Abigail McGregor is a fee-paid judge, sitting in the Tax chamber of the First-tier Tribunal, appointed in 2015. She is a corporate tax solicitor and head of a team producing practical guidance on tax law.
The idea of a fee-paid judicial role first came to me through an old friend who was sitting as a fee-paid judge in the social entitlement chamber. She suggested that it was something that I might enjoy, so I investigated the JAC and signed up for the ‘Judging your Future’ emails notifying me of upcoming selection exercises.
As is common in working life, these opportunities don’t necessarily come up exactly when you might want. I spent the first day of my first maternity leave heading back into London to attend a seminar at the Law Society providing information to solicitors on the upcoming selection exercise, and the application had to be submitted when my son was 6 weeks old! The seminar was extremely useful, highlighting the competency-based approach of the application and explaining the way the selection exercise would be run, which is somewhat different to an interview process in private practice or in-house legal roles.
Having got through the initial phase of selection, we were then sent a collection of materials to read through and prepare for the selection day. I was slightly horrified to be faced with cases about customs duties, which was certainly not my area of expertise, but I read as much as I could in preparation. On the day itself, we were presented with sets of facts to which we needed to apply that background knowledge and given specific tasks to complete, before presenting them back to the JAC panel. The panel were open and fair – asking probing questions about the conclusions I had come to.
I was delighted to be appointed, but it came with some trepidation. I had not come from a litigation background, so some of the procedural aspects of conducting a tribunal case were new to me. I was extremely lucky to be part of a fairly large cohort of new tax tribunal judges. We attended a two day induction course all together, which gave us a huge amount of information and support with which to kickstart our judicial careers, but also a network of other new judges. There is also an annual tax judges’ conference, which I continue to find invaluable for the same reasons.
Since being appointed (with a couple of hiatuses for another maternity leave and pandemic/homeschooling), I have sat on a wide range of disputes in many places in the South East of England. There is a huge variety in the cases we hear. There are some that are purely questions of fact, where you have to make a forensic assessment of the evidence presented to you. On these cases, I find particular value in sitting with a tribunal member, whose perspectives and experiences can be different from my own. At the other end of the spectrum, some hearings are very narrowly focused on a specific point of law – here the need to understand and digest the conflicting legal arguments presented brings a very different type of challenge. Then of course there are cases with every combination in between!
The last couple of years have brought with them a wholly new challenge in the form of attempting to adjust to remote hearings. My last hearings before the March 2020 lockdown were part of a small and cautious pilot for using electronic bundles in physical hearings – appellants had been given complete choice as to whether they wanted to participate in the pilot, we had all been sent paper bundles anyway, just in case, and there were specific clerks on hand to make sure that any technical glitches were solvable quickly. Fast forward a month or two and the whole tax tribunal (and other courts and tribunals) were facing a much faster requirement to adopt fully virtual hearings. There was no time for trial runs or back-ups. While I think most people would have preferred a little more time to adopt a new way of working, I think that virtual hearings enabled cases to proceed during the pandemic and I am sure that this enforced acceleration of new technology will be viewed positively as time goes on. I hope that we will be using them, in certain types of cases, from now on (albeit with a return to a little more choice in the matter in future).
I enjoy my time sitting on tax cases enormously – it presents a different mental challenge from my day to day job. I hope, particularly for individual taxpayers who are representing themselves, that the experience of attending the tribunal leaves them feeling that they have had an opportunity to be heard, even if the decision doesn’t ultimately go their way.