The Revenue & Customs Prosecution Office (RCPO) is barely six months old, but director David Green QC is already optimistic about the work that the new body will do in the years to come. The RCPO was formed following the Revenue & Customs Act 2005, recommended by Mr Justice Butterfield, combining the powers of the Customs & Excise Prosecution Office with the Inland Revenue Crime Group and the Asset Forfeiture Unit. It came into being at the same time as the merger of Customs & Excise with the Inland Revenue, and boasts 290 staff, of whom more than 80 are legally qualified. Most of the work is done from the RCPO’s London headquarters, housed next to the landmark Oxo Tower with a view of the Temple and the golden spire of the Royal Courts of Justice, but there is also a small outpost in Manchester.
A wide range of crimes come under the RCPO’s auspices. Prosecutors working in the office deal with offences involving tax and VAT, excise, drugs, money laundering, prohibited exports and imports, and endangered species.
From April 2006 the RCPO will also handle prosecutions for the new Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca). Green calls the establishment of Soca a “legally audacious” move, adding that there is a need for a specialist organised crime-fighting body in the UK in order to provide joined-up justice. “The aim is to provide a seamless service to Soca for their prosecutions,” he says, “with the early involvement of prosecution lawyers.”
Green himself is an experienced prosecution barrister of some 26 years call. He qualified as a barrister following a correspondence course while working for the Ministry of Defence, and spent the following years as a tenant at 5 King’s Bench Walk (now 18 Red Lion Court). During that time, he often worked as counsel for Customs & Excise, meaning that when he was appointed as director of the RCPO last November, he had detailed experience of the sorts of cases he and his staff would handle at the new authority.
The RCPO expects to handle around 2,000 cases a year at various levels. Some litigation, for example the current issue of carousel fraud involving large corporations, goes all the way to Europe. Much of the rest is argued in county courts across England and Wales. Much money can be recovered from fraudsters or in unpaid tax, and those found guilty are usually given prison sentences. The office has a budget of £35.6m, and from next year a proportion of assets seized will be allocated as part of that budget. Green sees this move as an incentive to staff, adding that it will be closely governed by the RCPO’s code of conduct.
For counsel, Green turns to the Attorney General’s list of approved barristers. Divided into three categories according to call and experience, the list is used by a range of government bodies to source experienced counsel. The RCPO also has its own list of standing counsel, which includes juniors as well as silks.
However, Green is planning on doing more work in-house, training the office’s own lawyers as advocates. “We need to be sure that people have received the right training,” he says. “It adds another incentive for people to come here and work.”
Over the next months the RCPO is advertising for more staff. Primarily, Green is searching for solicitors and barristers with two or more years’ experience in private practice, but the office does offer some training contracts – although civil experience has to be gained elsewhere. He believes that working for the RCPO can be immensely stimulating for his lawyers, who are given ownership of cases from when they come in and see them to a conclusion.
“We could offer to lawyers of two-years’ PQE immensely challenging work,” he says. He adds that the office also takes in lawyers on shorter contracts, enabling them to gain experience in the public sector before moving back to private practice. “It’s extremely important and very valuable to have an interchange between the public and private sectors,” he says.
Recent cases that RCPO prosecutors have been involved in include a £40m carousel fraud prosecution and a number of multimillion pound drug smuggling cases.
Green will be keeping a close eye on the way the office develops. “We’ve got to establish a genuinely independent prosecuting authority which is regarded as being independent,” he says. “That means making careful, independent decisions. It’s also vital that we restore public confidence and the confidence of the legal community in this area of work.”
He says the RCPO is closely plugged into the criminal justice system, and it is overseen by the Attorney General. There will be close consultations to maintain the office’s independence and expertise as it moves into a new era for Government prosecutions. It is clear that Green is relishing his task.
Organisation: Revenue & Customs Prosecution Office
Legal capability: 80
Director: David Green QC
Reporting to: The Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith
Main counsel: Attorney General’s List, plus 13 standing counsel
Revenue & Customs Prosecution Office