Tax is an area that is always in the newspapers, with articles arising from HMRC’s investigations, particularly if it involves celebrities and where taxpayers are treated unfairly.
A firm’s tax dispute team handles contentious tax matters in both civil and criminal cases. This covers both direct and indirect taxes. On the civil side, cases can be appeals to the specialist tax Tribunals and the higher courts arising from disputed HMRC decisions. Criminal cases involve handling criminal investigations by HMRC, such as dawn raids, arrests, production orders, interviews under caution and Crown Court trials. In this field, common clients include large corporations, retail and entertainment companies, high-net-worth individuals, accountants, football clubs and footballers.
An example of a typical case is a taxpayer participating in a tax avoidance scheme. HMRC will then open an enquiry into this scheme and, following a review, will assess the taxpayer for additional tax. In the vast majority of cases, the taxpayer will appeal against this decision. The First-tier Tribunal then hears the initial appeal. If the party who loses wishes to appeal the decision, the case would move to the Upper Tribunal, then to the Court of Appeal and finally the Supreme Court, who will hand down a final judgement. This appeal process can take a number of years.
What’s working life like for tax lawyers?
Solicitors will typically work on up to 15 cases at any one time. A team for a case will usually include a partner, a senior associate, an associate and a trainee. On average, working hours are around 9.00 am to 7.00 pm, but this will depend on the amount of work that needs to be done for the client at any given time. Working through the night or over the weekend happens very rarely, and when this does occur it is due to an urgent matter, such as a dawn raid or an injunction against HMRC if they are considered to be abusing their power.
Tax disputes lawyers tend to be very mobile, attending court, visiting client offices and attending events with colleagues, clients and counsel. There are also opportunities to travel within the UK and Europe, depending on where a client is based and if a case involves cross-border tax disputes, including occasional helicopter and private jet journeys to attend dawn raids and client meetings.
One case can be very different from the next, so the caseload is really varied. Working in tax law also allows you to achieve great results for clients and help to enact the law. However, tax lawyers might have to witness the detrimental effects that an erroneous HMRC decision can have on a client’s life – especially as clients under investigation may be convicted of a criminal offence.
What developments in tax law should aspiring lawyers be aware of?
The government has increased HMRC’s prosecution targets and clamped down on tax avoidance, such as through investigations into offshore assets. This has resulted in a great increase in new instructions. Tax is an area that is always in the newspapers, with articles arising from HMRC’s investigations, particularly if it involves celebrities and where taxpayers are treated unfairly. Developments that aspiring lawyers should keep up to date with include changes in tax legislation, government tax policy and information notices published by HMRC.
What will a trainee lawyer in tax law be doing?
Trainees in a tax disputes team are given a lot of responsibility and work closely with a senior associate. As this area of law is always developing and changing, it provides a lot of variety for trainees – from the facts of the case to the daily tasks they are involved in. These tasks can include attending client meetings and conference calls, drafting correspondence, drafting lists of documents, taking instructions from clients and liaising with counsel; trainees really contribute to the firm’s work.
What skills do tax lawyers need?
- A commercially savvy, solution-focused, reactive and resilient character.
- Teamworking and collaboration skills.
- Strong drafting and organisational ability.
- Attention to detail and the ability to think on your feet.
Types of law practised
- Dispute resolution law.
MICHELLE SLOANE is a senior associate in the tax disputes group of RPC. She graduated with a degree in law from the University of Canterbury, New Zealand in 2003.