The Supreme Court has allowed HMRC’s appeals against UBS AG (“UBS”) and DB Group Services (UK) Ltd (“DB”) in relation to detailed schemes designed to avoid the payment of tax on bankers’ bonuses. The determinations and decisions which UBS and DB appealed against required the payment to HMRC of nearly £100 million. In each case, the scheme used by UBS and DB respectively was intended to take advantage of Chapter 2 of Part 7 of the Income Tax (Earnings and Pensions) Act 2003 (“ITEPA”), as amended by Schedule 22 to the Finance Act 2003. The judgement of the Supreme Court was given by Lord Reed, with whom Lord Neuberger, Lord Mance, Lord Carnwath and Lord Hodge agreed.
Lord Reed noted that there were two key factors identified in Barclays Mercantile  UKHL 51, at para 34. First, “tax is generally imposed by reference to economic activities or transactions which exist, as Lord Wilberforce said, ‘in the real world’”. Secondly, tax avoidance schemes commonly include “elements which have been inserted without any business or commercial purpose but are intended to have the effect of removing the transaction from the scope of the charge”. He went on to note that Carnwath LJ said in the Court of Appeal in Barclays Mercantile,  EWCA Civ 1853, at para 66, that taxing statutes generally “draw their life-blood from real world transactions with real world economic effects”. Lord Reed stated that where an enactment is of that character, and a transaction, or an element of a composite transaction, has no purpose other than tax avoidance, it can usually be said, in the words of Carnwath LJ, that “to allow tax treatment to be governed by transactions which have no real world purpose of any kind is inconsistent with that fundamental characteristic.” He concluded that, as Ribeiro PJ said in Collector of Stamp Revenue v Arrowtown Assets Ltd  HKCFA 46, at para 35, where schemes involve intermediate transactions inserted for the sole purpose of tax avoidance, it is quite likely that a purposive interpretation will result in such steps being disregarded for fiscal purposes although not always. Some enactments, properly construed, confer relief from taxation even where the transaction in question forms part of a wider arrangement undertaken solely for the purpose of obtaining the relief. He concluded that the position was ultimately summarised by Ribeiro PJ in Arrowtown Assets, at para 35: “The ultimate question is whether the relevant statutory provisions, construed purposively, were intended to apply to the transaction, viewed realistically”.
Lord Reed considered that section 423 of ITEPA, when construed purposively, was not intended to apply to the schemes in question. He found that the reference in section 423(1) to “any contract, agreement, arrangement or condition which makes provision to which any of subsections (2) to (4) applies” was to be construed as being limited to provision having a business or commercial purpose, and not to commercially irrelevant conditions whose only purpose is the obtaining of the exemption. On the facts he found that the restrictions on the shares in the UBS and DB schemes respectively were commercially irrelevant conditions whose only purpose was the obtaining of the exemption. As a consequence he concluded that the schemes involved the provision of unrestricted shares and as such fell outside the tax exemption provided for in Chapter 2 of Part 7 of ITEPA.
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