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The English Bridge Union v HMRC

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Our pick of this week's cases

In The English Bridge Union v HMRC (Case C-90/16) (15 June 2017), Advocate General Szpunar considered that contract bridge is a sport.

Contract bridge is a trick playing card game played by four players in two competing partnerships with partners sitting opposite each other around a table. Most club and tournament play involves ‘duplicate bridge’ in which the cards held by each player in each deal are preserved so that each partnership successively plays the same set of cards as their counterparts at other tables, with scoring based on relative performance. This form of the game is played competitively at national and international level.

The English Bridge Union (EBU) is the national body for duplicate bridge in England. It organises contract bridge tournaments and charges players an entry fee to play in those tournaments. This entrance fee is subject to VAT.

The EBU had made a claim for repayment on the basis that the fees were exempt under the Principal VAT Directive art 132(1)(m) (services linked to sport).

The AG noted that the concept of ‘sport’ is not defined in the directive and that ‘authoritative dictionaries offer definitions in line with our intuition by clearly requiring a physical element’. He also observed that the International Olympic Committee includes the non-physical sport chess among the activities granted Olympic status. The AG inferred from this that physical effort is not a requirement. This is the reason why shooting and archery are considered to be sports.

The AG therefore suggested the following definition of sport: ‘the training of mental or physical fitness in a way that is generally beneficial to the health and the well-being of citizens’. He continues: ‘The definition necessarily excludes games of chance, as there is no relation between the effort invested and the outcome, and the tasks involved do not require any mental or physical skill.’ The AG concluded that contract bridge is a sport and pointed out that it has been recognised as such by the Olympic Committee.

Read the decision.

Why it matters: The AG considered that a physical element is not compulsory for an activity to qualify as a sport; a significant mental element, which is material to the outcome, will be sufficient. In the view of the AG, the key distinction was between games of chance and games which required training and effort. It remains to be seen whether the CJEU will follow this opinion, which seems to broaden further the definition of sport.

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