A warning to lawyers

A bankruptcy lawyer has been jailed for tax evasion of nearly £100,000 after lying to HMRC about his income.

Christopher Wilkins (called to the bar in 1993) ran into debt following a failed investment in overseas property at the time of the 2008 financial crash. He entered into an Individual Voluntary Arrangement in 2013 to try to manage his debt and avoid bankruptcy. Despite owing thousands of dollars to his creditors, the solicitor was still paying £5,000 a month in private school fees for his children.

As his financial difficulties skyrocketed, between March 2012 and June 2017, Wilkins made false VAT returns by understating his income and inflating his expenses. But in May 2017 he was scolded as tax officials seized his financial records.

During its investigation, HMRC compared Wilkins’ VAT returns to those provided by his chambers, which revealed he had lied about his income to reduce his tax liability, over the five-year period. HMRC calculated that Wilkins evaded tax to the tune of £98,732, while earning £740,000 over that period.

Wilkins was charged in February 2020 and pleaded guilty to VAT fraud at Taunton Crown Court in November 2021.

“He is a walking parable of what can happen to a good man when he gets into debt,” said Charles Bott QC, defense lawyer for Wilkins. Wilkins had placed paying his children’s school fees above all else, his lawyer said, but had now “lost his reputation” and “his professional status” which had left him “noticeably isolated and depressed”.

Judge Paul Cook noted that Wilkins’ motivation was not his own financial gain but the “emotional pressure” to not let others down. However, the judge said Wilkins had offended for a long time and, as a bankruptcy lawyer, would have known better than most not to defraud HMRC.

The judge concluded that if Wilkins did not “present a risk”, there should be “immediate punishment considering the substantial amount and the long period” of the fraud. On January 12, the court sentenced Wilkins to 21 months in prison.

“As a trusted lawyer, Christopher Wilkins should have known not to try to cheat the system,” said Zoe Ellerbeck, deputy director of fraud investigations at HMRC. “No one is above the law and tax evasion is not a victimless crime. People who defraud HMRC are stealing from their communities by taking money from hospitals, schools and other services vital audiences.”