So can ignorance be a reasonable excuse?
The recent tax case of Leigh Jacques v HMRC  UKFTT 311 (TC) considered whether ignorance can indeed be accepted as a reasonable excuse. While only an appeal of a Sch 41 Failure to Notify penalty of £250 in relation to High Income Child Benefit Charge (HICBC), the case was decided in the appellant’s favour, and should be noted by HMRC. In my view, it presents a very well explained decision by Justice Nigel Popplewell (JNP).
A summary of the notable points are:
- JNP held it was objectively reasonable for the appellant in the circumstances of this case to have been ignorant of the requirement to complete a self-assessment tax return in light of his liability to the HICBC.
- It was not incumbent on the objectively reasonable taxpayer, without notice of a change in tax law, to go rummaging through all of HMRC’s information on the off chance that there might be something that is hidden away in it which is relevant to his tax position - para 28.
- JNP states HMRC has been disingenuous in its use of other tax cases when presenting. When using Nicholson V Morris  STC 269 as a reasonable excuse case as well as the Perrin case  UKUT 363 (TCC), HMRC selected extracts that did not portray the actual reasoning behind those cases to bolster their arguments without reflecting how decisions were reached in those cases.
In summary, ignorance of the law can constitute a reasonable excuse. This is also demonstrated in other cases for example what para 82 said in Perrin and the decision in the Clean Car Co  VATTR 234.
I believe this recent case will assist practitioners in defending penalties where the taxpayer was unaware of a statutory requirement. For example, we’ve seen unprecedented use by HMRC of Schedule 18 of Finance (No. 2) Act 2017 Failure to Correct penalties, where HMRC officers have steadfastly maintained it’s not an excuse to be ignorant of the 30 September 2018 Requirement to Correct deadline. Buzzacott is currently challenging HMRC’s position on this with HMRC’s safeguards committee.