Judgments - Deutsche Morgan Grenfell Group Plc (Respondents) v. Her Majesty's Commissioners of Inland Revenue and another (Appellants)

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    44.  The submission that the restitutionary remedy for payments made under a mistake is subject to an exception in favour of the Revenue where the mistake was one of law runs into difficulty as soon as it is articulated. It seeks to build in two exceptions, not just one, into the generality of the remedy that was recognised in Kleinwort Benson. The first exception would involve treating payments made under a mistake of fact differently from payments made under a mistake of law. The second would involve treating the Revenue differently from all other public authorities which receive payments made under a mistake of law. If this argument were to succeed it would have a significant impact on the law's taxonomy. English law has been moving step by step towards a principled statement of the law of restitution. The carving out of exceptions which are not clearly based on principle would risk reversing this process.

    (a) the debatable passage

    45.  The Revenue's argument on grounds of principle is based on a passage in Lord Goff's speech in Kleinwort Benson which Lord Walker has referred to (para 29(5)) as the debatable passage. In this passage Lord Goff drew a distinction between, on the one hand, "payments of taxes and other similar charges and, on the other hand, payments made under ordinary private transactions": p 381G-H. Elaborating on this distinction at p 382B-D, he said that under our law of restitution there were now to be found "two separate and distinct regimes" in respect of the repayment of money paid under a mistake of law. These were (1) cases concerned with repayment of "taxes and other similar charges" exacted ultra vires, recoverable as of right at common law under the Woolwich principle, and (2) other cases, which might broadly be described as concerned with the repayment of money paid under private transactions, governed by the common law. At p 382D-E he went on to say that a case might be made in favour of a principle that, in cases concerned with taxes, payments made in accordance with a prevailing practice or a settled understanding of the law should be irrecoverable.

    46.  There are a number of points about this passage that have to be taken into account in assessing its significance. The first is that it appears in a section of Lord Goff's speech where, having concluded at p 375 that English law should recognise that there was a general right to recover money paid under a mistake whether of fact or law, he was considering whether it would be appropriate to develop a defence of settled understanding of the law on the lines proposed by the Law Commission as a corollary to the newly developed right of recovery: p 381B-C. He was, in effect clearing the ground for a further examination of this point. Cases where taxes and other similar charges exacted ultra vires were recoverable as of right under the Woolwich principle could be left on one side because there was no need in those cases to invoke a mistake of law by the payer: p 381H. The phrase "taxes and other similar charges" lacks the precision that would be needed if it was intended to define the extent of an exception to the general right of recovery. But Lord Goff's point was simply that there was no room in the case of an ultra vires demand for a defence that it was made on a settled understanding of the law. The only context in which a limit to recovery on that ground needed to be considered was where repayment of money was sought as having been paid under a mistake of law under the newly recognised common law principle.

    47.  In the Court of Appeal [2006] 2 WLR 103, 173-174, para 205 Jonathan Parker LJ said that the first of the two regimes which Lord Goff identified in this passage was a comprehensive and complete regime in relation to overpayments of tax made under a mistake of law, and that it was not limited to cases where the payment of tax was made pursuant to an unlawful demand - in other words that it was not limited to Woolwich cases. I do not think that this can be right. Not only does it read far more into the passage than the words used justify. It also fails to take account of the fact that in the Woolwich case there was no error of law by the taxpayer. So the House was not called upon to consider the effect of a mistake of law in that case at all. Lord Goff's use of the phrase "or other similar charges" is perfectly intelligible if is understood as referring to the case of an ultra vires demand. All statutory charges which are the subject of an ultra vires demand fall easily within this category. It begs many questions if it was intended to identify a category that was to be excluded from the general common law right of recovery for payments made under a mistake: see, for example, Sir Jack Beatson's comments in Chapter 9, Unlawful Statutes and Mistake of Law, p 174 - 175 in Burrows and Rodger (Eds), Mapping the Law (Oxford 2006).

