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Prestigious Wilberforce excels at Chancery, offshore and pensions, but offers a broad practice and demands impeccable intellect.

Published: Tuesday 10 October 2017

Where there’s a Will-berforce, there’s a way. It was the first truly hot day of the year when we visited Wilberforce Chambers, so it was a welcome delight to step into a cool, minimalist conference room bedecked with Margaret Bourke-White-esque photographs of Lincoln’s Inn. Apparently fitting out the premises with aircon “has been a logistical nightmare, because it’s a listed building.” Wilberforce’s digs date back to the 17th century, but the set is a sprightly 90 years old. Founded in 1928, it has grown into one of the country’s premier Chancery sets. Like most things, it’s got bigger and better with age and has broadened its horizons into other areas. Its best-known work revolves around pensions, offshore, traditional Chancery and commercial Chancery matters (all are top ranked in Chambers UK). Senior practice manager Danny Smillie breaks it down further for us: “Our key areas are professional liability, pensions, property, commercial, tax, and wills and probate, but we’ve made significant inroads with our civil fraud and insolvency offerings.” How? These two practice areas were boosted by the arrival of three silks and four juniors from 11 Stone Buildings when it collapsed in late 2015.

Wilberforce’s Chancery supremos have been involved in some of the top cases in this mind-achingly complex area of law. A recent win came in Ingenious Games v HMRC, a case related to dodgy tax accounting in film and gaming LLPs – Wilberforce won the case for HMRC, which was worth a cool £1.4 billion. Another triumph was a win in the Makdessi Supreme Court appeal: Mr Makdessi had agreed to sell the appellant a controlling stake in the holding company of the largest advertising and marketing group in the Middle East. The case centred on a penalty clause, which is traditionally unenforceable under the ‘penalty rule’. What made the case special was that for the first time in 100 years, the highest court in the land had to consider whether to change the penalty doctrine test.

Although Chancery law is a field entrenched in old English legal doctrines, Wilberforce’s work is surprisingly international. There’s a glut of offshore work on trusts and insolvency disputes related to tax havens like Jersey, Guernsey and the Cayman Islands, as well as Miami, Sydney and Hong Kong.  One major case which was ongoing at the time of our visit was AHAB v Saad,  a $9 billion (!) cross-border fraud tracing claim related to a Ponzi scheme which defrauded 280 banks out of a tidy $350 billion. The case is being tried in the Cayman Islands, and Danny Smillie told us that “it’s turned into a 12-month trial, so our barristers are constantly going out there.”

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