Legal victory on halls

June 12, 1998

HERIOT-Watt University has won a landmark legal decision that has spared universities thousands of pounds in new charges for halls of residence.

Heriot-Watt fought the test case on behalf of the Scottish universities, which do not in general pay business rates. The Lothian Region assessor had sought rates payments on Heriot-Watt's student halls on the grounds that they were used for commercial letting outside term-time. Both sides agreed that the Heriot-Watt halls are used by students for 44 weeks a year, serving summer schools, short courses and conferences for the remaining eight. After initially seeking rates for the entire year, the Lothian assessor sought a contribution covering the eight vacation weeks, some Pounds 66,000.

The Lands Valuation Appeal Court in Edinburgh heard that the case would potentially affect many other higher education institutions which let out their residences.

Heriot-Watt successfully argued that the relevant legislation referred to "predominant" use of the accommodation, and that the halls should therefore remain exempt. The three Appeal Court judges, headed by Lord Prosser, agreed that "predominant use" should be viewed broadly. Parliament could not have intended that the halls would fall in and out of the definition of student dwellings, he said.

Lord Milligan said the Lothian assessor had argued that parliament could never have intended universities to enjoy an unfair advantage over competitor commercial organisations. Other Scottish universities are now expected to use the decision in other regions.

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