    48.  It has to be acknowledged, of course, that at p 382C-D Lord Goff indicated that these cases were limited to private transactions, and that he repeated this point at p 382E-F when he said that the case he was dealing with was concerned with payments made under private transactions. But it can, I think, be inferred that the reason for this is to be found in his reference at p 381H-382A to the various statutory provisions which regulate the repayment of overpaid tax. This is why, when he came at p 382C-D to identify the first regime more precisely, he included in it not only those cases where the payment was recoverable under the Woolwich principle but also those cases which were the subject of statutory regimes regulating recovery. Here too it was unnecessary to consider a defence of common understanding, as it was open to the statutory regime which regulated recovery to deny relief where, for example, the return was made on the basis of or in accordance with prevailing practice: see, for example, the proviso to section 33(2) of TMA 1970. When he was describing these two separate and distinct regimes Lord Goff did not contemplate the possibility that there was a third category: cases concerned with the repayment of money paid under a mistake of law to a public authority which was not covered by any statutory regime regulating recovery and which, although recoverable as of right on the principle in Woolwich because it had been exacted by a demand ultra vires, was also within the scope of the newly articulated common law principle. It is into this third category that this case falls.

    49.  I think that it is safe to assume that if he had appreciated that there was this third category Lord Goff would have treated it in the same way as the second. In other words he would have recognised that, as the common law remedy was available, the question whether a settled understanding defence should be available was relevant here too. The element of public interest which is lacking in the case of private transactions would have to be taken into account in considering whether there was room for such a defence. But it would have been wholly inconsistent with the general principle which he had identified for Lord Goff to conclude that there was no cause of action on the ground of unjust enrichment at common law for payments made under a mistake of law in the case of the third category just because it was also within the scope of the Woolwich principle. I respectfully agree with Sir Jack Beatson's comment in his chapter on Unlawful Statutes and Mistake of Law at p 173 that, if Lord Goff had thought that the general right of recovery did not apply to payments of taxes and general charges, he would surely have said so in his discussion of that general right.

    (b) concurrent remedies

    50.  The question then is whether DMG must be denied a remedy on the ground that the payments were made under a mistake because a remedy under the Woolwich principle is available. Lord Goff treated the two categories which he identified in the debatable passage as providing separate and distinct remedies. This might be taken to suggest that, if a remedy was available to DMG by analogy with the Woolwich principle, it should not be allowed to pursue a remedy on the common law ground of unjust enrichment. But in his discussion at p 387 of the question whether in the context of void transactions failure of consideration should be allowed to trump mistake of law as a ground for recovery of benefits conferred in consequence of that mistake, he pointed out that an equally strong argument might perhaps be made in favour of mistake of law trumping failure of consideration. The same point could be made in this case. The Revenue argue that primacy should be given to a ground of recovery based on the Woolwich analogy because, if this is given, the six year limitation period will apply. DMG, on the other hand, wishes to take the benefit of section 32(1)(c) of the 1980 Act, which is why it suits it to base their claim on the general right to recover money paid under a mistake.

    51.  There is no obvious way of deciding which of these two approaches must be adopted if only one can be allowed. The question however is whether a claimant is under an obligation to select the remedy that will best suit his opponent. In his note on this case, Restitution in Respect of Mistakenly Paid Tax (2005) 121 LQR 540, 542, Professor Andrew Burrows said:

    "The starting point for a principled analysis is that, in general terms now that this concurrent liability has been accepted, a claimant ought to be free to choose between causes of action and that it would be odd for one cause of action, offering an advantage to a claimant, to be knocked out by a wider cause of action which does not offer that advantage."

    It would indeed be odd, and I can think of no principle that could justify such a strange result. The answer to this point is to be found in an observation by Lord Goff in a case where the question was whether a contract legislated exclusively for the parties, with the result that a parallel duty of care was excluded by it. He said that there is no sound basis for a rule which automatically restricts the claimant to either a tortious or a contractual remedy and that there could be no objection to his taking advantage of the remedy which was most advantageous to him: Henderson v Merrett Syndicates Ltd [1995] 2 AC 145, 193. We are in a different field, but I think that his reasoning is just as compelling in this context: see his reference in Kleinwort Benson [1999] 2 AC 349, 387 at p 387 to the usual preference of English law to allow either of two alternative remedies to be available, leaving any possible conflict to be resolved by election at a late stage.

