17 May 2022
A recent tribunal decision on an individual bringing jewellery back into the UK after having it repaired in Dubai, highlights the importance of being aware of customs rules, otherwise, there’s a chance the goods could be seized for smuggling. Mrs Amina Omar’s jewellery, worth £19,000, was seized at Heathrow Airport on 21 February 2020, for exceeding her duty-free allowance of £390. The Border Force officer that stopped her in the green channel alleged that the jewellery was new and not, as Mrs Omar claimed, her own jewellery accumulated over many years, that she had taken to Dubai for repair.
Border Force later confirmed its decision that the seized jewellery should not be restored to Mrs Omar. Mrs Omar appealed to a tribunal and presented photos and receipts at the hearing to show that the jewellery was not new. She also had receipts for both the repair work to the value of £3,000 carried out in Dubai, and for a new bracelet which she had purchased there, worth £1,100. She admitted that she was unaware of the requirement to declare the movement of jewellery to Border Force but argued that Border Force’s decision not to return the jewellery to her was disproportionate and unreasonable. While she had refused to pay duty on its full value, she had been willing to pay the duty on the new bracelet and the gold added during the repair work.
Border Force argued that its decision to seize the goods had been completely proportionate and reasonable and that the jewellery should not be restored, based on a deliberate attempt to evade duty. Mrs Omar had not followed the correct ‘outward processing’ customs procedure of declaring that the goods were being exported to be repaired, at the time she took the jewellery out of the UK. She had also walked into the Nothing to Declare channel on her return to the UK without declaring the goods to a Border Force officer.
Although ignorance of the law is no excuse or defence, Mrs Omar’s counsel contended that it was, in this case, relevant to the reasonableness of the decision that the goods should be forfeited. There was general ignorance amongst the public as to the procedures regarding the declaration of the export of valuables and, in practice, such declarations are rarely made.
The Tribunal ultimately accepted that the refusal to restore the goods had been unreasonable, and directed that Border Force should make a “fresh decision” on whether to return the jewellery to Mrs Omar, because:
- The value of the items which she had failed to declare amounted to just over £4,000, not the full value of £19,000 on which Border Force had demanded she pay duty;
- Mrs Omar did not mean to fail to declare the goods and had made no effort to conceal the jewellery when stopped in the green channel;
- The jewellery she was carrying had been hers for many years; and
- The forfeiture of all of the jewellery was disproportionate.
This decision is important for a few reasons. Firstly, it highlights the disproportionate behaviour of the authorities in a case arising from an inadvertent error by an importer, who did not deliberately set out to commit fraud and shows that there is some potential recourse for the lay traveller whose goods are seized in these circumstances. This could also be helpful for businesses sending goods abroad for repair without knowing the rules, although it is likely that the authorities and tribunals will expect a higher standard of awareness of customs procedures from business travellers than private individuals.
Seizures and duty demands from Border Force have always been a risk where repairs of high value goods are carried out in non-EU territories such as Dubai and not declared properly when brought back to the UK in personal baggage. However, the case is also a reminder that the UK’s departure from the EU means that this risk now arises on similar repairs on goods carried out within the EU.