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Is a tourist visiting the UK liable to pay VAT on legal services received while there?
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The other answer already linked to the explanations from the UK government. This answer is just to expand a little on the legal basis.
The Value Added Tax Act 1994 is the enabling legislation for the current VAT scheme in the UK.
As a general rule, the VAT only applies to supplies of goods and services within the UK (section 1):
(1) Value added tax shall be charged, in accordance with the provisions of this Act—
- (a) on the supply of goods or services in the United Kingdom (including anything treated as such a supply), [...]
Section 7A of the VAT Act deals with the definition of the place of supply generally for services and makes the distinction between B2B (""relevant business person") and B2C transactions, but the section is subject to Schedule 4A that sets out special rules for certain services (including legal services):
(2) A supply of services is to be treated as made—
- (a) in a case in which the person to whom the services are supplied is a relevant business person, in the country in which the recipient belongs, and
- (b) otherwise, in the country in which the supplier belongs.
(4) For the purposes of this Act a person is a relevant business person in relation to a supply of services if—
- (a) the person carries on a business, and
- (b) the services are not received by the person wholly for private purposes,
whether or not the services are received in the course of business.
(5) Subsection (2) has effect subject to Schedule 4A.
Section 9 of the Act sets out the determination of the place of belonging for supplies and receiver of businesses.
So for most services supplied wholly for private purposes, the place of supply is where the supplier is. That is why a garage still charges UK VAT even if a tourist's car registered abroad is being repaired. But if a foreign business sends a car used for business purpose for works in a UK garage, it may be out of scope for UK VAT.
But special rules in Schedule 4A apply to certain services when supplied to private individuals, including the ones of lawyers, consultants and other information-related services. The exemption is set out in paragraph 16(2)(d):
(1) A supply consisting of the provision to a person (“the recipient”) who—
(a) is not a relevant business person, and
(b) belongs in a country other than the United Kingdom or the Isle of Man,
of services to which this paragraph applies is to be treated as made in the country in which the recipient belongs.
(2) This paragraph applies to—
- (d) services of consultants, engineers, consultancy bureaux, lawyers, accountants, and similar services, data processing and provision of information, other than any services relating to land, [...]
A tourist does not "belong" (for VAT purposes) in the UK if they receive legal services while in the UK so not VAT is payable.
The place where a supplier or customer "belongs" will determine where the service is supplied and who accounts for any VAT due.
The rules for those not resident in the UK, e.g. tourists, receiving business to consumer services (B2C) may be found in the H.M. Revenue and Customs' Place of supply of services (VAT Notice 741A):
3.6 Usual place of residence
Individuals receiving supplies in a private capacity are treated as belonging in the country where they have their usual place of residence. An individual has only one usual place of residence at any point in time. They are normally regarded as resident in the country where they’ve set up home with their family and are in full-time employment. A person is not resident in a country where they’re only visiting as a tourist.
In most cases:
6.2 B2C supplies
The general rule for B2C supplies of services is that the place of supply is where the supplier belongs, irrespective of the location of their customer.
However, there are exceptions (with "you" referring to the supplier):
12. B2C services of a professional, technical, financial, intellectual or other intangible nature supplied to customers outside the UK
This section applies if:
you belong in the UK
you supply B2C services to customers who belong outside the UK
those services are included in the list in paragraph 12.2
Where this applies, your services are supplied where your customer belongs and so are outside the scope of UK VAT. It’s the nature of the service that you should consider, rather than your professional qualification or status.
12.2 Services treated as supplies
The following services are treated as supplied in the place where the customer belongs when provided to non-UK non-business customers:
transfers and assignments of copyright, patents, licences, trademarks and similar rights
acceptance of any obligation to refrain from pursuing or exercising a business activity
services of consultants, engineers, consultancy bureaux, lawyers, accountants, and other similar services - data processing and provision of information, other than any services relating to land
banking, financial and insurance services
the provision of access to, or transmission or distribution through, natural gas and electricity systems and heat or cooling networks and the provision of other directly linked services
supply of staff
letting on hire of goods other than means of transport