    (c) the statutory regime

    52.  The issue here is whether DMG's claim under the Kleinwort Benson principle is excluded on grounds of policy. The policy which the Revenue invoke is that, where there is a statutory regime for the recovery of payments made under a mistake, a common law claim cannot exist in parallel with it. The argument is that the statutory regime, of which section 33 of TMA 1970 provides the leading example, excludes recovery on the ground of mistake at common law whether the mistake is of fact or law, and whether or not the statutory regime applies to the payment that is in question. DMG, for its part, accepts that there can be no recovery at common law where the claim falls within the ambit of the statutory regime. But it submits, first, that section 33 has no application to this case and, secondly, that Parliament cannot be taken to have intended that restitution should be barred by the statutory regime where it does not provide a remedy because the payment was not made under an excessive assessment.

    53.  Mr Glick QC for the Revenue said that section 33 was an exhaustive provision which covered the whole field of recovery for payments made under a mistake by the taxpayer. It did so both in respect of the mistakes for which it provided expressly and also, by necessary implication, in respect of those situations for which Parliament had deliberately chosen not to legislate. I understood him to submit that ACT fell within section 33 because it was a form of corporation tax which is charged on profits of companies and is recoverable under an assessment. Although he accepted that it was possible to envisage a case where the mistake did not fall within the terms of section 33, he said that the gap if it did exist was at best a very narrow one.

    54.  The problem with fitting the payment of ACT into the regime provided for by section 33 lies in the way this tax was collected. The system that was laid down for its collection in para 1 of Schedule 13 to ICTA 1980 was for a return to be made for each of the company's accounting periods of the franked payments made during that period which was to be accompanied by the amount of the ACT, if any, payable by it in respect of those payments. It was not tax charged under an assessment, which is what section 33(1) of TMA 1970 contemplates.

    55.  In support of his argument that, even if section 33 of TMA 1970 did not apply, Parliament had enacted a statutory scheme which was inconsistent with the common law remedy, Mr Glick relied on the judgment of your Lordships' House in Marcic v Thames Water Utilities Ltd [2004] 2 AC 42. I do not think that that case is in point here. Mr Marcic's claim in nuisance was held to be inconsistent with the statutory scheme. His argument was that Thames Water ought to have built new sewers to prevent flooding of his property. But, as Lord Nicholls of Birkenhead pointed out, this ignored the statutory limitations on the enforcement of sewerage undertakers' drainage obligations: para 35. An important purpose of the statutory scheme was that individual householders should not be able to launch proceedings in respect of a failure to build sufficient sewers. That would supplant the regulatory role of the industry's regulator, whose role was to decide whether to make an enforcement order when questions of flooding arose. Section 33 has none of the features of a statutory scheme of that kind.

    56.  For all these reasons I would hold that the general right to recover payments made under a mistake of law on the Kleinwort Benson principle extends to the payment of taxes made to the Revenue on the mistaken belief that they were due and payable, and that DMG is entitled to take advantage of section 32(1)(c) of the Limitation Act 1980 by basing its claim for restitution on that principle.

    The mistake issue

    57.  The availability of a cause of action under the Kleinwort Benson principle is of no help to DMG unless it can show that it made the payments of ACT under a mistake. The Revenue maintain that it did not make the payments under any mistake. They say that the tax was due and payable when DMG paid it because it had not made a group income election in respect of the relevant dividends.

    58.  There is no doubt that the only way that a company resident in the United Kingdom could avoid liability under section 14(1) of ICTA 1988 to ACT on qualifying distributions made to its shareholders was by making an election jointly with the receiving company under section 247(1) of the Act, a group income election, that section 247(1) was to apply to the dividends received from the paying company. So long as a group income election was in force the election dividends, as section 247(1) described them, were excluded from section 14(1). But if no group income election was in force ACT was due and payable. So, if the correct approach is to look only at the system laid down by the statute, it is plain that because there was no election there was no mistake.

    59.  But this approach overlooks the principle on which the claim for restitution that was recognised in Kleinwort Benson is founded, which is unjust enrichment. As Lord Goff put it at [1999] 2 AC 349, 385, it is unjust for the defendant to retain the money paid under a mistake. The essence of the principle is that it is unjust for a person to retain a benefit which he has received at the expense of another which that person did not intend him to receive because it was made under a mistake that it was due. The claimant must prove that he acted under a mistake. But the stage when he made his mistake does not matter, so long as it can be said that if he had known of the true state of the facts or of the law at the time of the payment he would not have made it. A wrong turning half way along the journey is just as capable of being treated as a relevant mistake as one that is made on the doorstep at the point of arrival.

