It has been said, and rightly, that I act for tax avoiders. But there is some context.
In the area in which specialist tax barristers work, there are only two types of client. There is HMRC, which is always arguing that someone should pay more tax. And there are those on the other side (let’s call them ‘taxpayers’) who are arguing that they should pay less tax. Those are the only clients there are.
Throughout my career – from the very earliest moments – I have sought work from HMRC. I have sought it because I wanted to appear on both sides of the divide, because I thought it would be interesting, and because I thought I had something to offer to HMRC. In 2013, after many rejected applications to join the Attorney General’s Panels, from which HMRC chooses its advocates, I was accepted onto the A Panel, the most prestigious of those panels. To the best of my knowledge, I was then the only pure specialist tax barrister ever to be appointed onto the A Panel. So I have always sought work from HMRC – despite the fact that the rates of pay have been much lower.
The vast majority of my work has been for taxpayers – and a majority of that work involves acting in courts and tribunals for taxpayers who have engaged in what are called (in the trade) “marketed tax avoidance schemes.” That work is exceptionally technically demanding – and the members of the Bar who are experienced in it are few in number. I am subject (as are all barristers) to the ‘cab rank rule’. That rule obliges me to accept such instructions as I am offered. It exists to protect the principle that everyone is entitled to a fair trial. And although the operation of the cab rank rule is (in practice) easy to escape, it’s an important rule and I have never sought to escape it. These factors have dictated the practice that I have today. I make no apology for it: it is where a professional life properly lived has taken me.
However, during my career at the Bar, I have worn two hats. I have worn a barrister’s hat – as set out above – and I have worn a policy hat.
That has at times been an uncomfortable wardrobe.
Wearing my policy hat I have often and publicly called for measures – some of which have subsequently found their way into law, some of which the Coalition has promised to introduce and some of which are in Labour’s Manifesto – which have made life more difficult for my taxpayer clients. I have on a number of occasions met with Directors at HMRC to advise on how HMRC should tackle tax avoidance. I have (in a formal setting) given advice to teams of Inspectors – and Managers – in HMRC’s Counter Avoidance Unit. I have written publicly about abuses by (a small group of) my colleagues at the tax bar. I have proposed measures to the relevant Conservative Party Treasury Minister – and at least one of those measures has become law. I have done all of this without financial reward, without the desire for personal advancement, and I have done it because I have wanted to see our tax system function better.
My clients are entitled to expect that I observe my professional obligations to them – and that I fearlessly advance their interests in court. I have always sought to do that – and the strength of my taxpayer practice is testimony to my success. My clients have not always appreciated the fact that, wearing my policy hat, I have argued, on occasion, against what I might anticipate to be their interests. I have no doubt that this will have cost me new clients. But that has not weighed in my calculations.
In June 2013 I took the decision to start writing this blog. My very first post was entitled ‘How do we solve a problem like avoidance?’ Colleagues have described it (repeatedly) as the longest suicide note in history of a successful practice, but I continue to write and argue for better understanding of the complex field in which I work. But for the fact I represent in court clients who engage in tax avoidance, I would not be able effectively to do this policy work. This is not why I represent taxpayer clients engaging in avoidance, but it is nevertheless true.
I have always been transparent about the type of work that I do. None of this has – as two newspapers, one on the right and one on the left of the political spectrum have put the matter – “emerged”. You have been able to read it in the “About” page of this blog from the first day I started writing it, and indeed on my personal profile page at Devereux Chambers. It has “emerged” in the same way as it has “emerged” that I am a barrister: it has always been there.
So, yes, I act for tax avoiders. But there is some context.
I believe I can document all of the claims set out above.