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HMRC v Gerald and Sarah Lee: A Case for Private Residence Relief

Published by Sanjay Gautam
Published Date: October 18, 2023

In UK property taxation, the issue of Private Residence Relief (PRR) often takes centre stage. A recent case, HMRC v Gerald and Sarah Lee [2023] UKUT 242 has provided crucial insights into the application of PRR in situations where land undergoes redevelopment.

In this case, Gerald and Sarah Lee found themselves at the heart of a legal dispute with HMRC concerning the taxation of a property they redeveloped.

The Lee Case: A Tale of Redevelopment and Private Residence Relief

The story begins in October 2010 when Gerald and Sarah Lee jointly purchased a piece of land known as 8 Nuns Walk for Β£1.679 million. This land was destined for transformation. Over the next few years, between October 2010 and March 2013, the original house on the land was demolished, making way for a new dwelling. By March 2013, the construction of the new house was complete, and it became the Lees' primary residence.

The Lee Case A Tale of Redevelopment and Private Residence Relief

The Lees occupied their newly built house, utilising the rest of the land as the garden and grounds of their new home. In May 2014, the Lees decided to sell the land at 8 Nuns Walk, and it was at this point the complexities of Private Residence Relief (PRR) emerged.

In January 2017, HMRC initiated an enquiry into the Lees' 2014/15 tax returns, which led to several rounds of discussions and negotiations. Eventually, in September 2019, HMRC issued closure notices.

They concluded that the Lees had owned the property for 43 months, from the date of acquisition in October 2010 to the sale in May 2014. They calculated that PRR would be available for 18/43rds of the gain due to a final period exemption of 18 months (9 months now), applicable at the time.

HMRC's Interpretation and the Appeal

HMRC's position was clear: they believed that the entire ownership period of 43 months was relevant for calculating PRR, irrespective of the construction period. Their argument rested on the notion that one asset, the property and the land, was bought and sold. They maintained that the legislation's 'period of ownership' should clearly refer to the land.

The Lees, on the other hand, contested this interpretation. They argued that the legislation was unambiguous and referred to the 'period of ownership' of the dwelling house, which they believed was the essence of PRR.

For Lees, the crucial timeframe under consideration was the 15 months between the completion of the newly constructed house (March 2013) and the date of its sale (May 2014). Hence, the gain would be covered by the final period of exemption of 18 months.

The First Tier Tribunal's Decision

The case was initially brought before the First Tier Tribunal (FTT). The FTT acknowledged that one asset was purchased and sold, as argued by HMRC. However, they disagreed with HMRC that a 'dwelling house' should include land.

Importantly, they emphasised that using 'dwelling house' in the legislation allowed the possibility of treating it as separate from the land within the same title.

The First Tier Tribunal's Decision on HMRC v Gerald and Sarah Lee

The FTT ruled in favour of the taxpayers, asserting that the 'period of ownership' indeed referred to the period of ownership of the dwelling house being sold.

Furthermore, they clarified that the PRR legislation aimed to calculate the gain on the asset and then determine the relief applied to that gain, thus emphasising the separation of these two aspects.

In essence, the FTT concluded that while there may not be a precise definition of 'period of ownership' in the legislation for PRR purposes, the natural reading of the legislation suggested that it referred to the period of ownership of the dwelling house sold.

The UT's Ruling: Clear Interpretation of Statutory Terms

The Upper Tribunal upheld the FTT's ruling, providing a clear and definitive interpretation of the relevant statutory terms. They concluded that the 'Period of Ownership' in the Taxation of Chargeable Gains Act 1992 referred to the ownership of the dwelling house, not the land. This interpretation was based on the language and structure of the statute itself.

The UT further examined HMRC's arguments and found that they had failed to provide compelling evidence to support their claim that PRR should extend to the land. The legislation repeatedly mentioned specific assets when referring to periods of ownership, a key point missing in HMRC's argument.

Moreover, the UT emphasised that the FTT's ruling had appropriately considered and applied the specific relief mentioned in the statute and the periods of ownership associated with each relief.

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Implications for Taxpayers

The Lee case has, however, provided much-needed clarity in a complex area of property taxation. It underscores that PRR can apply to the entire gain on a redeveloped property if certain conditions are met, primarily related to the dwelling house's use and occupation.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the FTT's decision, subsequently upheld by the UT, sets a precedent for future cases where PRR is sought on redeveloped properties. It aligns with a strict interpretation of the legislation's language and purpose.

With this ruling, the Lee case will serve as a crucial reference point for taxpayers navigating the complexities of property taxation in the UK.

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Sanjay Gautam
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