Criminal lifestyle confiscation and output VAT

The Court of Appeal have recently handed down a judgment in the ‘criminal lifestyle’ confiscation case of R v Harvey [2013] EWCA Crim 1104.

This was a case in which I had been instructed by the defendant’s solicitors in the confiscation proceedings in the Crown Court.

 

Background

The defendant was a director and majority shareholder in a limited company engaged in hire of plant and equipment (sometimes with drivers, sometimes just the plant itself).

A number of items of plant used by the company were found to be stolen property and the defendant pleaded guilty to 9 counts of ‘handling’ contrary to s22 Theft Act 1968.  A further 30 counts were left to lie on the file.

The defendant was subject to confiscation under PoCA 2002 on the basis that he had a ‘criminal lifestyle’ and that the veil of incorporation of the company should be pierced.

 

Benefit for confiscation purposes

The prosecution contention initially in a statement under s16 PoCA 2002 was that the entirety of the gross receipts of the company (inclusive of VAT) since the ‘relevant day’ constituted assumed ‘benefit’ of the defendant for the purposes of confiscation.

By the time of the hearing in the Crown Court the prosecution had changed its position.  Whilst it was unable to put a figure on the proportion of company receipts which were derived from criminal conduct, it was significant that the police had inspected 91 items of plant (both large and small) and considered 39 of those items to be stolen property (that is approximately 42.8% on an ‘item count’ basis).

 

The decision in the Crown Court

At Crown Court the judge held that 38% of the company’s gross receipts (inclusive of VAT) since the ‘relevant day’ were to be regarded as ‘benefit’.  Those gross receipts included not just trading income but also receipts from the sale of plant.

This 38% figure was based on the 42.8% on an ‘item count’ basis, reduced to recognise the greater earning power of the (legitimate) larger and more expensive items of plant.  The judge concluded that the defendant had known that all 39 items of plant (not just the 9 items in relation to which he had pleaded guilty to ‘handling’) were stolen property.

The Crown Court judge did not accept that he should be guided by a detailed analysis of a representative sample of company sales invoices over the period since the ‘relevant day’ which appeared to show a much smaller proportion of the company’s income was derived from the stolen plant.  He concluded that the defendant was dishonest and his company records did not reflect the entirety of the transactions of the business and so figures based on company records were not persuasive.

The benefit found by the judge was calculated accordingly at approximately £2.2m (based on the value of the 39 stolen items plus 38% of gross receipts of the company since the ‘relevant day’) and he set a default term of 10 years.

 

The appeal to the Court of Appeal

The defendant appealed on the grounds that:

  1. VAT charged to customers and accounted for to HMRC should be excluded from the gross receipts figure.
  2. Stolen plant had been recovered by the police and returned (sometimes after many years of use) to its rightful owners, but no reduction had been made in the benefit figure to reflect this.
  3. The 38% figure was too high on the facts and, in particular, had been applied to all receipts including demonstrably legitimate income from the sale of legitimately acquired plant.
  4. The default sentence of 10 years was excessive.

The Court of Appeal reduced the default term to 8 years but otherwise upheld the confiscation order in full, dismissing the appeal on each of the first three grounds.

The Court of Appeal took the opportunity to review and comment upon various confiscation cases – some very recent, some older – in the light of the decision of the Supreme Court in R v Waya.  In particular the Court of Appeal opined that the decision in R v Del Basso and Goodwin [2010] EWCA Crim 1119 now “does seem excessively harsh and may arguably be characterised as disproportionate”.

Defendants and accountants may be disappointed to note the Appeal Court’s decision (even after the Waya case) that output VAT charged on the (assumed) illegitimate receipts of a legitimate business is to be regarded as a component of benefit in a ‘criminal lifestyle’ confiscation – even where that output VAT has been properly accounted for and paid over to HMRC.  The Court of Appeal considered that there was nothing in Waya which called into question the manner in which the Court of Appeal in Del Basso dealt with VAT and that therefore Del Basso was binding authority on that point.

But the Court of Appeal in any event approved this approach, commenting, “It would be wrong in principle to carry out an accounting exercise in respect of VAT which [the business] collected through the use of stolen property”.  The total monies paid by customers, including the VAT charged, constituted property obtained by criminal conduct.

[UPDATE:  On 16 December 2015 the UK Supreme Court upheld Mr Harvey’s appeal against this element in the calculation of his benefit for confiscation purposes.  The UKSC held that where VAT has been accounted for to HMRC it would be disproportionate under A1P1 to make a confiscation order calculated on the basis that the VAT, or a sum equivalent, was “obtained” by the defendant for the purposes of PoCA 2002.]

The Court of Appeal’s view must, by implication, be taken to be that they did not consider the confiscation order of £2.2m to be disproportionate in all the circumstances.

David

(Note: This article applies to confiscation orders under the provisions of Part 2 of the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 in England and Wales. There are a number of additional issues which could be relevant to a defendant’s confiscation order in particular cases which it is not possible to deal with in a relatively short article such as this. Appropriate professional advice should be sought in each individual case.)

One thought on “Criminal lifestyle confiscation and output VAT”

  1. David

    I note your update: It is nice to see that the Supreme Court has injected some sense into the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002.

    [UPDATE: On 16 December 2015 the UK Supreme Court upheld Mr Harvey’s appeal against this element in the calculation of his benefit for confiscation purposes. The UKSC held that where VAT has been accounted for to HMRC it would be disproportionate under A1P1 to make a confiscation order calculated on the basis that the VAT, or a sum equivalent, was “obtained” by the defendant for the purposes of PoCA 2002.]

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