Older and wiser

Customs & Excise has been patrolling the UK’s borders since Roman times, and now has one of the Government’s biggest legal departments. Jennifer Currie meets head of legal David Pickup

How David Pickup ever manages to get any work done is a small miracle, considering that his South Bank office has a view of the River Thames that many would pay millions for.

In a way, it is very appropriate that the solicitor to Customs & Excise should have such a view, as it allows him to keep an eye on the Thames, which has historically kept the department so busy.

Pickup, who has rather sensibly turned his desk away from the window, has been in charge of the Customs legal team for seven years, but his career path has almost as many kinks and turns in it as the Thames itself.

After training as a barrister at Garden Court Chambers, Pickup decided that advocacy was not for him and joined the Government Legal Service in 1978. After three years in the Treasury Solicitor’s Department, Pickup moved to the Department of Energy, where he spent six years advising on high-profile cases such as the privatisation of British Gas.

Next he returned to the Treasury Solicitor’s litigation division as head of its judicial review team. He also took charge of two projects, namely the Cleveland Child Abuse Inquiry and the Death on the Rock inquests in Gibraltar.

After a two-year stint as an establishment finance and security officer (a non-legal managerial role in the Treasury Solicitor’s Department), Pickup became head of the chancery litigation division and carried out work for the Department of Trade and Industry and the Office of Fair Trading, among others.

By 1991, it was time to move again and Pickup became legal adviser to the Ministry of Defence, where he faced issues such as the role of women in the armed forces and the deployment of troops overseas.

Pickup admits that his current seven-year tenure at Customs is noticeably longer than any other in his career to date, but he thinks that changed attitudes towards ‘management direction’ mean Government employees are no longer required to move around as frequently. He adds: “There have also been a number of inquiries into our work and seeing through the processes has taken a long time. It would have been very difficult for someone to come in and take up that role.”

As one of the oldest Government departments – Customs & Excise is believed to date back to Roman times – the legal team is also one of the biggest. Pickup presides over 128 lawyers and 361 staff in total and controls an annual operating budget of £40m. Given the fact that the department prosecutes approximately 2,000 cases a year, it is not surprising to learn that Customs spends in excess of £17m on counsel fees per year.

“We prosecute a high proportion of the most serious cases that come before the English court system,” says Pickup. “We judge success by what we call the judgement quality factor, where we look at the number of cases that don’t reach the jury. But looking at our cases for last year, only between 3 to 5 per cent didn’t reach the jury, which is pretty high. We don’t like measuring our conviction rate because if that drove us, we’d be open to criticism that we try to get convictions at all costs. What we’re trying to do is put the case before the jury and leave it up to them to decide.”

While prosecution work keeps the majority of Pickup’s lawyers busy, whole teams are devoted to general support litigation and advice. “As a whole, Customs & Excise has 20,000 staff and an annual operating budget of £1bn. We’re a very large employer and user of services and give a lot of legal advice on the commercial and employment front,” says Pickup.

As with most Government departments, most of the legal work is handled in-house by the Treasury solicitors or approved counsel, yet Pickup says he does contract out work to private sector firms in specialist cases, particularly with tax issues.

Of course, tax itself is another major area of work for the department and Customs lawyers work closely with departmental administrators and Parliamentary counsel to draw up loop-hole free legislation.

One aspect of excise-related work that Pickup thinks will become increasingly important in the future is the snatching back of profits made by drug smugglers, or asset forfeiture as it is formally known. He says: “These criminals do what they do for profit and so if we can take away that, then we take away the reason they do it in the first place. The Proceeds of Crime Act is very much aimed at this.”

As Pickup readily admits, when people think of his department they tend to think of The Knock, a mid-1990s ITV programme that followed the antics of a particularly tough Customs & Excise team. Perhaps because of its high public profile, this area of the department has been subject to a series of reviews. The most recent example is the Gower Hammond report, which asked if Customs & Excise should still be allowed to prosecute its own cases. “It concluded that we should,” says Pickup. “But it recommended that I should be accountable to the Attorney General to demonstrate the independence of the prosecution. So now everyone in the solicitor’s office is either on the prosecution side – where they answer to the Attorney General – or on the departmental side – where they answer to the chairman of Customs & Excise. Apart from me. I answer to both, depending on whichever way I’m facing.”

As well as recommending that Customs should increase the amount of advocacy it does in the Crown Court – which has led to the creation of a small in-house advocacy unit – the Gower Hammond review is also seeking to transform lawyers’ approach and thought processes.

“When you have a team of investigators who have spent years on a case and leading counsel devoting themselves full time to a case, you have to ask what the solicitor’s office adds in the middle. Too often in the past we didn’t add a lot,” says Pickup. “Gower Hammond highlighted this and emphasised that we must really take control of the proceedings.

“My lawyers will be in a much more central position and there is a lot in it for us. As a result of the review we have greater resources and extra staff to enable us to do the job better. The challenge for me is to deliver that and we’re the subject of a lot of scrutiny. This is the most consistently challenging job I’ve ever done.”

David Pickup
Head of Legal
Customs & Excise

Organisation Customs & Excise
Sector Government
Operating income £40m
Annual legal spend £17 on counsel
Legal capability 128 lawyers
Head of legal David Pickup
Reporting to Customs & Excise chairman and the Attorney General