Rights to import duty free goods

The tobacco industry, the licensed trade and the Customs and Excise will be watching closely for the Divisional Court judgment, scheduled for 26 May, in a test case on duty free personal imports.

Mr Justice Popplewell is being asked to outlaw moves by the Customs and Excise aimed at preventing large scale importation of cheap tobacco products from the continent using Common Market personal import provisions.

Two companies argue that they are entitled to take orders for tobacco products from individuals in the UK, purchase those products in Europe and ship them back to the UK without having to pay normal duty.

The Customs and Excise says to avoid payment of duty on such products purchasers have to go to the countries in person to buy them. They cannot act through agents.

The application for judicial review has been brought by Emu Tabac SARL of Luxembourg, The Man in Black of Horsham, West Sussex and Man in Black director, John Cunningham of London, SE14. The Imperial Tobacco Company has also joined the action as an interested party.

Under the scheme orders from UK customers were secured by The Man in Black which went to Luxembourg and purchased the products from Emu. Emu then dispatched the goods to the UK.

It is claimed that under EC law no duty is payable because the purchases are effectively being made by UK nationals and the fact they have not gone abroad to make the purchase does not prevent them enjoying duty free benefits.

However, Customs and Excise argues that in order for someone from the UK to benefit in this way from duty free concessions they must go personally to the EC member state from which the goods are being purchased and make the purchase personally.

Under the scheme cigarettes have been brought into the UK and mailed to customers who have placed the original orders at a saving of up to £1 per packet of 20.

There are fears that if the scheme is given the legal stamp of approval by the court it will play havoc with tobacco sales in the UK. It could also lead to similar schemes in relation to the sale of alcohol and other lines on which duty is charged.