRCA were often going to be liable for VAT.

They said it was plain that, despite its "ingeniously drafted new constitution", ETRCA was, in fact, continuing to provide the same services and supplies to its members as it had prior to the introduction of the new constitution.

However, now Lords Steyn, Hutton and Millett have given leave for that decision to be challenged in the House of Lords.

No date has yet been fixed for hearing of the appeal but it is likely to be heard by the end of this year.