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Provision of legal services post-Brexit debate


21st November 2018

Jonathan Djanogly leads a Parliamentary debate on the provision of legal services after the UK leaves the EU.

Mr Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con)

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the provision of legal services after the UK leaves the EU.

I am pleased to have secured this timely Brexit debate on the provision of legal services. This is a key moment for our country’s wellbeing and direction, and the implication for the provision of legal services is significant. I introduce myself as a non-practising solicitor and as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on legal and constitutional affairs, which produced a report in October that noted serious issues that merit further debate. I take this opportunity to thank the APPG’s secretariat from the Law Society for its assistance with the report.

Before I launch into Brexit issues, let me explain why the legal services sector is so important to our economy. The legal services sector is a great UK success story. The UK has the second largest legal services market in the world and the largest legal services sector in the EU. In 2017, it contributed more than £26 billion to the economy—equivalent to 1.5% of GDP—and was responsible for net trade of some £4 billion. It employs and trains over 380,000 people.

The jurisdiction of England and Wales is recognised as a global centre for legal services, particularly for international, commercial and corporate transactions, and dispute resolution and arbitration. In 2015, more than 22,000 commercial and civil disputes were resolved through arbitration, mediation and adjudication in the UK. In the commercial court, which is housed in its new, modern building, nearly 1,100 claims were issued, of which two thirds involved at least one party whose address was outside England and Wales.

Our legal services sector is a great international success story, but we have no natural right to retain that business. Indeed, over the past 10 years several jurisdictions have sought to compete with England and Wales. We keep the work because of the excellence of our professional lawyers and judges and because of foreign parties’ trust in our rule of law and our reputation for judicial efficiency and fairness.

John Howell (Henley) (Con)

My hon. Friend makes a very valid point. Surely one of the biggest threats to the UK comes from Singapore, which is developing a good range of courts to tackle commercial issues. I have raised the subject on several occasions, but there does not appear to be a united Government front to see off the threat from Singapore.

Mr Djanogly

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. Other jurisdictions are also mounting challenges. We must avoid doing anything that might impair the reputation of the sector.

Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con)

My hon. Friend talks of the reputation of the sector. It is also about hard cash. At the end of the day, the legal services sector makes a contribution of about £25.7 billion per annum to the economy. It is really significant for our economic wellbeing.

Mr Djanogly

My hon. Friend makes another very important point.

English law is the most widely used legal system in the world—27% of the world’s 320 legal jurisdictions use it. There are more than 200 foreign law firms with offices in the UK, from more than 40 jurisdictions. The UK legal services sector is forecast to produce turnover of £30.82 billion and net exports of £4.25 billion by 2025.

Brexit will be the largest ever change to the UK’s legal framework and it represents both opportunities and risks for the legal sector. The impact of Brexit on lawyers, law firms and legal practices will be significant. Negotiations around the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union and the transition period have been agreed, but questions remain, especially about the future relationship of the UK and the EU.

Ellie Reeves (Lewisham West and Penge) (Lab)

Legal services amount to the equivalent of 1.5% of GDP. Both the Bar Council and the Law Society have issued warnings that any form of Brexit will have a significant impact on the sector. Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that it would be better for the legal services sector if we remained in a single market?

Mr Djanogly

Yes, and the hon. Lady is going to hear me explain how the post-Brexit situation that I want to see is as close to that as possible.

Mr Jonathan Lord (Woking) (Con)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on highlighting in this place the importance of the legal services sector to our economy and our justice system. Will he indicate what he believes the direction of travel for the legal services sector is in the proposed deal? We would all be interested in his initial reaction.

Mr Djanogly

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 the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill). As far as possible, mutual market access should be retained.

Ellie Reeves

The withdrawal agreement does of course refer to mutual recognition, but only for the transition period. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that creates further uncertainty for the legal profession, which, as has been pointed out, already contributes such a lot to our economy?

Mr Djanogly

I will be making the case that the hon. Lady has just put.​
On labour mobility, the legal services sector has profited from the ability to attract talent from across the globe and the ability to work in the European Union. Frankly, many people going into the offices of a City law firm would be staggered by the number of nationalities and the depth of EU and world legal experience that we have in the UK. For instance, an American client would quite commonly run its European company acquisition strategy from London—because we speak English, yes, but also because they trust our jurisdiction and courts, and because we have European expertise here in London. We do not want to lose that. It is very important that a labour mobility framework that guarantees those abilities post Brexit is put in place.

The legal services sector requires legal certainty throughout the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union. Law firms and their clients are already, sadly, beginning to implement contingency plans and move business elsewhere. We now have a draft of a detailed transition agreement, and the sector believes, as I do, that that agreement must be confirmed as soon as possible to ensure the sector has the legal certainty that it requires.

