Usufruits and HMRC Technical. Burning coals to Newcastle?


(Peter Harris, Barrister, Overseas Chambers ) #1

The concept is that of a wasting “asset”.

It is clear that the variety of species of usufruit in Europe is leaving Mr Davidson and his team in Newcastle with difficulties in comprehension, which is leading them to make unfounded and totally incorrect and pseudo-academic generalisations out of Roman law, rather than actually addressing the modern developments in each European state. For example, asserting that the latin nu-propriétaire being the “owner” of the abusus, or the right of destruction which in some warped manner would entitle the French nu-propriétaire to sell the whole propriété rather than their limited right. Given that French law ensures that each legal property right is only sellable by the holder, and not by someone else, the assertion by Mr Davidson that it does not is incongruous, and technically abusive. Inferring from a falsehood that either the usufruitier or the nu-propriétaire has the administration of the whole of the property - pleine-propriété- as opposed to that of their limited right on that basis, cannot be qualified as anything else but an abusive practice.

The Treasury Solicitor has persuaded Mr Davidson and Mr Key to allege, wrongly, that the nu-propriétaire of a French immovable can sell the usufruitier’s rights as well as the nue-propriété without their consent, thus inferring that there is a form of quasi-trusteeship equivalent of a settlement. I cite one previous correspondence, which is being repeated like a scratched record:

“The owner can divide these rights into two groups: the usufruit which will include the first two rights and the nue-propriété which will include the third. This splitting of property rights between being able to enjoy the benefits of the property, but not being able to dispose of it; and the ability to alienate the property, is not so dissimilar to the separation of the beneficial and legal titles to property recognised in English law.
In disposing of the properties to his daughters whilst retaining a usufruit over them, Mr A . separated, for the remainder of his life, the right to sell the property from the right to use or enjoy the benefits of the property. The question then is how the law of any part of the UK would view a disposition that gave rise to such an outcome.
Although there is no formal trust structure or appointment of trustees, English law would recognise the daughters as being the legal owners of the properties, holding them as trustees for the benefit of Mr A for his life, with remainders to themselves. This gives the element of succession required by s.43(2)(a) and in such a context Mr A, as the provider of the funds, would indeed be the settlor under s.44(1).”

English law in fact does no such thing. The assertion that it does is a blatant falsehood. The operation of English law is to apply principles of situs and then conflict and private international law, it does not presume there to be a trust. The process of English private international law and conflict is set out in Philipson-Stow v. IRC, (1961 AC 727 which does not support Newcastle Technical 's position at all.

What is more the fact that the nu-propriétaire can operate and dispose of their legal interest independently of the usufruitier was shown both by articles 621 and 815-5 Code civ, and a 1989 decision of the French Cour de Cassation 1st Civil Division of 19th December, 1989. The nu-propriétaire can in fact dispose of the nue-propriété of which he alone is the absolute owner without the agreement of the usufruitier but not the pleine-propriété, in which the usufruitier has a separate legal interest. There is an expanding market in France and in Spain for the sale of nue-propriété legal interests by pensioners in France seeking an equity release over their homes without the inconvenience of going to a bank or finance company. In short, there is no room at law, whether English or French for the HMRC solicitor to lead Mr Davidson to assert a fictional settlement over the whole propriété, particularly on the sole basis that he cannot think of any other way of addressing it. There can only be a “settlement” over the entire “property”, la propriété, if one party, the alleged trustee has a right to sell the whole. In the case of a French usufructuary dismemberment that is simply outlawed. In fact, English law does “regulate” the rights arising from the disposition by way of a usufructuary dismemberment at law, but not as a form of settlement. I will abstain, if I may, from revealing that right.

Whilst it is understandable that a civil servant, with the experience of Mr Davidson, can accumulate a degree of knowledge of a foreign legal system by experience, it follows that if that received experience is wrongly informed, it is inevitable that his analysis of any given foreign set of property rights will be incorrect when taken against the statutory fiction of s.43(2) ITA 1984, which has its limitations. However, it is clear that neither the Treasury Solicitor nor HMRC Newcastle have ever taken foreign counsel’s advice on what a usufruit actually is in any given jurisdiction, or if they have done so have deliberately ignored it and are not prepared to alter their position. Treating s.43(2) ITA as a form of fiscal fulcrum to move otherwise legal rights into an imaginary settlement world was not what Parliament had in mind in 1975. A foreign property law interest governed by the _lex rei sitae cannot be reduced to an imaginary settlement by holding a fiscal telescope to the other blind eye; particularly when it already is “regulated” by English law as a legal right. S.43 (2) ITA 1984 was the redressing of an Estate duty point as to the application of the lex rei sitae until the foreign land was sold following the House of Lords decision in Phiipson-Stow v. IRC [1961] AC 727. There appears to be no Parliamentary documentation to the contrary, The only fiction allowed appears to be that relating to the second limb of the fiction, namely that of administration of the whole property , which is irrelevant to a usufructuary dismemberment.

Even the Standing Committee A minutes of the Finance Bill 1975 do not support the imaginary overlay of an imaginary settlement over foreign land, as opposed to movables.

May I suggest to my colleagues that great care be taken not to take short cuts in analysis and description, as that has led to Mr Davidson’s assumptions being wrongly orientated, with substantial injustice and over taxation being wrought. It is now at the point where rather than listening to informed reason, he is now seeking a test case to prove himself and his over-extension of the scope of s.43(2) ITA 1984 right. I would trust that HMRC would pay the whole costs in any such test case scenario.

It is claimed that the case of Dreyfus TC Vol XIV 560 is not relevant, when it in fact provides the limitation on any use of the Taxpayer’s and the Courts’ imputed imagination. It is difficult to see how a French national’s imagination can be encumbered with English let alone HMRC’s warped view of what a “settlement” actually is when dealing with a French immovable right which they know not to be any form of imaginary settlement but a wasting asset! English law as implemented by the Courts, not HMRC, will give full effect as to the substance of the foreign property rights, in particular when these are not trusts. What is more, he refuses to accept that HMRC has to provide a legal analysis of why their imaginary “view” is correct by reference to both foreign law and any authority in any one of the United Kingdom jurisdictions.

it is clear for example, that Dutch law enables the Dutch usufructuary to consume the property as a whole without the equivalent of the nu-propriétaire having any claim against their estate. On the other hand, a Belgian or a French usufruit does not bear that right, and the usufructuary’s estate can be compelled to account to the nu-propriétaire for the substance consumed. That is the source of the development of the French quasi-usufruit. There are therefore substantial differences between legal jurisdictions which are not reducible to a lowest common denominator, and certainly not by a slack approach to the issue by reference to a trust.

It is curious that HMRC or the Treasury Solicitor can pretend to any authoritative knowledge of French law of property when any relevant article in the Code civil disables that pretence, and then seek to assert that it is no longer their problem, but the taxpayer’s.

Is it not time that the imaginary game of quiddich invented by HMRC Newcastle after the Scottish Proper Liferent fiasco in 1978, over EU property rights which are covered by the protection under the Freedom of movement of capital be brought to an end, even if it is just prior to Brexit? The Treasury Solicitor’s broomstick is certainly not up to standard when placed against the very law which they are attempting to apply. The statute does not say the municipal law of any part of the United Kingdom, whatever those may be.

Peter Harris
www.overseaschambers.com