High Court reaffirms burden of proof and duty of disclosure in non-domestic rates case: Total Sprint Limited v Swale Borough Council.

Citation: [2023] EWHC 2968 (Admin)
Judgment on

Introduction

The case of Total Sprint Limited v Swale Borough Council [2023] EWHC 2968 (Admin) involves an appeal by way of case stated from the order of District Judge (Magistrates Court) Leake regarding a liability order under the Non-Domestic Rating (Collection and Enforcement)(Local Lists) Regulations 1989 against Total Sprint Limited. This comprehensive analysis will elucidate key legal principles applied in the case and the outcomes pertaining to the application of the burden of proof, abuse of process, duty of candour, and disclosure.

Key Facts

Total Sprint Limited (“Total Sprint”) was issued demand notices by Swale Borough Council (“the Council”) for non-domestic rates on Units 19—20, Craft Marsh Trading Estate. Previously, liability orders were made against Sprint Couriers (Southern) Ltd for the same units, which the Council had not disclosed when seeking a summons against Total Sprint. Total Sprint appealed against the liability order, arguing that the Council’s actions amounted to an abuse of court process, among other issues.

The case grapples with several legal principles:

  • Abuse of Process: Whether the Council’s actions amounted to an abuse of process was scrutinized, focusing on re-litigation, failure to set aside previous liability orders, and breach of duty of candour.

  • Duty of Candour: A key issue was whether the Council had a duty of candour when applying for a summons against Total Sprint and if it breached this duty by not disclosing previous liability orders against Sprint Couriers.

  • Disclosure: The Council’s duty to disclose documents in civil proceedings under the Civil Procedure Rules, despite their inapplicability to this case, created a significant discussion point, especially regarding the disclosure of documents adverse to the Council’s case or supportive of Total Sprint’s case.

  • Burden of Proof: An essential aspect of the case concerned the distribution of the burden of proof relating to rateable occupation of property under regulation 12 of the 1989 Regulations.

These principles were applied in the specific context of liability orders for non-domestic rates, summons issuance, and adherence to judicial procedure.

Outcomes

The High Court determined the following:

  1. Abuse of Process: The Council’s procedural failings, while significant and subject to harsh criticism, did not collectively amount to an abuse of process necessitating a stay in proceedings.

  2. Duty of Candour: The duty of candour was owed, but the scope of it was limited, and failure to disclose previous liability orders at the time of summoning was not a breach of this duty.

  3. Disclosure: The Council was bound by the order made at the first hearing and had an obligation to disclose potentially adverse material once liability was challenged, which it failed to do, breaching its duty of disclosure.

  4. Burden of Proof: The evidential burden of establishing rateable occupation was on Total Sprint, which it failed to discharge, leading to the inevitable outcome of liability orders being made.

  5. Appeal Dismissed: In summing the evaluation, the appeal was dismissed, reaffirming the District Judge’s decision regarding the burden of proof and rejecting the claims of an abuse of process.

Conclusion

The High Court’s comprehensive analysis in Total Sprint Limited v Swale Borough Council reinforces the imperatives of procedural propriety in public taxation litigations and underscores the nuanced application of burden of proof in civil legal proceedings. The decision affirms that the collective procedural irregularities presented did not manifest in an abuse of process. Moreover, it clarifies the extent of the duty of candour and disclosure required by a rating authority. The case concludes with significant guidance on how magistrates’ courts, local authorities, and ratepayers should approach issues surrounding rateable occupation and liability for non-domestic rates.

Related Summaries