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At a VERY long stretch, this IR35 judgement may be supportable

At a VERY long stretch, this IR35 judgement may be supportable

You will probably have heard me sounding off at fairly regular intervals about how inconsistent and impossible to judge the average IR35 case is. I’ve looked at many appeal judgements over the years and each one has been supportable, given the vague nature of that which is being judged. You can usually kind of see where the judge was coming from.

Now, however, we have a case that fails even a generous stab at understanding the logic.

How else do you describe a judgement that puts the contractor outside IR35 and then inside IR35, within the same contract…?

The case was JLJ Services Ltd vs. HMRC, heard by Howard Nowlan. On the face of it this was one of those cases where a contractor, a Mr Spencer, working through his own limited company and an agency for an end client had been challenged under IR35 and found wanting. He appealed the case and it went to the First Tier tribunal.

So far, so good. Well, not good for Mr Spencer, but you know what I mean.

Then life starts to get a little strange. JLJ had started off as a Unix-based technical expert for the client, Allianz in Bristol, working on a succession of projects. After a few years of presumably valuable and acceptable work, Allianz’s requirements changed and Mr Spencer moved to a more part-time role, on a series of rolling contracts, picking up whatever needed doing.

Now this is the key point, as far as the judge was concerned; the first part, being deliverables based, did not exhibit a degree of control, the second, however, did. Accordingly Mr Nowlan rules that the first part was outside and the second part inside. This despite everything working to the same overarching contract – only the schedule of deliverables had changed – and I’m guessing it never crossed Mr Spencer’s mind that the game had changed underneath him. He simply kept on doing what he was clearly very good at for a client with whom he had a good and mutually beneficial relationship.

That said, by screwing up your eyes and squinting, you could just about see where Nowlan was coming from; the increased level of Control moved the IR35 goalposts in the wrong direction.

Ah but, I hear you cry, having been paying attention over the years, Control is not the only test. What about Substitution, Mutuality and that most recent phenomenon, “being in business”? Which is where I rather part company with the judiciary.

Substitution? The contract had a right of substitution and, as near as I can tell from the judgement, Allianz could reject a substitute with reasonable grounds but were not actually averse to considering taking one on if Mr Spencer was unable to work. Nowlan, however, after a bit of verbal gymnastics – including allowing an Allianz representative rather too much latitude in the accuracy of his evidence giving – said that he “ took it to exhibit a realistic businessman’s contempt for a clause that he probably found irrelevant”, a position he agreed with.

So, Mr Nowlan, how many employees do you know who are allowed to submit a substitute worker?

Mutuality? A mere bagatelle. Mr Nowlan’s words: “There is considerable case law in relation to this test, progressively indicating that the test is of diminished importance or that it is indeed nearly meaningless”. Really? Can’t say I’d noticed any diminution in its importance. Cases have recently hinged on someone being sent home without pay when the systems failed and they could no longer work, while the permies sat and waited for normal service to be resumed. On full pay. Heigh ho.

So there went the RMC judgement on what constitutes employment then.

In business? It’s clear from various comments that Nowlan considered JLJ Services to be irrelevant and queried why it had been set up. So a judge trying a contactor case involving an agency who hasn’t heard of S44-47 ITEPA 2003 then. But hey, it was Nowlan’s first IR35 case.

So in conclusion, at a very long stretch, the judgement may be supportable. But we should not lightly dismiss the ability of a judge to take a fairly cavalier attitude to the key IR35 tests on some fairly flimsy grounds.

In fact the only good thing to come out of the whole case is that we should be grateful that First Tier cases do not set precedents. Luckily for us…

About the author: Alan Watts

Alan has worked in IT for most of the last 35 years, and first went freelance in 1996. He has been a PCG member from its start and has been spreading the message that freelancing is a professional career choice for many years. Alan also runs Malvolio’s Blog, a personal but highly informative take on the life of the modern freelance.

Alan Watts, Principal Consultant, LPW Computer Services

© 2011 All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.

Image: 1996 UK Royal Mail Cartoon Stamp Card by andertoons

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