Leaving the EU: Legal Services

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:02 pm on 21st November 2018.

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Photo of Gavin Newlands Gavin Newlands Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Sport), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Wales) 5:02 pm, 21st November 2018

Whatever the hon. Gentleman can afford; I would be most grateful.

On a more substantive point, we have heard today that Brexit has the capacity to complicate and disrupt every aspect of our lives. Over the decades, European co-operation on justice issues has undoubtedly led to countless criminals and victims getting justice. Brexit seriously risks that successful current arrangement for very little gain. It is vital that the UK Government do everything in their power to ensure that cross-border legal service arrangements are as close as possible to the current arrangements.

At the moment, it is unlikely that the Prime Minister’s withdrawal agreement will pass the House of Commons. On top of countless other problems, a no-deal Brexit would discard the agreement to have reciprocal recognition of legal qualifications. With their technical notice, the Government have provided something, but it does not provide anywhere near enough clarity on justice arrangements after a no-deal Brexit. I welcome the fact that under the withdrawal agreement, mutual recognition of legal professionals would continue at least during the transition period.

That is just one example that highlights how European Union membership benefits our justice system and society more widely. The Scottish National party will continue to argue that the best course of action for Scotland and the UK’s other constituent nations is full membership of the European Union. Failing that, even single market access via the European economic area and customs union membership would also allow current arrangements to continue unhindered.

We are hurtling rapidly towards a blindfold Brexit, with no clarity on what future arrangements will look like. Despite some of the welcome guarantees, we are still none the wiser about what the arrangements for legal services will look like. We remain gravely concerned about the future of legal services in Scotland and across the UK after transition. I urge the Minister and the UK Government, in the strongest possible terms, to get their act together and address that urgently in the future partnership arrangements.

No one can know for certain what will happen in the next few months, but it is clear that the Prime Minister will struggle to gain approval for the agreement, and a damaging no-deal Brexit is still a real possibility. As we heard from the hon. Member for Huntingdon in his opening speech, the mutual recognition of professional qualifications directive, the lawyers’ services directive and the lawyers’ establishment directive all provide reciprocal arrangements between EEA states for the recognition of qualifications, creating arrangements for European lawyers to register to practice permanently in another EEA state as a registered European lawyer. As the Government’s technical notice clearly states, if no deal came to pass, those reciprocal arrangements would cease to apply, which would result in a sharp end to them on 29 March. As we have heard in great detail, that would be an unmitigated disaster for law firms and lawyers who operate in the EU.

The Law Society of England and Wales carried out research on Brexit. Some £3 billion could be stripped from the sector’s turnover by 2025 if the UK crashes out of the EU without a deal, and a hard Brexit could cut the legal sector’s rate of growth by half. The UK is a world-leading centre in legal expertise, as we have heard, and that standing could be irrevocably diminished because of Brexit—“global Britain” indeed. The Scottish National party has been consistently clear that freedom of movement and all the advantages that it brings should be allowed to continue in Scotland. Ending freedom of movement will jeopardise the continuing success of the legal sector in a country that voted overwhelmingly to remain in the European Union. That will be heavily damaging and deeply unfair. It is vital that the legal sector continues to receive the benefits of freedom of movement, and retaining freedom of movement is the simplest way to secure that.

Andrew Langdon, Chair of the Bar, told the Justice Committee that

“without the free movement of lawyers nothing else of much importance will be salvaged”,

arguing that lawyers’ ability to represent local clients in cases with EU connections is important for the individuals and businesses they represent.

Stakeholders and leading legal experts are desperately calling out for clarity and decisive action from the Government. A sector that is especially vital to the UK economy is under threat, and our lawyers need answers beyond the transition period. If the Prime Minister cannot get an agreement through the House, we seriously risk subjecting the sector to further irreparable damage. It is therefore better to reverse the whole shambolic process and remain in the European Union, so that we would retain the benefits, not only in the justice system but in countless other areas that have enjoyed benefits for decades. At the very least, we should come to an agreement on retaining membership of the single market and the customs union, but, if, as I fear, we do not, I suspect many Scots will feel that they have no choice but to exercise their democratic right to regain all those benefits by choosing an independent path of their own within the European Union.