VAT Inspections in the Legal Sector

The 2017 case involving Brabners Solicitors, and in particular the VAT treatment of online search fees, has been well documented. We have seen evidence of HMRC’s targeted approach from visiting firms to follow up on this issue.

It certainly appears that professional practices remain firmly in the spotlight for HMRC. The sector has been a target for many years now, resulting in several high profile legislative changes. For example, the new rules relating to the use of corporates (“mixed partnerships”), alterations to the transfer pricing rules as applied to service companies and the revised interpretation of the self-employment criteria for fixed share partners. It appears that VAT is the latest item on HMRC’s hit-list for the sector.

We recommend that firms undertake a review of their VAT affairs now, rather than waiting for an inspection from HMRC. Firms that proactively review compliance within key areas of VAT legislation are in a much better position if HMRC visit. In our experience, a VAT inspection can be stressful and hugely time consuming. Time spent in advance reduces impact on the finance team and it’s less likely to lead to unexpected cash outflow. Additionally, the inspector is more likely to determine a high level of compliance and understanding of the rules.

Recent experience has shown that VAT inspectors have attended specific training sessions in relation to professional practices. They are arriving for their visits well briefed and with a list of sector specific hot topics to target.

The following are a few areas our team have seen in practice…

VAT on Search Fees

This matter came to light following a HMRC disagreement regarding the VAT treatment of search fees with Brabners Solicitors. The Law Society is pursuing the matter.

In summary, it is common practice in the sector to treat search fees as a disbursement. Therefore, if the incurred cost is free from VAT then the bill for the client is also has VAT-free treatment. This is on the basis that the client receives the cost. HMRC contend that the lawyers utilise this information and include it in their advice. Therefore, the cost should be part of the supply of services and therefore subject to VAT. In the Brabners’ case, HMRC took the view that their agreement with the Law Society didn’t extend to electronic searches. This was in relation to the treatment of postal search fees.

It appears that as HMRC visit firms, they are quantifying the amount of under-declared VAT. They are demanding that firms pay the related VAT to HMRC. Although, they are noting that if the appeal against the Brabners decision is successful, they will issue a refund. Firms subject to such assessments will need to protect their position by formally appealing.

Therefore, the action point for firms is to undertake a historic review in order to assess the potential issue. This may well involve interrogating thousands of lines of data. This will not be a straightforward exercise, but it may be more difficult to undertake ‘on the hoof’ during inspection. In order to avoid penalties, HMRC need a carefully worded disclosure. This will protect the position in the event that Brabners successfully overturn HMRC’s assessment on appeal. Going forward, we do recommend that electronic search fees should charge VAT.

VAT Recovered on Bad Debts

This may seem a simple issue, but HMRC are looking at the process adopted by firms closely. As a reminder, the key principle of the current rules (as set out in VAT notice 700/18) is that a firm must wait at least six months from the later of when payment was due and payable or the date of supply, before reclaiming any VAT. HMRC sets out certain conditions that must be met before a reclaim may be made, including that the debts must have been written off the firm’s day to day VAT accounts and transferred to a separate bad debt account.

There is often still confusion in relation to the bad debt rules as they have changed many times over the years and therefore a hygiene check may be appropriate.

VAT on Older Unpaid Creditors

The rules for unpaid purchase invoices (post 1997) requires a firm to repay the claimed input tax if it does not pay for the supplies within six months of the relevant date. The relevant date is the date of the supply, or if later, the due date for payment. Should the amounts in question be subsequently paid, then the input VAT can be accounted for again at that point.

Whilst most professional practices do not have significant purchase ledgers, it is not unusual to have a number of older ‘in dispute’ invoices on a ledger.

VAT on Personal Tax Return Fees

Partners’ personal tax return fees are not a business expense and therefore there is no claim for VAT. It is important that accountants separately identify the costs relating to personal taxation from those relating to the business. It is a Corporate Criminal Offence to ‘hide’ personal taxation fees within a business to gain a tax advantage.

VAT on Gifts

Where business gifts are provided in the normal course of business and are less than £50 in value (in aggregate over a 12 month period to each individual) then no output VAT is normally due and indeed the related input VAT may be reclaimed. For a gift (or gifts) that exceed the £50 limit, then the output VAT must be accounted for on the value of the gifts in question.

HMRC’s definition of business gifts is quite wide and VAT Notice 700/7 explains that this term includes “a wide range of items from brochures, posters and advertising matter to expensive goods of the kind given as ‘executive presents’”.  They go on to explain that this category also includes long service awards and retirement gifts and indeed gifts to clients.

Tax Points

HMRC’s view is that the majority of supplies by a solicitor are single supplies, albeit the supply may involve work undertaken over an extended period of time. This is important because it means that VAT becomes due at the end of each discrete service. This is only overridden if payment is received prior to the end of the service, or a VAT invoice is issued within 3 months of completion. If a firm decides not to issue a proper VAT invoice within 3 months (for example on legal aid work), VAT reverts to being due at the time of completion for the work.

In conclusion, many of the above matters may not individually appear to be significant, but in our experience the value of a VAT demand arising from a VAT inspection can quickly accumulate if there are a number of failures. This is especially important due to the stringent penalties of up to 30%, which HMRC can impose on ‘careless errors’. Preparing well for a VAT visit, which is highly likely in the legal sector in 2018, is much better than reacting when the day arrives.

Source: MHA MacIntyre Hudson.

Contact Tait Walker’s Tax team.