“Don't assume you know what tax law is like!” pupils at this top tax set challenged. Tax's dour image is getting a makeover thanks to avoidance scandals dominating the front pages and the fallout from Brexit looming; right now “tax is an exciting place to be.”
The best or nothing
“It's the best tax set!” one interviewee exclaimed. “And the biggest!” their fellow pupil added. Those are the answers to got when we asked: "Why did you apply to Pump Court?” Bold statements they may be but these pupils aren't grandstanding without good reason. PCTC dominates the tax Bar, winning top-tier Chambers UK rankings for its work, and it houses way more tax aficionados than any other set.
PCTC's tax work is split roughly equally between direct tax (corporation and business tax), private tax (inheritance, income and trusts) and indirect tax (VAT, customs duties and “esoteric stuff like landfill tax” – yes, that's a thing). Corporate tax works involves both litigation and advisory work, indirect tax is 70% litigation and 30% advisory, while personal tax is the other way round. Senior clerk Nigel Jones tells us: “About ten years ago only a few of our members were handling litigation work; about 70% of what we did was advisory, but now that's completely the other way round. We took a strategic decision to pursue tax litigation. We see that continuing but we'd also like to increase our advisory work.”
“Since everyone has started taking a pop at tax avoidance we've been working non-stop.”
In the meantime, litigation's certainly keeping PCTC's members busy: “Since everyone has started taking a pop at tax avoidance we've been working non-stop,” Nigel Jones says. “We don't see that abating.” Recently a quartet of members defended the film finance scheme of Ingenious Film Partners after HMRC alleged that the investment arrangement – which offered tax breaks to high-profile and celebrity investors who stumped up cash to help fund films like Avatar and Life of Pi – was a tax avoidance scheme. Another case saw head of chambers Kevin Prosser QC go head to head with junior Richard Vallat over a 'flip flop' tax scheme which moves assets between offshore trusts so beneficiaries can avoid capital gains tax by claiming they do not indirectly benefit from the trust; HMRC, represented by Vallat, begged to differ and claimed the trustees are indirect beneficiaries. Another notable recent case saw members representing Mercedes-Benz in a case to determine whether the hire purchase of cars counts as supply of services or goods for VAT purposes, and barristers also acted for HMRC in a test case in the Court of Appeal contesting legislation on the taxation of dividends paid into the country by foreign subsidiaries of UK companies.
Now the months of uncertainty and campaigning are over and Brexit is happening, Jones told us the set is braced for a whirlwind of incoming business: “It's probably going to be chaotic here in the next five years," says top tax silk Andrew Hitchmough QC. "Much of the litigation we handle looks at the discriminatory nature of tax and whether European law comes into play. Now we have voted to leave, heaven knows where that leaves all of that.”
The silk road
For their first three months pupils are assigned to one supervisor. After this they spend a month each with three different supervisors, then two sets of three weeks with two further supervisors before finally ending up passing along from silk to silk on a weekly basis. Working for the big guns, it turns out, can be “very intense. You're given a lot of independence on how you manage your work, which is good practice for juggling clients and deadlines as a tenant,” a source told us. Another interviewee was quick to point out the "invaluable" benefit of seeing how different people work.
“You get to see the fruits of your hard work.”
A pupil told us they'd spent their first three months “preparing for a first tribunal hearing and Supreme Court case" for their supervisor. "Sometimes I'm asked to draft a skeleton argument and at other times I draft an opinion which is used by my supervisor when writing advice to the client.” Their fellow pupil, meanwhile “wrote loads of opinions in the first three months." As nearly everything pupils handle is live “you get to see the fruits of your hard work.”
Although “every piece of written work is looked at critically” with an eye towards the tenancy decision, pupils are made aware that the “first three months are a bedding-in period. That's the time to make mistakes in a safe environment; after Christmas the intensity really ratchets up” and come the second six there's “another noticeable step up.”
Tenancy also rests on successfully navigating two moots. “Almost three quarters of chambers show up to watch so it's pretty daunting,” one interviewee recalled. “The first tends to be quite friendly but come the second exercise you've got to build on that first experience to deliver a better, more virtuoso performance.” Part of the reason the moot is packed to the rafters with members is that “it gives everyone an opportunity to see what the pupils are like and read their skeleton arguments” before the tenancy vote, head of pupillage Andrew Hitchmough tells us.
A tenancy recommendation is put together by the pupillage committee and anyone else the pupils have done work for, before the decision is put to a vote of all members. In 2016 neither pupil gained tenancy, after one of two had in 2015.
The pupillage application process kicks off with the submission of a CV and cover letter. Andrew Hitchmough tells us: “We're looking for people with an interest in tax and good grades from a good university.” (Firsts and double Firsts from Oxford and Cambridge are common among the junior tenants.)
Candidates who successfully make it to a first-round interview face a problem question on a tax statute. “First we want to see they can read and understand the legislation," says Andrew Hitchmough, "but general presentation is important too. As barristers we have to sell our arguments to judges, solicitors and lay clients so it's important to see that someone comes across well and expresses themselves clearly.”
Tongues can take a rest for the next round, which sees around ten candidates picking up a pen to write a tax-related opinion of no more than 2,000 words over an eight-hour period. All the legislation and materials needed are provided by chambers; neither of the current pupils had undertaken any additional research during the process and agreed the time and word limits were a good test for life at the tax Bar where “it's important to express yourself succinctly.” Hitchmough is keen to see candidates produce “a well-written, clear and logical argument and a good legal analysis.”
A final interview calls back several applicants to discuss the written opinion with a panel of members. “The questions are tough – it's a real test,” our sources agreed, with Hitchmough and co looking to see candidates “build upon the skills we saw on display in the first interview but in relation to a more complex legal problem.”
Small but incredibly mighty, Pump Court Tax Chambers is home to the best tax barristers out there.
Once you're through the door there will be plenty more opportunities to get your head around the more taxing aspects of tax, including at 11am coffee which is held in place of afternoon tea. Congregating over an espresso, members discuss lofty tax problems –“and topical issues!” one pupil piped up. “It's not always about tax” – while pupils sit, listen and “use it as a learning experience.” One member reckoned the tricky nature of tax shaped the kind of person you come across at PCTC: “You're unlikely to find loud and blustery barristers here, probably because at some point everyone's fallen flat on their face when they've misunderstood a provision in the tax code. People definitely aren't full of themselves.”
Socialising tends to take the form of lunch or a coffee and a walk. “Sometimes we'll go for a drink together but we're pretty sedate. We're not a pub-going chambers,” one interviewee informed us. Pupils are encouraged to attend monthly seminars which usually end in drinks, canapés and a chance to network with clients.
Not got a tax background? Not an issue. One pupil told us: “I was afraid tax would be impenetrable but I learnt to trust my raw intellectual ability.”
Pump Court Tax Chambers
16 Bedford Row,
- No of silks 11
- No of juniors 24
- No of pupils 1 to 2 in any given year
- Contact Thomas Chacko, [email protected]
- Method of application CV and covering letter, typically in early February. See website
- Pupillages (pa) up to two funded
- Tenancies in last three years 2
Type of work undertaken