Lord Justice Nugee in Financial Reporting Council v Frasers Group plc  EWHC 2607 (Ch) has re-confirmed the principle that accountants reports are not subject to litigation privilege and could be subject to third party disclosure orders from tax authorities such as HMRC. The reports prepared by the accountants were not for the sole or dominant purpose of litigation and as such are not protected from disclosure by litigation privilege.
Our London Tax Solicitors and Barristers have vast experience of tax laws and first hand commercial, litigation and advocacy experience. We have a proven track record of successfully contesting disputed tax assessments and penalties with HMRC. The tax authorities have lost many cases that are appealed through negotiation, internal review or through the Tax Tribunal.
Frasers Group (formerly Sports Direct) received enquiries from the French tax authorities regarding its online sales in France. Frasers Group assumed that the French authorities were likely to challenge its VAT treatment in relation to those sales. It therefore instructed tax consultants who had devised its existing VAT structure to report on how it could defend such a challenge. The consultants/accountants reverted with written reports in response.
The application raised the question whether 3 documents in the hands of the Respondent were privileged from production to the Applicant on the grounds of litigation privilege. The Applicant is the Financial Reporting Council Ltd (“the FRC”). The Respondent is now called Frasers Group plc, but until December last year it was called Sports Direct International plc.
The judgment is concerned with three of these reports.
Lord Justice Nugee’s Decision
Lord Justice Nugee asked the question whether the reports were written for the sole or dominant purpose of litigation and stated at paragraph 36:
Financial Reporting Council v Frasers Group plc  EWHC 2607 (Ch), Lord Justice Nugee
To my mind the answer is obviously “No”. A taxpayer who takes advice as to how to structure his affairs does not do so for litigation purposes. He does so because he wants to achieve a particular result for tax purposes – in this case the result that the transport by Barlin would not be “by or on behalf of” SDR (or other Sports Direct company) for the purpose of Art 33, and hence that VAT would be payable on the sale of goods in the UK and not in France, Ireland, Finland or other Member States. Even if it is contemplated that the particular structure will be likely to be attacked by the relevant tax authorities and that there will be litigation, the advice as to how to implement the new structure – or, if this is preferred, how to revise or enhance an existing structure – is not primarily advice as to the conduct of the future possible litigation. It is primarily advice as to how to pay less tax – or, as the case may be, how to avoid the administrative inconvenience of having to register in every Member State.
What does legal advice privilege mean?
Legal advice privilege covers confidential communications (written or oral) between a lawyer and their client for the purpose of giving or receiving legal advice. It applies to all advice in relation to a client’s legal rights and obligations. It does not apply to strategic or commercial advice.
As originally formulated by the courts, the privilege covered only confidential communications made between a lawyer and his client, or a lawyer or client and a third party, which came into existence for the purposes of litigation (“litigation privilege”).
Can correspondence with my accountants be disclosed to HMRC?
Yes. For privilege to apply, there must be a lawyer (i.e. a solicitor or barrister) in the communication for legal advice privilege to apply. Legal advice privilege does NOT extend to other professionals such as accountants. Therefore, in disputes with HMRC for example, (potentially incriminating) communications with an accountant can be disclosed and are not privileged. Therefore, in order to ensure confidentiality, a lawyer must be involved in the communications.
Are communications with my solicitor priveleged?
Yes. Communications between parties or their solicitors and third parties for the purpose of obtaining information or advice in connection with existing or contemplated litigation are privileged, but only when the following conditions are satisfied: (a) litigation must be in progress or in contemplation; (b) the communications must have been made for the sole or dominant purpose of conducting that litigation; (c) the litigation must be adversarial, not investigative or inquisitorial.
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