European Court of Justice rules that licence application fees charged to sex shop were unlawful

16 Nov 2016

The Court of Justice of the EU today ruled (here) that fees charged by Westminster City Council to an applicant for a licence to operate as a sex shop were unlawful.

Mr Hemming, trading as “Simply Pleasure Ltd”, challenged the application fees he had to pay to Westminster for a licence to operate a sex shop.  Those fees amounted to over £29,000.  The fees broke down into two parts: about £2,500 covered the cost of processing the application, while the remaining £26,500 odd covered Westminster’s costs of policing compliance with licensing requirements and tackling unlicensed operators.  That latter amount was refundable if the licence was refused.

Mr Hemming relied on Article 13(2) of the Services Directive (Parliament and Council Directive 2006/123/EC), implemented into UK law by regulation 18(4) of the Provision of Services Regulations 2009.  That provision requires that charges which an applicant may incur from its application shall not exceed the cost of the procedures (and must also be proportionate and reasonable).

In a judgment given in May 2015 ([2015] UKSC 25), the Supreme Court agreed that Article 13(2) excluded costs of enforcement, such as tackling unlicensed operators, from the scope of costs for which an application charge could be made.  But it held that Article 13(2) did not prevent a body which was successful in its application from then being charged a further fee to cover enforcement costs: such a fee was not a charged incurred from the application but, rather, a fee incurred for the possession of a licence.  However, the Supreme Court considered that there was doubt as to whether a fee charged at the time of application but which was refundable if the application was unsuccessful – which was the position in the case before it – amounted to a charge, and referred that question to the Court of Justice.

The Court of Justice has today ruled that an application fee payable at the time of submitting an application is a “charge” under Article 13(2) even if it is refundable if the application fails.  It remained a “financial obligation” that must be discharged before an application could be considered.

The Supreme Court judgment sharply distinguished between an application fee and a fee payable once the application is successful.  The Court of Justice did not deal with that distinction.  However, it may be noted that in his Opinion (here), Advocate General Wathelet stated that if, having succeeded in its application, the successful applicant’s permission to operate was then made conditional on payment of a fee designed to cover enforcement costs, then in reality that further fee should be regarded as a charge falling under Article 13(2).  He also expressed doubts that a fee designed to cover enforcement costs – which he described as a “fee enabling members to benefit from the certainty that membership of the ‘club’ will remain restricted” – could ever be reasonable or proportionate.  The Court of Justice, however, did not express a view on those points.

The case has implications going beyond the sex shop industry: indeed, a number of professional bodies that charge fees for authorisation to practise (including the Law Society and the Bar Council) intervened before the Supreme Court, as did HM Treasury.

George Peretz QC appeared in the Supreme Court for HM Treasury.