    60.  Robert Goff J, as he then was, said in Barclays Bank Ltd v W J Simms Son & Cooke (Southern) Ltd [1980] QB 677, 694, after a careful review of the leading authorities about payments made under a mistake of fact, that it is sufficient to ground recovery that the claimant's mistake should have caused him to pay the money to the payee. As Professor Burrows, The Law of Restitution, 2nd ed (2002), p 136 puts it, the type of mistake does not matter. It is purely its effect on the payer that counts. In Kleinwort Benson at p 379 Lord Goff said that it was plain that the money in that case was paid over under a mistake:

    "The payer believed, when he paid the money, that he was bound in law to pay it. He is now told that, on the law as held to be applicable at the date of the payment, he was not bound to pay it. Plainly, therefore, he paid the money under a mistake of law, and accordingly, subject to any applicable defences, he is entitled to recover it."

    61.  Mr Peter Thomason, DMG's Head of Taxation in London, gave evidence about his state of mind at the time when the payments of ACT were made. He made it clear in his witness statement that the ACT was paid because the relevant provisions of ICTA 1988 required it to be paid and because he believed that the UK statute denying the ability to make a group income election was the law and that he was bound to act in accordance with it. As Park J records in his judgment at para 27, he was cross-examined on his witness statement. But the judge did not believe that this passage in his evidence was challenged or affected by his answers on other points. In his opinion the mistake that DMG made when the Act was paid was that it did not realise that it could have made a valid group election with the non-resident companies. In para 29 he repeated a point that he made in para 11 when he was summarising the evidence. He said that he had no doubt that if DMG had submitted elections the Revenue would have pointed to the clear terms of the statute and rejected them, and that DMG would have been liable to pay the ACT and would have paid it.

    62.  Park J acknowledged in para 25 of his judgment that DMG's mistake was not directly a mistake about whether there was a liability to pay ACT. As he put it, it was directly a mistake about whether group income elections could be made. The liabilities to pay ACT arose as secondary consequences of that primary mistake. In the Court of Appeal Jonathan Parker LJ said that he could not agree with this analysis and that DMG's mistake lay not in its belief that a group election was not available but rather in its belief that the ACT was payable when, on the true state of the law, it was not: paras 231-232. I think, with respect, that Park J's analysis was the correct way of looking at what happened in this case. It was the mistaken belief that group relief could not be claimed that led inevitably to the liability to pay ACT which, absent a valid claim to group relief, DMG was not in a position to dispute. That was where the mistake was made, of which the payment of ACT was a secondary consequence. But, as Park J was right to recognise, if the mistake about the availability of group income relief had not existed, the ACT would not have been paid. There was an unbroken causative link between the mistake and the payment. It follows that the payments were made under a mistake. The mistake was, of course, a mistake of law. But under the Kleinwort Benson principle a cause of action at common law for their recovery is available.

    The discovery issue

    63.  The next question is when, for the purposes of section 32(1)(c) of the 1980 Act, DMG discovered its mistake or could with reasonable diligence have done so. The Revenue submit that the relevant mistake was discovered in relation to the 1993 and 1995 ACT payments in or about July 1995 when DMG learned that the provisions of section 247 of ICTA 1988 were the subject of serious legal challenge on the basis of EC law in the Hoechst case and might not be lawful. They submit that the 1996 payment was not made under a mistake as, when this payment was made, DMG was aware that the provisions of section 247 were the subject of serious challenge and might not be lawful.

    64.  In support of these arguments reference is made to what I said in Kleinwort Benson [1999] 2 AC 349 about the state of mind of the payer who claims to have made a payment under a mistake. At p 409-410 I said that cases of mistake could vary from complete ignorance to a state of ample knowledge but a misapplication of what was known to the facts - from sheer ignorance to positive but incorrect belief, as Mason CJ said in David Securities Pty Ltd v Commonwealth Bank of Australia (1992) 175 CLR 353, 374. But I also said that a state of doubt was different from a mistake, and that a person who pays when in doubt takes the risk that he may be wrong. I ended this passage at p 411C-D by saying that the critical question was whether the payer would have made the payment if he had known what he is now being told was the law.

