In an important decision that will ease the path to justice for thousands of victims of industrial disease, the High Court has ruled that the tax authorities were obliged to comply with a coroner’s directions to disclose details of the occupational history of a man whose death was believed to have been caused by asbestos exposure.
After a pathologist reported that the man’s death was asbestos-related, the coroner had served notices on HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) under the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 (the Act) requiring disclosure of his tax records in order to ascertain possible sources of exposure to the substance.
In seeking judicial review of those notices, HMRC argued that the Act was not binding on the Crown and that compliance with the coroner’s demands would beach the fundamental principle of taxpayer confidentiality as well as the statutory prohibition on disclosure of tax records contained within Section 18 of the Commissioners for Revenue and Customs Act 2005.
Underlining the significance of the issue, the Court noted that coroners had made findings of industrial disease in more than 2,700 cases in 2012 alone and that relevant occupational histories – sometimes going back many years – were in a large number of cases realistically only discernable from tax records.
In dismissing HMRC’s challenge, the Court noted that the Act had been designed to strengthen the powers of coroners to carry out effective investigations required by human rights legislation. As a matter of ‘necessary implication’, the Act was binding on the Crown and, in those circumstances, the notices constituted ‘orders of the court’ with which HMRC was both entitled and obliged to comply.