Strasbourg rules that excessive tax rates offend A1P1

income taxN.K.M v. Hungary, ECtHR, 14 May 2013, read judgment

Those of a certain age will remember when top tax rates in the UK were 98%. This was the marginal rate of tax in this successful claim that such taxation offended Article 1 of the 1st Protocol (A1P1) – the peaceful enjoyment of possessions. But the very wealthy seeking to safeguard their bankers bonuses may not obtain too much comfort from the Strasbourg ruling, as the facts were fairly extraordinary.

The applicant had been a Hungarian civil servant for 30 years until her dismissal (with many others) in July 2011. Long-standing rules gave her 8 months severance pay. The 98% tax rate was introduced in 2010; it was then successfully challenged in the Hungarian Constitutional Court. On the day of the Court’s adverse judgment, the tax was re-enacted, but this time the 98% rate was applied to pay exceeding 3.5m forints – c. £10,000 – and, further, only where the earnings came out of specified categories of public sector employees.

A fresh challenge in the Constitutional Court annulled the retrospective effect of this law, but could not as a matter of jurisdiction review the substantive aspects of the tax. So the applicant went to Strasbourg to challenge the tax when deducted from her pay.

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Supreme Court find A1P1 breach in retrospective legislation

19053359-2Salvesen v. Riddell [2013] UKSC 22, 24 April 2013, read judgment 

When can an agricultural landlord turf out his tenant farmer? The answer to this question has ebbed and flowed since the Second World War, but one element of the latest attempt by the Scottish Parliament to redress the balance in favour of tenants has just been declared incompatible with Article 1 of the 1st Protocol (A1P1) as offending landlords’ rights to property. The Supreme Court has so ruled, upholding the Second Division of the Court of Session’s ruling in March 2012

The reasoning is not just of interest to agricultural lawyers either side of the border. But a brief  summary of the laws is necessary in order to identify the invidiousness of the new law as identified by the Court – and hence its applicability to other circumstances.

As will be seen from my postscript, the decision of the court below to the same effect appears to have had tragic consequences.

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No removal of right of appeal without clear and express wording

The Queen on the application of Totel Ltd v The First-Tier Tribunal (Tax Chamber) and The Commissioners for Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs  [2012] EWCA Civ 1401 – read judgment

Tax litigation is not the most obvious hunting ground for human rights points but if claimants feel sufficiently pinched by what they perceive as unfair rules, there is nothing to stop them appealing to the courts’ scrutiny of the lawfulness of those rules.

Human rights were not raised per se in this appeal but constitutional principles which arguably play the same role made all the difference to the outcome.

This case concerned the removal of a right of appeal by an Order in Parliament that stopped the appellant company (T) in its tracks, so naturally it turned to judicial review to find a remedy that the tax tribunal was not prepared to grant. T prayed in aid a fundamental principle of our unwritten constitution set out in  R (Spath Holme Ltd) v Secretary of State for Transport, the Environment and Regions [2000] 2 WLR 15:

Parliament does not lightly take the exceptional course of delegating to the executive the power to amend primary legislation. When it does so the enabling power should be scrutinised, should not receive anything but a narrow and strict construction and any doubts about its scope should be resolved by a restrictive approach.[35] Continue reading