The Customs Legal Management team- Chief Legal Advisor David Soper, and team managers Rebecca Jonassen (Corporate) and Sisilia Eteuati (Operations) provide an insight into working for New Zealand’s oldest government department, and the challenging and rewarding work they’re engaged in to protect New Zealand’s border.

How does Customs differ from other border agencies?

Customs is often mistaken for other border agencies – not only by the public, but within the public service as well. When you see us at the border- we’re not interested in food you forgot to take out of your bag, or the pet gecko your Aunt gave you to bring home (that would be our hard-working colleagues at Biosecurity, protecting New Zealand’s flora and fauna) - unless of course you’ve hollowed the apple out and are using it to smuggle cocaine, crystal meth, or large amounts of cash. Nor are we capable of turning around foreign nationals whose bona fides can’t be confirmed (that would be our hard-working colleagues at Immigration). No - Customs is primarily interested in the risk presenting at the border from smuggling of drugs, cash, prohibited and restricted goods, objectionable publications, trade-based money laundering, and of course, collecting revenue at the border – tariff duty, excise and excise-equivalent duty, and GST. And the people that engage in such activity.

Can you give us an overview of the legal team at Customs and how the team supports the work of the agency?

Customs was established back in 1840- the first government department, and it was at that time primarily focused on the collection of revenue. The Customs Strategy has four pillars – travel, trade, protection and revenue – and Customs Legal works across those four pillars, as well as in the corporate side of the business. With the growth in global trade and travel, and facilitating the legitimacy of these, the protection (law enforcement) element of Customs has grown exponentially. Our tools and technology have also developed over time – we’re now heavily reliant on information and intelligence through world class technology to do our jobs.

We are responsible for enforcing about 130 different Acts at the border- as such, the work that comes through the Legal team is highly varied- and always interesting. We have relationships with most other Crown departments and agencies who are responsible for regulation of goods and trade. In particular, we have a key relationship with Police and security agencies on trans-national organised crime, counter-terrorism, drugs, and objectionable publications. More recently, we have also played a key role in working with the Ministry of Health, Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet and other border and border-related agencies in managing the COVID-19 response at the border. Customs also has significant relationships with international partners as we work across borders to try and prevent risk from reaching the Aotearoa New Zealand in the first place.

We also have a really cool boat (the patrol vessel Hawk V). And dogs. Cute, smart ones. Not actually in the Legal team, but they do visit us from time to time.

Dogs, boats and other cool kit aside, the Customs Legal team has a strong work ethic, and we’re really proud that each and every one of the team is passionate about doing their bit to protect Aotearoa New Zealand borders. The team is split into two small (and nearly perfectly formed) teams – in Wellington the Legal Corporate team (8 staff) provides advice on policy and legislative development, information law, contract and commercial matters, governance, and international matters; and in Auckland the Legal Operations team (8 staff) focuses on advice for operational matters, including exercise of powers, seizures at the border, criminal law, and revenue collection. Both teams share the load of litigation before the Customs Appeal Authority from decisions made under the Customs and Excise Act.

Are you rolling out or planning to roll out any innovations to support the work of the legal team?

Chief Legal Advisor David Soper is keen on ensuring consistently high-quality advice, and the teams have a collaborative and supportive system. This includes a peer review process, and ongoing coaching and mentoring for counsel developing their skillsets. Having worked on a new Workforce Strategy during 2021, a focus for the coming year will be finalising a capability and development framework to guide staff development, with a strong focus on Te Ao Māori.

What are the skills and attributes you look for when recruiting new lawyers for the Customs Legal Team?

Our teams are close-knit, so being a team player who loves to collaborate and work together on matters is essential. We are trusted advisors to and work closely with colleagues from across Customs, so it’s also important that you’re able to build and maintain (and leverage) relationships across the organisation. It’s also helpful to have an understanding of the machinery of government and Government decision making processes, including the Public Finance Act, the Public Service Act, and legislative process.