Duplicate contract bridge is a card game played by four players in partnerships of two. The EBU, its national body in England, organises tournaments and charges players an entrance fee to complete.
That fee is currently subject to VAT under UK law but the EBU had made a claim to recover the VAT that has been paid to date, on the grounds that the fees should benefit from an exemption originating in EU law for supplies closely linked with and essential to sport. HMRC rejected the claim and the EBU brought legal proceedings against it.
HMRC said that a sport for the purposes of the VAT Directive must have a significant element of physical activity, involving physical exertion or skill, while the EBU argued that the purpose of the Directive is to give preferential tax treatment to activities that provide benefits to the physical or mental health of participants.
In a non-binding opinion the advocate general said duplicate contract bridge requires "considerable mental effort and training" and must be interpreted as an activity in the public interest.
The term sport is not defined in the VAT Directive, and there is no EU-wide definition, the advocate general said. The term must therefore be interpreted in the light of the purpose of exemptions from the Directive, which is to encourage activities that are in the public interest, he said.
Sport should therefore be understood to mean the training of mental or physical fitness in a way that it generally beneficial to the health and well-being of citizens, the opinion said.
Activities commonly referred to as sport have several things in common, the advocate general said. They require effort to overcome a challenge or obstacle, and overcoming those challenges or obstacles trains a physical or mental skill that yields benefits for the physical or mental wellbeing of the participant.
These activities are usually practised not solely in a commercial context, and local public perception or international recognition would see the activity as a sport, the advocate general said.
Games of chance are excluded, he said, as there is no relation between the effort invested and the outcome, and the tasks involved do not require any mental or physical skill.
The fact that duplicate contract bridge tournaments take place on an international stage and that the results of the game depend directly on the skill and training invested by players also points in the direction of it being a sport, the advocate general said.
The opinion also cited the acceptance of duplicate contract bridge as a sport by the International Olympic Committee in 1998, meaning it will be offered at the 2020 Olympic Games.
The EBU said that if the final judgment follows the advocate general's opinion "this will have huge benefits as it will allow us to invest further in the game, and make entries to EBU competitions cheaper, thus allowing more people to enjoy playing bridge, and enabling more to experience the social and mental benefits that playing bridge offers. "
Opinions of advocates general are not binding but are followed in the majority of cases.