The Association of Funeral Professionals of Trinidad and Tobago has sued the Comptroller of Customs over a decision to apply an import tax on its members’ left-hand-drive hearses.
In a judicial review lawsuit, filed this week after a High Court Judge granted leave for same, late last month, the association is claiming that the Customs and Excise Division acted unreasonably and irrationally when it decided to classify such vehicles as being for the transport of persons as opposed to as a special purpose vehicle.
At the time when the issue arose in 2019, special purpose vehicles attracted no tax, while vehicles for transporting persons carried a 67.5 per cent tariff.
“The claimant avers that the classification is wrong, without justification, and the import duty rate is arbitrarily imposed thus breaching the principle of the rule of law,” the court filings stated.
“The clear intent and purpose of these vehicles is for the special and unique purpose of transporting cadavers pursuant to providing funeral services,” it added.
To buttress its claim, the association pointed out that its members were not required to pay for the licence from the Ministry of Trade and Industry, required to import such vehicles.
Attached to the lawsuit was an affidavit from the association’s President Keith Belgrove, who detailed how and why it raised the legal challenge.
He claimed that in June 2019, one of its members Simpson’s Memorial Limited was slapped with the tax classification as it attempted to import a Lincoln Town Car hearse from the United States.
Explaining the association’s delay in bringing the lawsuit, Belgrove stated that its member only informed the association months later and it (the association) had to make requests for additional information and seek legal advice.
“The effect of the COVID-19 pandemic created delay in allowing the claimant to consult with all of its members to receive consensus to proceed with legal action,” the documents said.
Its lawyers suggested that the delay did not prejudice the comptroller and that there was public interest in having the issue determined as it has negatively impacted the funeral home industry.
Belgrove also noted that the lawsuit specifically dealt with purpose built hearses from the United State and not luxury station wagons, that are sometimes imported by funeral homes and modified to work as hearses.
“Such a vehicle can easily be reconverted to an ordinary luxury vehicle. Such a vehicle I would agree is not specifically built to function as a hearse and as such ought to be classified as motor vehicles principally designed for the transport of persons,” Belgrove said.
Through the lawsuit, the association is seeking a declaration that the classification was unlawful and an order instructing their suggested classification.
It is also seeking damages for the misclassification.
The lawsuit is expected to come up for virtual hearing on May 11.
The association is being represented by Kiel Taklalsingh, Chelsea John and Rhea Khan.