Businessmen cleared of tax website fraud charges

From left, Jamie Wyatt, Michael Hughes and Stephen Oliver.
From left, Jamie Wyatt, Michael Hughes and Stephen Oliver.

Four businessman have been cleared of all charges in relation to their operation of a self-assessment tax returns website.

Stephen Oliver, Jamie Wyatt, Michael Hughes, and Richard Hough were found not guilty of all seven charges of fraud they faced in relation to the Sunderland-based taxreturngateway website.

A jury at Teesside Crown Court heard seven weeks of evidence in which prosecutors claimed the site was deliberately designed to deceive users into believing they were dealing directly with Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (HMRC).

Hundreds of users complained to Trading Standards departments across the country claiming they were misled into believing fees paid to the site would be deducted from their tax bill.

"It is nonsense to suggest we set out to deceive anyone," said Mr Oliver.

"We knew we had to be very clear to distinguish ourselves from the HMRC website.

"It is something we thought long and hard about.

"We thought the best way to do that was by the use of disclaimers and a comparison table.

"In the table we compared our service to the service offered by HMRC.

"By doing that, it must have been obvious to users we were not HMRC."

Mr Oliver said for the first few weeks of taxreturngateway's operation the table appeared 'below the fold' on the site's homepage, meaning users on most devices would have to scroll down to see it.

"To make the box even clearer we moved the table to the top corner of the page," said Mr Oliver.

"It was a fledgling business, and we were making improvements in the site in response to customer feedback.

"What we called the 'black box', the panel containing our contact details, appeared on every page apart from the tax forms where it could not.

"The box made it clear we were a company, not HMRC.

"There were also disclaimers on the site to the effect."

The jury heard evidence taxreturngateway turned over £5m in five months.

The company had more than 20 staff, and paid all its bills including VAT, wages, and online advertising costs.

"It was a legitimate business," said Mr Oliver.

"It was a business we believed in, and one we continue to believe in."

The four defendants, Mr Wyatt, 27, of Peartree Rise, Seaton, Seaham, Mr Hughes, 26, formerly of Hutton Henry, now also of Peartree Rise, Mr Oliver, 47, of The Folly, West Boldon, and Mr Hough, 43, of Thorpe Waterville, Kettering, Northants, each denied conspiracy to defraud between June, 2013, and June, 2014.

Mr Wyatt, Mr Hughes, and Mr Oliver denied a second charge of conspiring to defraud by denying consumers the right to cancel under distance selling regulations.

The jury returned unanimous not guilty verdicts on all charges.