ULaw alumnus Robin Williamson MBE studied with us from 1978 to 1979 and qualified as a solicitor in 1981. He is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Taxation and won the 2020 Lifetime Achievement Award in the Tolley Taxation Awards. We caught up with Robin to discuss his incredible career and get his advice for aspiring solicitors.
I chose to study law as it seemed like a useful and interesting way to earn a decent living following my degree in classics. In those days, ULaw was the obvious (probably the only) way to qualify as a solicitor.
Originally, I was keen to progress in general practice as a solicitor; then an opportunity arose at CCH Editions (then newly arrived in the UK). There I was able to further my interest in taxation and financial planning for individuals and indulge my fondness for writing and research. I was responsible for writing and commenting on tax and welfare issues, and other similar activities such as lecturing and advising/participating in projects.
As a retired person, I do what I please, but the foundations of my career in tax were laid by Peter Brindley, a lecturer at the College of Law at Lancaster Gate. His revenue law lectures were delivered with great flair, zest and enthusiasm – he caught my interest, and it has not waned since. There were, of course, other good lecturers too.
To be successful in a legal career, you need persistence and attention to detail while seeing the broader picture. You need the ability to give lucid explanations (written and oral) and get quickly to the point while appreciating other points of view. Some numerical ability is helpful, though one doesn’t have to be a mathematical genius. An interest in the political and economic aspects of taxation helps make sense of the legal and accounting aspects. Above all, it is vital to get on with people at all levels, whether working in practice or government.
One of my most challenging cases was the consultation on the draft clauses, which became Schedule 8 of Finance (No 2) Act 2015, entitled ‘enforcement by deduction from accounts’. This was commonly known as ‘direct recovery of debt’ (DRD). The legislation aimed to give HMRC the power to enforce a debt by recovering it directly from the debtor’s bank account. HMRC only intended to use the new power where details of the debt were not in doubt, and the debtor had resisted all attempts by HMRC to engage with them. The original proposal was highly controversial because the debtor had no access to the courts. My colleagues at Low Incomes Tax Reform Group (LITRG) and I were concerned about the lack of adequate safeguards for low-income, unsophisticated debtors who had simply got themselves into a muddle over their tax affairs. We wanted clear safeguards written into the legislation.
Supported by backers from the various tax professional bodies, I drafted and submitted a draft clause which, after much discussion, they and the solicitor approved in principle. The solicitor’s office took over the drafting and in due course it became para 5 of Schedule 8, ‘Persons at a particular disadvantage in dealing with Revenue and Customs affairs’. We participated in the following consultation, which drew up official guidance for debt enforcement officers dealing with such persons. It effectively prohibited them from using the new, draconian power in such circumstances. Vulnerable taxpayers in debt who needed extra support would be dealt with by a separate, specifically trained set of officers (now part of the Extra Support Service within HMRC).
The proudest moment of my career was when we established the charity Tax Help for Older People in 2001. I was closely involved in developing the blueprint (based on the US program Tax Counseling for the Elderly) and running the pilot project in the West Midlands in collaboration with what was then Age Concern and the local Inland Revenue office. That, and a companion pilot in the South West, persuaded us that there was a need for the charity, and there were professional advisers who were keen to give their time and resources to it. It was a question of liaising with the individual advisers, their professional bodies, the local tax officials and the CEO of the local Age Concern. We established sources of funding for the start-up (which were from the Chartered Institute of Taxation and the Nuffield Foundation) and publicising the service to potential clients. Since those early days, the charity has developed and spread throughout the UK and is now closely linked with the equivalent charity for working-age people, TaxAid.
I particularly enjoy the communication aspect of my career. Passing on knowledge by writing, lecturing and broadcasting, helping individuals to understand their tax affairs and appreciate why things are as they are. Briefing parliamentarians orally and in writing; debating with and trying to persuade ministers and officials and others (sometimes my own colleagues).
Writing is something I have enjoyed doing all my life. I think I got my talent from my father, a professional ornithologist (person who studies birds) who wrote five books and some 250 scientific papers during his career. I wrote the Taxpayer Safeguards book because I felt members of the tax profession needed a text that focused not so much on what HMRC can do to taxpayers but how taxpayers can protect themselves and safeguard their rights. This is particularly true for high-street practitioners who may not always be familiar with all HMRC’s armoury and how they can respond on behalf of their clients.
I was awarded an MBE in 2015, but the process for awarding honours is shrouded in secrecy, so I don’t know how it came about. I believe I was proposed by various colleagues and supported by people in government. The citation was ‘voluntary services to taxpayers’, so I assume it was in recognition of my work in setting up the tax charities and representing low-income taxpayers through LITRG. Obviously, it meant a great deal to me, but I also took it as a tribute to the sterling work of all my colleagues who had been with me over the years.
Again, the public recognition of being awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Tolley Taxation Awards was most gratifying. Particularly as it was unexpected and came about as a result of my colleagues’ nomination. The Tolley Taxation Awards are given each year to the winners in a range of categories, and I was particularly pleased in 2020 that, alongside my lifetime achievement award, my colleagues at LITRG won the Best Specialist Team in a Public or Not-for-Profit Organisation” category. Also, one colleague whom I recruited and whose career I had advanced won Best Rising Star in Tax. A hat-trick.
My main hobby is music – I play the viola in a local orchestra and, when I can, in smaller groups such as string quartets. At the moment, the orchestra is meeting weekly via Zoom, but we have no concerts planned. I also enjoy reading (history, biographies, novels), walking in the countryside, working in the garden, occasionally cooking. In the evenings, my wife and I sometimes watch (re-watch) old films and television series from the 1970s and 1980s. As I don’t have an employer, I do what I like, but the employers I have had have generally been sympathetic to employees pursuing other interests so long as their work gets done.
I would offer students the same advice as I received from my elders. Choose a subject that will engage the thought processes and a university that will offer an absorbing and challenging social and intellectual environment. Work hard at it, but also work hard at making and keeping friends. If you have a talent (e.g. music), develop it.
Studying law is an excellent preparation for life, whatever one ends up doing, so keep at it even if you follow a different path after graduating. Seek opportunities to use your skills to help others, whether in a formal pro bono capacity or just in ordinary life. Whether taking exams, attending or chairing meetings, giving lectures or broadcasts or writing a briefing, an article or a textbook, you can never do enough preparation. Listen carefully even if you disagree with what is being said and enjoy a laugh at your own expense.
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