On 7th September, Sarabjit Singh will represent the United Kingdom at the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg, in a case concerning the cultural exemption from VAT that will have ramifications across the European Union.

Under EU law, there is a VAT exemption for the supply of “certain cultural services” by public bodies or other recognised cultural bodies. The UK has implemented that exemption into domestic law by exempting cultural services including admissions to theatrical performances but not other cultural services such as admissions to films. The British Film Institute (“BFI”) showed films at the National Film Theatre and at various film festivals, and it claimed that it could rely directly on the cultural exemption in EU law to treat its admissions to films as exempt, regardless of what UK law said. BFI succeeded in this argument before two UK tribunals but the Court of Appeal ultimately referred the matter to the European Court of Justice for a ruling on exactly what “certain cultural services” means.

Sarabjit will argue on behalf of the UK that the UK and other Member States are permitted to choose which cultural services to treat as exempt, particularly as there is no agreed definition of what is ‘cultural’ across the EU as a whole. The stakes in the case are high because if the European Court of Justice disagrees, it is likely to mean that the UK and other Member States will need to re-write their national laws to exempt all those services considered to be ‘cultural’ at an EU level.

The case is notable also because it will probably be one of the last few cases in which the UK appears at an oral hearing before the European Court of Justice, prior to its expected departure from the European Union.