Regina v Commissioners of Inland Revenue, ex parte Unilever plc: CA 1996

The Revenue had refused to exercise a discretion in favour of the taxpayer in the same form it had granted for over twenty years. The taxpayer complained that this was unfair.
Held: The new approach to late applications, brought in without any warning, was so unfair as to amount to an abuse of power, notwithstanding that the court accepted that the practice was not such as to engage the legitimate expectation doctrine.
The Commissioners are under a common law duty to treat taxpayers fairly, and not to discriminate without justification between taxpayers. It is not always a condition for a legitimate expectation to arise that there should be a clear, unambiguous and unqualified representation by the public authority, the test is whether the public authority has acted so unfairly that its conduct amounts to an abuse of power.
Sir Thomas Bingham MR said: ‘the categories of unfairness are not closed, and precedent should act as a guide not a cage’ and ‘These points cumulatively persuade me that on the unique facts of this case the Revenue’s argument should be rejected. On the history here, I consider that to reject Unilever’s claims in reliance on the time limit, without clear and general advance notice, is so unfair as to amount to an abuse of power’.
Simon Brown LJ said: ”Unfairness amounting to an abuse of power’ as envisaged in Preston and the other Revenue cases is unlawful not because it involves conduct such as would offend some equivalent private law principle, not principally indeed because it breaches a legitimate expectation that some different substantive decision will be taken, but rather because either it is illogical or immoral or both for a public authority to act with conspicuous unfairness and in that sense abuse its power. As Lord Donaldson MR said in R v ITC, ex p TSW: ‘The test in public law is fairness, not an adaptation of the law of contract or estoppel’.’
and ‘on the one hand mere unfairness – conduct which may be characterised as ‘a bit rich’ but nevertheless understandable, and on the other hand a decision so outrageously unfair that it should not be allowed to stand.’
Simon Brown LJ, Sir Thomas Bingham MR
[1996] STC 681
England and Wales
Appeal fromRegina v Inland Revenue Commissioners Ex Parte Unilever Plc and Others QBD 12-Sep-1994
The Inland Revenue is to notify taxpayer of a change in acquiescence in practice to late payment. . .

Cited by:
CitedRegina on the Application of Wilkinson v The Commissioners of Inland Revenue CA 18-Jun-2003
The claimant had not received the same tax allowance following his wife’s death as would have been received by a woman surviving her husband. That law had been declared incompatible with Human Rtights law as discriminatory, but the respondent . .
CitedRowland v The Environment Agency CA 19-Dec-2003
The claimant owned a house by the river Thames at Hedsor Water. Public rights of navigation existed over the Thames from time immemorial, and its management lay with the respondent. Landowners at Hedsor had sought to assert that that stretch was now . .
Dictum AdoptedRegina (On the Application of Bajram Zeqiri) v Secretary of State for The Home Department CA 12-Mar-2001
The applicant’s case had been delayed to allow a test case as to whether Germany was to be treated as a safe country for the return of asylum seekers. Before the test case appeal was abandoned, circumstances changed so as to allow certification of . .
CitedRashid, Regina (on the Application of) v Secretary of State for the Home Department CA 16-Jun-2005
The Home Secretary appealed against a grant of a judicial review to the respondent who had applied for asylum. The court had found that two other asylum applicants had been granted leave to remain on similar facts and on the appellants, and that it . .
AppliedRegina v The National Lottery Commission ex parte Camelot Group Plc Admn 21-Sep-2000
The Commission had considered bids tendered in open competition to run The National Lottery. Neither of the two candidates who entered bids was considered to have satisfied all the criteria necessary to be given the relevant licence. The Commission . .
CitedLondon Borough of Lewisham and Others), Regina (on The Application of) v Assessment and Qualifications Alliance and Others Admn 13-Feb-2013
Judicial review was sought of the changes to the marking systems for GCSE English in 2012.
Held: The claim failed. Though properly brought, the failure was in the underlying structue of the qualification, and not in the respondent’s attempts . .
CitedGallaher Group Ltd and Others, Regina (on The Application of) v The Competition and Markets Authority SC 16-May-2018
Extent and consequences of duties of ‘equal treatment’ or ‘fairness’, said to have been owed by the Office of Fair Trading to those subject to investigation under the Competition Act 1998. . .

Lists of cited by and citing cases may be incomplete.
Updated: 25 July 2021; Ref: scu.184333