A British woman has cancelled her 40th birthday party after being branded a smuggler and having her van confiscated by UK Customs.

In January this year Kim Cundle, a businesswoman and mother of four, went to France to stock up on beer and wine for a combined 40th birthday party for her and her husband.

But what was supposed to be a straightforward trip – one thousands of Britons routinely make several times a year to take advantage of France’s cheaper alcohol and tobacco – turned into a nightmare. Cundle and her two friends were interrogated for five hours and her Mercedes van and all her purchases were confiscated.

Her problem was that she was unable to prove to Customs that the alcohol was not for commercial purposes, ie that she was not a smuggler.

What she had done was entirely legal. There is no limit to the amount one person can bring in to the country, but EU guidelines advise on amounts ‘considered reasonable’. As interpreted by UK Customs this is about as much as will fill a large estate car – 90 litres of wine, 110 litres of beer, 10 of spirits, 20 of fortified wine, 800 cigarettes and so on.

Cundle was well within those guidelines, but it is up to the duty officer to decide whether there is any cause for suspicion. And Customs and Excise do not have to prove a person guilty before seizing goods and vehicles.

A Customs and Excise spokesman told decanter.com, ‘You have to convince Customs you are not importing for commercial use. You are not allowed to be paid for it in any way – members of your family must not even pay part of the cost of the journey.’

He added, ‘We are very robust in our actions against smugglers but those who are importing purely for personal use or for parties where no one is paying for the drink, have nothing to fear from Customs.’

Cundle has spent thousands of pounds in legal fees and she has still not got her car back – it is likely to be auctioned off, in common with other confiscated vehicles.

Instead of a birthday party she and her husband quietly celebrated in Dublin. She told the Daily Telegraph newspaper, ‘It has been the most horrible six months. I just don’t understand how they can treat you like this in this country.’

Written by Adam Lechmere8 July 2002