Can a commercial company have “beliefs”? Exmoor Coast Boat Cruises Ltd v Revenue & Customs

In Exmoor Coast Boat Cruises Ltd v Revenue & Customs [2014] UKFTT 1103 (TC) the company appealed against decisions of HMRC refusing its application to file its VAT returns on paper. It was represented by Mr Oxenham, its sole director and sole shareholder.

The background

Initially, filing VAT returns online was made compulsory for all businesses with a turnover of over £100,000 and any newly-registered business with effect from 1 April 2010. Subsequently, it was extended to all businesses without exception with effect from 1 April 2012. The technical VAT details of this appeal need not concern us: the interest for students of law and religion is that Mr Oxenham claimed exemption from the obligation to file on-line on grounds of religious belief, relying on Regulation 25A(6)(a) Value Added Tax Regulations 1995/2518 (subsequently inserted by the Value Added Tax Regulations 1995), which exempts “a practising member of a religious society or order whose beliefs are incompatible with the use of electronic communications”.

HMRC refused his claim because officials were not satisfied that he did not and would not use a computer and because he had not demonstrated that he was a member of a religious society whose beliefs were incompatible with the use of computers [9]. Moreover, Mr Oxenham’s precise religious affiliation seemed to be in some doubt; he appeared to be claiming that he was a member of a branch of the Plymouth Brethren but Tribunal Judge Mosedale was not convinced by his claim. He also appeared to be objecting to on-line filing because he believed that it contributed to global warming.

The judgment

Neither Mr Oxenham’s appeal for exemption under Regulation 25A(6)(a) nor his appeal to Article 9 ECHR convinced Judge Mosedale.

As to Mr Oxenham’s claim of exemption under Regulation 25A(6)(a), she concluded that the appellant company could not benefit from s25A(6)(a) because:

“(1) The appellant does not have beliefs as it is a company.

(2) Even if its director’s beliefs were the beliefs to which the legislation referred, Mr Oxenham is not a practising member of a religious society or order whose beliefs are incompatible with the use of electronic communications” [54: emphasis added].

She did not, however, accept that in no circumstances could a commercial company have human rights:

“… a company has human rights if and to the extent it is the alter ego of a person (or, potentially, a group of people). Therefore, it must be seen as being in the shoes of that person  and must possess the same human rights because any other decision would deny that person his human rights. Therefore, while it is ludicrous to suggest a company has a religion, or private life or family, nevertheless a company which is the alter ego of a person can be a victim of a breach of A9 (the right to manifest its religion) if, were it not so protected, that person’s human rights would be breached” [71 & 72].

As to the present case however, though HMRC had accepted that Article 9 protected more than just religious beliefs and that, potentially, beliefs and a moral code about climate change could be protected under that Article, it did not accept that, on these particular facts, Mr Oxenham’s beliefs were protected.

Neither did Judge Mosedale:

“A Tribunal is very reluctant to assess the quality of a person’s moral or religious beliefs. Nevertheless, it has to be the case that the law cannot protect every belief as that would be a licence to everyone to pick and choose which laws they choose to obey and those that they ignore … However, I do not need to rule on the quality of Mr Oxenham’s beliefs in order to decide the case. This is because the right relied on by the appellant is the right to manifest religion and belief in practice and observance. There is no suggestion that the requirement to file online interferes with Mr Oxenham’s right to freedom of thought and his right to change his religion. So does it interfere with his right to manifest his beliefs?” [78–80].

In her view, the simple answer to that question, on the evidence, was “No”:

“… Mr Oxenham has beliefs, which, while they include a strong disinclination to use the internet, nevertheless are compatible with him using the internet to advertise his business and to file (via agents acting on his or his companies’ behalf) a number of other returns online. It is therefore apparent that requiring him to file another return online does not prevent him manifesting his religious or other beliefs” [81].

She dismissed the appeal.

Comment

We have been here before, As we noted at the time, last year Graham and Abigail Blackburn, beekeepers trading as Cornish Moorland Honey, won the right not to file on-line VAT returns after claiming that to do so was contrary to their religious beliefs as Seventh-day Adventists: see Blackburn & Anor v Revenue & Customs [2013] UKFTT 525 (TC). The Seventh-day Adventist Church does not require its members to shun electronic communications and, indeed, has its own website; however, at page 142 of its Manual the Church warns adherents that though radio, television and the Internet can be educative and entertaining, they can also have

“… influences that are neither wholesome nor uplifting. If we are not discriminating, they will bring sordid programs right into our homes…”

The Blackburns conceded that their Church used the internet for what it saw as good purposes but told the Tribunal that their own choice was neither to use a computer themselves nor to ask anyone else to use one on their behalf. HMRC argued that the Blackburns’ choice was personal preference rather than a fundamental part of their religion because the use of electronic communications was not incompatible with the tenets of their Church.

Tribunal Judge Mosedale allowed the Blackburns’ appeal. She found it as a fact [32] that the Seventh-day Adventist Church did not consider its beliefs to be incompatible with the use of electronic communications. However, because the Regulations at issue were secondary legislation unconstrained by primary legislation, s 6 of the Human Rights Act 1998 applied to them. She was satisfied that there was close and direct nexus between act and belief and that the Blackburns were acting in fulfilment of a duty mandated by their religion as they perceived it [52]. The requirement to file on-line was therefore an undue restriction of their rights under Article 9(1) [59].

So: same Regulations, same judge, similar claim – but different results. And the reason for the difference is that claims of this nature are highly fact-sensitive. As a matter of religious conviction, Mr & Mrs Blackburn had a principled objection to using computers even though their Church does not; Mr Oxenham, on the other hand, was inconsistent in his refusal to use IT.

Cite this article as: Frank Cranmer, "Can a commercial company have “beliefs”? Exmoor Coast Boat Cruises Ltd v Revenue & Customs" in Law & Religion UK, 22 December 2014, https://lawandreligionuk.com/2014/12/22/can-a-commercial-company-have-beliefs-exmoor-coast-boat-cruises-ltd-v-revenue-customs/

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