In this post, Jaspal Pachu, Graham Muir and Jasleen Kaur at CMS comment on the Supreme Court’s decision in His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs v Vermilion Holdings Ltd [2023] UKSC 37, which was handed down on 25 October 2023.


In 2006, Vermilion Holdings Ltd (“Vermilion” or “the Company”) carried out a funding exercise as part of which Quest Advantage Limited (“Quest”) was appointed to produce a business plan and financial projections and Dickson Minto was appointed as legal advisor to assist with the fundraising. Vermilion granted a “supplier option” to each of Quest and 22 Nominees Ltd (Dickson Minto’s nominee) to acquire ordinary shares in the Company in consideration for the services provided by Quest and Dickson Minto. The “supplier options” were not considered to be employment-related securities options within the meaning of Income Tax (Earnings and Pensions) Act 2003, s 471(5) (“ITEPA”).

By January 2007, it transpired that the Company was not generating any income and was running out of working capital. Mr Noble (a director of Quest) highlighted that the Company needed another fundraising round to continue trading. The 2007 fundraising round had notable pre-conditions:

  • to appoint Mr Noble as executive chairman of the Company; and
  • to amend the “supplier options” held by Quest and Dickson Minto to reduce their respective share entitlements.

However, the Company did not vary the terms of the existing options, but instead granted each of Quest and Dickson Minto a new option on 2 July 2007. The option granted to Quest was now over F ordinary shares over a maximum of 1.5% of Vermilion’s issued share capital. It was a condition of the new option that the 2006 option would lapse on the grant of the 2007 option.

Almost a decade later, in the context of a proposed sale of the Company, the 2007 option was novated by Quest to Mr Noble who then exercised the option. Shortly thereafter, Mr Noble and Vermilion sought confirmation from HMRC that the gain realised on the exercise of the 2007 option and sale of the resulting shares was subject to capital gains tax (rather than income tax/NICs). HMRC determined that the exercise of the option was a chargeable event pursuant to ITEPA, Pt 7 and that the option gain therefore counted as Mr Noble’s employment income for the purposes of ITEPA and, accordingly, HMRC assessed Vermilion to the resulting tax and NICs under PAYE (which Mr. Noble had indemnified the Company for).

The relevant legislation

For the purposes of this appeal, the critical legislation is set out in ITEPA, s 471, which provides that:

“(1)       This Chapter applies to a securities option acquired by a person where the right or opportunity to acquire the securities option is available by reason of an employment of that person or any other person.

(2)         For the purposes of subsection (1) “employment” includes a former or prospective employment.

(3)         A right or opportunity to acquire a securities option made available by a person’s employer, or a person connected with a person’s employer, is to be regarded for the purposes of subsection (1) as available by reason of an employment of that person unless—

a. the person by whom the right or opportunity is made available is an individual, and

b. the right or opportunity is made available in the normal course of the domestic, family or personal relationships of that person.

Accordingly, there are effectively two tests set out in ITEPA, s 471, which, if either is satisfied, will result in the exercise of a securities option being subject to income tax rather than capital gains tax. The first test, in subsection (1), is a test of causation, asking whether the right or opportunity to acquire the securities option “is available by reason of an employment of that person or another person. The second test, in subsection (3), purports to eliminate the need to establish a causal link where a person’s employer makes a right or opportunity to acquire a securities option available to the employee, in which circumstances the causal link is deemed to exist.

The lower courts considered and applied the tests set out in ITEPA, s 471 in a slightly different manner, thereby reaching a different conclusion each time but, in each case, either focussing on, or giving material weight to, the operative cause of the grant of the 2007 option. However, the Supreme Court’s decision took a very different approach to the interaction of s 471(1) and s 471(3), determining in favour of HMRC on the basis that, once the deeming provision in s 471(3) was engaged, there was no need to then qualify or test this by looking at the operative cause of the grant of the relevant option.

Appellate history

The First-tier Tribunal held in favour of the taxpayer. It determined that the scope of the deeming provision should be limited “where the artificial assumption from deeming is at variance with the factual reason that gave rise to the right to acquire the option”. It concluded that the grant of the 2007 option was ‘made available’ by Mr Noble’s surrender of his 2006 option and he did not as a matter of fact acquire the 2007 option ‘by reason of his employment’ and accordingly the 2007 option should not be treated as an employment-related securities option.

The Upper Tribunal overturned the decision of the First-tier Tribunal and held in favour of HMRC, finding that the FTT had erred in law. The Upper Tribunal decided that Mr Noble’s employment (i.e., his directorship of Vermilion) was an operative cause of the grant of the 2007 option as it was a condition of the grant of the 2007 option that Mr Noble would become a director. As such, pursuant to ITEPA, s 471(1), the 2007 option was an employment-related securities option. Given this conclusion, the Upper Tribunal had no need to consider the application of the deeming provision set out in subsection (3) and did not do so.

