The Court of Appeal decision in Mobilx and Kittel

The appeal to the Court of Appeal drew together two questions which had been raised following the decision of the ECJ in Kittel, namely:

(a)     what did the Court mean when it said that input tax could be denied where the taxable person “should have known” that, by his purchase, he was participating in a transaction connected with the fraudulent evasion of VAT? and

(b)     is it sufficient that the taxpayer knew or should have known that it was more likely than not that his purchase was connected to fraud or must it be established that he knew or should have known that the transactions in which he was involved were connected to fraud?

In relation to (a), the Court considered that Kittel was a development of the “means of knowledge” principle in Optigen:

“If a taxpayer has the means at his disposal of knowing that by his purchase he is participating in a transaction connected with fraudulent evasion of VAT he loses his right to deduct, not as a penalty for negligence, but because the objective criteria for the scope of that right are not met. It profits nothing to contend that, in domestic law, complicity in fraud denotes a more culpable state of mind than carelessness, in the light of the principle in Kittel. A trader who fails to deploy means of knowledge available to him does not satisfy the objective criteria which must be met before his right to deduct arises…A trader who decides to participate in a transaction connected to fraudulent evasion, despite knowledge of that connection, is making an informed choice; he knows where he stands and knows before he enters into the transaction that if found out, he will not be entitled to deduct input tax. The extension of that principle to a taxable person who has the means of knowledge but chooses not to deploy it, similarly, does not infringe that principle [of legal certainty]. If he has the means of knowledge available and chooses not to deploy it he knows that, if found out, he will not be entitled to deduct. If he chooses to ignore obvious inferences from the facts and circumstances in which he has been trading, he will not be entitled to deduct.”

In relation to (b), the Court held that it was insufficient for HMRC to demonstrate that there was a risk of a fraudulent connection:

“If HMRC was right and it was sufficient to show that the trader should have known that he was running a risk that his purchase was connected with fraud, the principle of legal certainty would, in my view, be infringed. A trader who knows or could have known no more than that there was a risk of fraud will find it difficult to gauge the extent of the risk; nor will he be able to foresee whether the circumstances are such that it will be asserted against him that the risk of fraud was so great that he should not have entered into the transaction. In short, he will not be in a position to know before he enters into the transaction that, if he does so, he will not be entitled to deduct input VAT. The principle of legal certainty will be infringed…It must be remembered that the approach of the court in Kittel was to enlarge the category of participants. A trader who should have known that he was running the risk that by his purchase he might be taking part in a transaction connected with fraudulent evasion of VAT, cannot be regarded as a participant in that fraud. The highest it could be put is that he was running the risk that he might be a participant. That is not the approach of the Court in Kittel, nor is it the language it used. In those circumstances, I am of the view that it must be established that the trader knew or should have known that by his purchase he was taking part in such a transaction”.

However, it would appear that a point arises where the risk of involvement in a fraudulent transaction becomes so high as to be a virtual certainty:

“The true principle to be derived from Kittel does not extend to circumstances in which a taxable person should have known that by his purchase it was more likely than not that his transaction was connected with fraudulent evasion. But a trader may be regarded as a participant where he should have known that the only reasonable explanation for the circumstances in which his purchase took place was that it was a transaction connected with such fraudulent evasion.”