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Every year thousands of trucks, trailers and goods are seized at the UK border by UK customs authorities. European transport operators trying to reclaim their property very quickly find that the process is far from simple.

It can often take many weeks or even months before a decision is taken by the UK Border Force on whether or not to return the seized property. In at least two cases I know of, the UK customs authorities finally agreed to return a vehicle, but only after that vehicle had already been sold off at auction, leaving the owner with nothing but compensation.

Powers of seizure

UK law allows the UK customs authorities (the UK Border Force and HMRC) to seize and detain any vehicle or trailer suspected of carrying:

– any prohibited items (eg: drugs/weapons etc)

– any goods without the proper customs paperwork

– any goods on which the proper tax has not been paid (eg: alcohol and tobacco)

It is then left up to the owner of the vehicle or trailer to apply to the UK customs authorities for the vehicle, trailer or goods to be returned.

Getting your vehicle, trailer or load back

Once seized, there are two main ways to get your vehicle, trailer or load returned:

– If you think that the seizure was unlawful, you can apply to the UK court for the property to be returned to you. This involves a court hearing in the UK. You will have to attend yourself to argue why the seizure was unlawful, or you can contact a UK transport lawyer to do this for you.

–  If you accept that the seizure was lawful, but can show that you did not know and had no reason to suspect that your vehicle or trailer was being used to carry prohibited or untaxed goods, you can apply directly to the Border Force for their return. This is a notoriously difficult process, and there are strict rules concerning the evidence that will be accepted.

It is always sensible to contact a UK road transport lawyer as soon as possible if your property is seized. They will be able to advise you on the best way to get your property back and can help you do this before it is too late and the property is sold. They can also act quickly to arrange the release of any third-party goods being carried.

A broken system?

The UK Border Force is notoriously slow at dealing with requests for the return of property. They can also be extremely difficult to contact. On a number of recent occasions, it has taken the UK authorities so long to reach a decision on whether to return a vehicle and trailer, that by the time they decide to do so the property has already been sold at auction. One of these cases is presently the subject of ongoing legal proceedings.

What should you do?

It is more important than ever that transport operators carry out proper checks on their drivers, consignees, and consignors to make sure that their vehicle is not put to any unlawful use. Evidence of these checks should be kept, and operators should make sure that the proper paperwork is carried with each load at all times.

Other reasons for vehicles and trailers to be seized

In addition to the above, there are other reasons why a vehicle and trailer may be seized by the UK authorities. These can include:

– Non-payment of fines and penalty (eg: illegal immigrant penalties)

– Criminal offences committed by the driver

– Carrying dangerous goods

– Breaching cabotage limits

Under UK law, the legal process for reclaiming seized vehicles differs in each of the above cases.

Photo: WikimediaCommons/ukhomeoffice/CC BY 2.0

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