Tax law: area of practice (barristers)

Tax is an area of law known for its legal complexity, explains Laurent Sykes QC from Gray's Inn Tax Chambers.

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The best aspect of a tax practice is the variety of clients, subject areas and required thought processes, and the feeling that you are helping people.

Tax law ‘floats’ above the general law and makes use of general legal concepts as well as taxspecific ones. In applying a tax statute, one will often be looking at general law concepts that the tax statute makes use of.

What do tax barristers do?

Tax issues will often take you into other areas of law beyond the interpretation of tax statutes, eg setting aside a transfer into trust in the Chancery Division because it causes disastrous tax consequences or a contractual dispute in the Commercial Court with respect to the meaning of a tax deed.

Tax issues could also involve, for example, a judicial review action in the Administrative Court against HMRC because they have breached their statutory obligations or considering EU law defences to taxing provisions that discriminate between residents and non-residents. Tax barristers may also deal with professional negligence claims against advisors, defending or claiming. Tax lawyers need to be well rounded legally with a general interest in the law.

What sort of clients do barristers have in tax law?

While the complexity may seem daunting, people studying tax soon find themselves interested in the subject. There are so many aspects to the tax system, which grows with every annual finance bill, that you are always learning. After a while, this becomes learning based on foundations rather than from scratch.

As a tax barrister you will often spend a lot of time providing advice in relation to transactions to be entered into, as well as litigating past transactions, be it for the taxpayer or for HMRC.

The work is far from dry, since it involves large amounts of money that are hotly fought over, and subtle distinctions on which much can turn. Losing for the taxpayer can mean bankruptcy or insolvency. HMRC is not always right and it would be quite inaccurate to assume the taxpayer has always done something wrong. Most chambers will do work for HMRC as well as the taxpayer.

Tax affects all people and you will be acting for many different kinds of client: individuals of modest means as well as the wealthy, companies, governments and charities to name a few. Although typically your practice will be focused on UK tax, international tax is an important dimension to most tax practioners’ work, and covers double tax treaties and EU law. Some UK tax barristers may also practise abroad in jurisdictions with similar tax systems to our own.

What is life like at the tax Bar?

In terms of the split between litigation and advisory, that depends entirely on the individual barrister’s preference. Some tax barristers are in court once every month on substantial cases. Typical cases take a lot of preparation and you would not want to be in court more often than that. Many tax barristers have a healthy advisory practice, and meet clients regularly and draft advice based on detailed research and thought. Cases before the tribunals and courts are often complex and are usually reported. That means that the route to silk may be quicker than in other areas.

The hours are what you make of them and are dictated by clients, but generally they are regular and compatible with a life outside work. The work is, however, intense.

The best aspect of a tax practice is the variety of clients, subject areas and required thought processes, and the feeling that you are helping people. The only bad side is that one is focused on the UK tax system so the skills are not easily transportable to other jurisdictions, but one could say that about many areas of law.

Is tax law recession proof?

There is a lot of pure tax law in this area, which takes time to learn. Knowledge of this, and an ability to use that knowledge to find solutions, is one of the things that makes a tax barrister effective. This is also why it is not really possible for non-tax barristers to ‘dabble’ in the area, which in turn means tax barristers are always in demand, even during recessions. Leaving the EU will not change that.

What can you expect as a pupil in tax law?

As a pupil you will spend time learning the basics of the tax system and probably be focused on written work since one emphasis of a pupillage to see whether the individual has the academic ability to succeed.

What types of law are practised by tax barristers?

  • Tax
  • Company
  • Administrative
  • European

Useful traits for aspiring tax barristers

  • Academic ability
  • The ability to think outside the box
  • A feel for, and interest in, the law generally
  • The ability to handle pressure
  • LAURENT SYKES QC is a barrister at GRAY’S INN TAX CHAMBERS. He graduated with a degree in modern languages at the University of Oxford in 1995 and was called to the Bar in 2007. He took silk in 2016.

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