    65.  These propositions are capable of further refinement: see Professor McKendrick, 'Mistake of Law' - Time for a Change, in The Limits of Restitutionary Claims: A Comparative Analysis (ed Swadling, 1997), pp 232-233; Graham Virgo, The Principles of the Law of Restitution (1999), p 161; Professor Burrows, the Law of Restitution, 2nd ed (2002), p 140. The difficult question is what degree of doubt is compatible with a mistake claim, as Professor Burrows points out. I see the issue as being essentially one of causation. What was the effect of the mistake on the payer? But the basic principle is, of course, that of unjust enrichment. At what point can it be said that the payee has been unjustly enriched? The answer to these questions will depend on the facts of the case. One can leave on one side cases where there is another ground on which the payee was entitled to be paid: frustra petis quod mox restiturus es. As for the rest, the payer's reason for making the payment despite his doubt will have a part to play in resolving the issue as to whether the payer, who would not have made the payment had he known the true state of the facts or the law at the time of the payment, should bear the risk or can recover on the ground that he was mistaken.

    66.  The argument that DMG simply took the risk that it might have been wrong when it made the payments was considered and rejected by Park J. He held in para 30 of his judgment that DMG did not discover its mistake in 1995 when it learned about the argument that Hoechst was advancing. It did not do so until the decision in Hoechst was released by the European Court on 8 March 2001. In the Court of Appeal Jonathan Parker LJ said in para 234 that he agreed with the judge's conclusion on this point. But Rix LJ and Buxton LJ found it difficult to reconcile the judge's conclusion that DMG was still labouring under a mistake of law with what I said in Kleinwort Benson. Buxton LJ, recalling that that case was about the rights of the opposite party in a private law transaction, said in para 282 that the considerations which applied in such a case could only be applied very imperfectly to a citizen faced with an ultra vires demand. He said that persons who pay in response to a demand by the Revenue are in a quite different position from persons who pay under a private transaction, as the demand for tax is implicitly backed by the coercive powers of the state. He compared the Woolwich case, where the society was certain that the Revenue's demand was ultra vires but paid none the less and was restricted to a claim within the six year period, with the present case where DMG claims relief because of payment under a mistake. Although it was aware of doubts raised by other persons and of pending litigation, it paid because it thought, as it turned out incorrectly, that the law was the law. This result, he said, was reached through machinery developed to deal with the quite different issue that arises where a citizen makes a private law payment under a mistake that is his own mistake.

    67.  I recognise the force of Buxton LJ's concern. But I see it as a criticism primarily of the uneven way the limitation rules operate, rather than of the conclusion which the judge drew in the light of the evidence. In so far as it amounts to a suggestion that the law ought to distinguish between payments made under a mistake of law in private transactions and those made in response to a demand by a public authority made in the mistaken belief that the law under which is was made was the law, I think that the answer to it must be found in a return to first principles. The fundamental point, as Lord Goff recognised in Kleinwort Benson at [1999] 2 AC 349, 373, is that a blanket rule of non-recovery cannot sensibly survive in a rubric of the law based on the principle of unjust enrichment. The enrichment of a public authority because a payment was made to it in response to a demand in the mistaken belief that the law under which the demand was made was the law is no less unjust than an enrichment arising from a mistake of law in a private transaction. Unevenness in the operation of the limitation rules is a matter for Parliament.

    68.  The matter has, of course, been addressed so far as the Revenue is concerned by section 320 of the Finance Act 2004. But there are still some loose ends. As Lord Goff mentioned in his concluding remarks in Kleinwort Benson, this is a matter for consideration by the Law Commission with a view to finding a solution that can be made the subject of legislation by Parliament. As Professor Burrows has indicated, if there is perceived to be a problem, the right way forward is not to distort the common law of restitution by artificially limiting the scope of Kleinwort Benson but for the legislature to stop time running indefinitely in mistake cases: (2005) 121 LQR 540, 543. I would respectfully endorse his reference in this passage to mistake cases generally. There seems to be no good reason why cases of mistake of fact, the nature of which and the occasion for the discovery of which can vary greatly, should not be treated in the same way for limitation purposes as mistakes of law. Relief from the general six year time limit could be given in either case where the mistake was induced by the payee's words or conduct.

 
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