Judges will be asked to decide whether the genteel trickery and complex calculation of bridge makes it – for tax purposes – a sport.
The case will be heard in Luxembourg by judges at the European court of justice, from which the UK will secede following Brexit. The court has been presented with the legal suit by British judges in an attempt to clarify EU financial rules.
The claim was originally taken by the English Bridge Union (EBU) against HM Revenue and Customs after it attempted to recover VAT from the entry fees of those who entered its bridge tournaments.
The EBU lost its opening hand at the first tier tax tribunal but then appealed to the upper tribunal, which referred the cases to European judges on the grounds that they needed to certify that the EU regulation providing tax exemption for sport was followed correctly.
The hearing will consider whether duplicate contract bridge is a sport for the purposes of the VAT directive and, specifically, whether an activity must have a significant physical element for it to qualify for financial relief.
HMRC argues that under the directive a sport must have a significant element of physical activity, which bridge does not involve.
The EBU maintains that preferential tax treatment was intended to benefit activities that provide either physical or mental health benefits to regular participants. Bridge, it says, helps stimulate the mind, particularly of older people.
European member states do not adopt a single approach. Duplicate bridge is treated as a sport for tax purposes in Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France and the Netherlands but not, however, in Ireland and Sweden.
Welcoming the decision to send the case to Luxembourg, the EBU’s chairman, Jeremy Dhondy, said: “I’m very glad the tribunal recognised that we have a sound case and hope that the hearing in Luxembourg will result in a just decision that will benefit all members of the English Bridge Union.”
The organisation describes bridge as “one of the most enduring and popular pastimes in the world”.
Two years ago the high court ruled that bridge was not a sport eligible for lottery funding. Mr Justice Dove ruled that Sport England, whose lawyers had described bridge in court as no more a sport than “sitting at home reading a book”, had been acting within the law.
The 2011 Charities Act had adopted a definition of sport as “activities which promote health involving physical or mental health or exertion”, the judge said, which specifically included “mind sports”.
Judgment in Luxembourg is expected to be reserved.