Human rights – declaration of incompatibility – widow’s bereavement allowance
W was a widower whose wife died in June 1999. In November 2000 he claimed from the Inland Revenue the equivalent of the Widow’s Bereavement Allowance (WBA). His claim was refused on the grounds that there was no basis in UK law for allowing a widower to claim WBA. W applied for judicial review of the refusal which resulted in the court making a declaration that s262 Income and Corporation Taxes Act 1988 was incompatible with art 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights as it discriminated unlawfully against widowers, but otherwise dismissing the application. W appealed.
The issues for the court to determine were the extent of the IR Commissioners’ powers under s1 Taxes Management Act 1970; whether, under s6 HRA 1998, the Commissioners were entitled to refuse to exercise their powers to pay W an allowance equivalent to the WBA and whether, by refusing to settle W’s claim, as they had done in respect of another claim, the Commissioners were guilty of an abuse of power under established principles of public law.
Dismissing the appeal, the Court of Appeal held that a primary task of the Commissioners was to recover those taxes which Parliament decreed had to be paid, and s1(1) of the 1970 Act permitted the Commissioners to set about that task pragmatically and to have regard to principles of good management. However, it was not possible to interpret s1 of the 1970 Act so that the Commissioners could deliberately refrain from collecting taxes, for example, by permitting the grant of concessions to taxpayers such as W if the same was necessary in order to prevent discrimination in the imposition of taxes which violated art 14 of the Convention. There was no doubt that when enacting s262 of the 1988 Act, Parliament had intended that the WBA be restricted to women. Therefore, the judge below was correct to make a declaration of incompatibility.
Further, the fact that settlements had been reached did not preclude the Commissioners from challenging similar claims involving Convention issues in a domestic forum. To award W or other taxpayers in a similar position an equivalent payment would result in a swelling of the numbers of those who had received tax allowances for which there was no legitimate justification. The Commissioners could therefore not be said to have acted unfairly or irrationally in declining to settle W’s claim and, in all the circumstances, the principle of just satisfaction did not require any such payment to be made.