Leaving the EU: Legal Services

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:26 pm on 21st November 2018.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Conservative, Huntingdon 4:26 pm, 21st November 2018

That is exactly what I shall be doing.

The legal sector has broadly welcomed the Government’s negotiating stance so far. However, concerns remain that withdrawal from the EU and our future relationship will not deliver in a number of key areas for legal services. There are concerns over whether the Government’s current approach will deliver sustainable market access for legal services and flexibility for services. Unlike financial services, there is no in-depth common rulebook or Europe-wide regulator in legal services. Instead, legal services remain regulated autonomously by each EU member state, while functioning on the principle that an EU law firm should be treated as equal to domestic lawyers and firms. There is therefore no great benefit for the legal sector in maintaining regulatory flexibility when pursuing trade agreements with third countries.

I would point out, from my time on the Exiting the European Union Committee, that that is the view of most service industries. They have every intention of following EU rules whether they are mandated to or not, because that is what their business dictates. Certainly, from a legal services perspective, the preservation of the present system should be prioritised, so that lawyers from EU member states, European economic area states and Switzerland can practise freely across the continent.

The APPG inquiry focused on mutual market access and on how legal services will be able to operate following the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union. We accepted written evidence and held sessions in Parliament to hear oral evidence from interested parties, including law firms and chambers, individual practitioners and other stakeholders. We sought evidence on the impact of Brexit on legal practices, the workforce, business structures and client bases. We explored how lawyers currently practise across borders, looking at everything from rules on immigration and practice rights to the recognition of professional qualifications, and how that is anticipated to be affected by Brexit. We sought to understand where contingency planning was taking place and what steps firms were already taking to mitigate any effect of Brexit on the sector. We sought to understand the key concerns of the sector about the effect of Brexit, and we published the final report in October—if anyone wants a copy, I have some. It explored the concerns and comments raised in the oral and written evidence.

We made 10 recommendations. First, the Government should ensure that mutual market access is retained, as currently envisaged, in any transitional arrangements. Secondly, we urge the Government to seek to retain mutual market access as far as possible in any future relationship with the European Union. Thirdly, the Government should ensure that UK lawyers are able to continue to serve their clients post Brexit on what is called a fly-in, fly-out basis. Fourthly, the Government should ensure that any future relationship with the EU includes a mechanism for UK lawyers to practise EU law via the mutual recognition of professional qualifications and law firm structures. Fifthly, the Government should seek to secure the rights of audience in EU courts, such as the Court of Justice of the European Union.

Sixthly, it is vital that, following Brexit, the Government provides for the ability of the legal sector to easily recruit skilled individuals from outside the UK. Seventhly, the Government should ensure that our immigration system does not block lawyers from continuing to provide services in the EU. Eighthly, the Government and the EU should agree on the draft withdrawal agreement as soon as possible to ensure a transition period that provides legal certainty—that one, hopefully, gets a tick. Ninthly, any transitional agreement should replicate the current legal framework as far as possible to ensure legal certainty and prevent businesses and individuals from having to adapt to changes in their rights and obligations twice—once during a transitional phase and once upon implementation of a new UK-EU agreement. Tenthly, a no-deal scenario should be avoided at all costs.

Let me address a few of those points, taking first the ability to practise, mutual recognition of professional qualifications and rights of audience. Of key concern to the legal sector was the ability to practise in Europe. The current framework, which allows for the mutual recognition of professional qualifications, rights of audience and the ability to practise and establish firms in EU member states, has hugely benefited the UK legal services sector, providing a large net contribution to the UK economy, as was mentioned by my hon. Friend Robert Neill. As far as possible, mutual market access should be retained.