The Court of Session Inner House, by majority, reinstated the First-tier Tribunal’s decision finding in favour of the taxpayer. It stated that the 2007 option had been made available by the existence of the 2006 option and that Mr Noble’s directorship of Vermilion was not a sufficiently operative cause of the 2007 option being granted to engage ITEPA, s 471(1). Further, Lord Doherty considered that it would be “anomalous, absurd and unjust” to treat the opportunity to acquire the 2007 option as being made available by reason of Mr Noble’s employment so as to engage ITEPA, s 471(3). The Court of Session further stated that it was an error to categorise ITEPA, s 471(3) “as a separate and distinct route to taxation” which is available even if it has been established that ITEPA, s 471(1) has no application (i.e. there is no direct causal link between the relevant employment and the option being made available).

Decision of the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court upheld HMRC’s appeal, finding that the 2007 Option was an employment-related securities option. In a surprisingly short judgment, which leaves a number of key questions unanswered, the Supreme Court has given some direction on the interpretation of ITEPA, s 471(3) and the circumstances in which it applies. Lord Hodge who gave the only judgment (with which Lord Lloyd-Jones, Lord Leggatt, Lord Burrows and Lady Rose agreed) stated (at [33]):

“.. the purpose of section 471(3) is to circumvent the difficult issues that can arise in the application of section 471(1). The statutory provision makes it clear that if an employer makes available to an employee a securities option, that option will be treated in the employee’s hands as an employment-related securities option and taxed accordingly.

It was noted that, in interpreting ITEPA, s 471, the lower courts had focused on the meaning of “by reason of employment” in subsection (1) to try to establish a “causal” connection, thus requiring them to grapple with difficult questions of causation and, perhaps unsurprisingly, coming to different conclusions. Instead, the Supreme Court found that ITEPA, s 471(3) creates a straightforward ‘bright line rule’ being that if an employee is granted an option (or, more precisely, if the right or opportunity to acquire the option is made available) by their employer (or a person connected with the employer), that option is conclusively treated by ITEPA, s 471(3) as an employment-related securities option. That, in the view of the Supreme Court, reflects Parliament’s specific intention behind the insertion of the deeming provision, i.e., avoiding the need for the courts to consider complex questions of causation raised by ITEPA, s 471(1) where the deeming provision in ITEPA, s 471(3) applies. Therefore, the only point on which the Supreme Court considered it necessary to opine, to determine whether HMRC’s appeal should be upheld, was whether Vermilion (as employer) made the 2007 option available to Mr Noble whilst he was a director (and hence deemed for income tax purposes to be an employee) of Vermilion.  The answer was, in the view of Lord Hodge, a rather simple yes on the facts and, as such, HMRC’s appeal was allowed.

The Supreme Court cited with approval its previous guidance given in the case of Fowler v Commissioners for Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs [2020] UKSC 22 on the application of deeming provisions in legislation. Lord Briggs in that case stated that:

(1) The extent of the fiction created by a deeming provision is primarily a matter of construction of the statute in which it appears.

(2) For that purpose, the court should ascertain, if it can, the purposes for which and the persons between whom the statutory fiction is to be resorted to, and then apply the deeming provision that far, but not where it would produce effects clearly outside those purposes.

(3) But those purposes may be difficult to ascertain, and Parliament may not find it easy to prescribe with precision the intended limits of the artificial assumption which the deeming provision requires to be made.

(4) A deeming provision should not be applied so far as to produce unjust, absurd or anomalous results, unless the court is compelled to do so by clear language.

(5) But the court should not shrink from applying the fiction created by the deeming provision to the consequences which would inevitably flow from the fiction being real.

The Vermilion judgment removes any ambiguity in circumstances where an employee receives a share option which is made available by their employer (or a person connected with their employer). Given that Vermilion had granted the 2007 option at a time when Mr Noble was a director of the Company, the Supreme Court was satisfied that the option was made available to Mr Noble by his employer and therefore the exercise of that option rightly fell within the ambit of income tax.


In overturning the decision of the Court of Session Inner House, the Supreme Court decision tells us not to “put the cart before the horse”; the correct approach to applying the deeming provision in ITEPA s 471(3) is to ascertain ‘who’ conferred the right or opportunity for the employee to acquire the share option in the employer company rather than ‘why’ that person conferred such right or opportunity. If the right or opportunity is made available by the employer (or a person connected with the employer), the option is correctly treated as being an employment-related securities option and, in those circumstances, there is no need to consider the (sometimes difficult) questions of causation posed by ITEPA, s 471(1).  The Supreme Court opined that this sequencing in which the statutory provisions should be considered, and the consequent absence of any requirement to consider actual causation if the deeming provision in ITEPA, s 471(3) applies, reflects the intention of Parliament in enacting the deeming provision.