Robert Neill

Does my hon. Friend agree that having a swift and clear transition agreement is important not just, as he rightly says, to give law firms the certainty they need to continue their operations, but to ensure for their clients contractual continuity and, above all, the enforceability of contracts and judgments in commercial matters and a whole range of other matters?

Mr Djanogly

As ever, my hon. Friend makes a pertinent point. Avoiding a no-deal scenario and securing the right future relationship with the European Union is of the utmost importance. The APPG supports the view of the legal services sector that a no-deal scenario would be devastating to the sector and should be avoided at all costs. Of course, there have been significant recent developments. Last week, on 14 November, the Cabinet collectively agreed to the draft withdrawal agreement and the political statement on the future relationship. Following a special European Council meeting on 25 November, the Government intend to lay a final version of the agreement before Parliament for debate.

It needs to be recognised that the draft withdrawal agreement contains a number of positive elements for the legal services sector, including provisions on mutual recognition of professional qualifications and on lawyers continuing to obtain qualifications throughout the transition period, and clarity on continued recognition and enforcement of judgments and orders throughout that period. Lawyers will continue to have the right to represent a party in proceedings before the CJEU in all stages of proceedings where a case can be brought by or against the UK. The automatic transfer of an EU intellectual property right into an equivalent UK right before the end of the transition period is very welcome.

The non-legally binding declaration, however, is a work in progress. To be frank, it is worryingly brief and it is vague on services, especially legal services. The relevant part of the political declaration explains that the goal is to secure

“Ambitious, comprehensive and balanced arrangements on trade in services and investment, delivering a level of liberalisation in trade in services well beyond the Parties’ WTO commitments”.

It says that the Government will put in place

“Appropriate arrangements on professional qualifications.”​
I have to say that this is pretty sketchy stuff, and so we continue to have concerns about the lack of detail contained within the political declaration between the UK and the EU.

First, it is pretty unambitious for the UK-EU agreement to say only that it will go “well beyond” the parties’ World Trade Organisation commitments, and it is likely to lead to significantly less market access for services. Secondly, like with the Government’s White Paper, there are concerns about the continued focus on regulatory flexibility, as I mentioned before. The preservation of the present system, whereby lawyers from EU member states, EEA states and Switzerland can practise freely across the continent, should be prioritised instead. Thirdly, it is good to see a reference to professional qualifications, but that only goes some way towards giving lawyers the ability to practise in the EU, and generally it is not their preferred route.

Fourthly, it is disappointing not to see a reference either to civil or commercial co-operation, unlike in the Government’s White Paper. The UK and the EU currently enjoy the gold standard in civil and judicial co-operation, which should continue. Fifthly, without an agreement on judicial co-operation, judgments made in UK courts might be unenforceable in EU countries in the cross-border settlement of trade disputes, which might result, for instance, in debts owed by EU entities to UK businesses not being recovered. It follows that uncertainty about whether judgments from UK courts would be enforced could make the UK less appealing as a jurisdiction of choice for contracts and dispute resolution, which would lead to the growth of competing jurisdictions.

John Howell

My hon. Friend is being very generous with his time. I am not sure that I heard him mention the family courts in his list of things that we need to establish good relationships over. The family courts are very important, because sadly the amount of work that they undertake—on both sides of the channel—is growing. There is enormous mutual responsibility for them.

Mr Djanogly

I agree with my hon. Friend, who makes an important point. The Brussels II regulation is a single legal instrument that helps families resolve disputes about divorce and the custody of children where they involve parties in more than one EU state. Under the regulation, EU courts automatically recognise judgments on matrimonial and parental responsibility that are delivered in other states. That will no longer apply to the UK when we have left the EU. Similarly, the maintenance regulation, which helps to ensure the payment of maintenance in cross-border situations, will no longer apply.

In a no-deal scenario, the UK and EU27’s trading relationships in legal services would be governed by the general agreement on trade in services, or GATS, which falls far short of replicating the current EU framework. UK lawyers would be subject to myriad rules and regulations in each of the 31 European Free Trade Association states rather than to a single legal framework. UK judgments are automatically recognised and enforced across the EU27, but they will not be in a no-deal scenario, unless the UK unilaterally signs The Hague convention.​
At the moment, clients can receive UK law advice from UK lawyers however and wherever they want in the EU; in a no-deal scenario, clients in some jurisdictions might be limited in how they can received UK legal advice from UK lawyers. Currently UK lawyers have the automatic right to set up practices in an EU host state with minimal bureaucracy; in a no-deal scenario, UK lawyers’ ability to set up practices in an EU27 jurisdiction will depend on local laws and regulations. If establishment is possible, permitted activities still might be limited.

Currently UK lawyers have the right to advise clients who are based in the EU27 on EU law, because their legal professional qualifications are automatically recognised. In a no-deal scenario, clients based in EU27 jurisdictions might no longer be able to receive EU law advice from UK lawyers, as UK legal professional qualifications might not be recognised. Now, law firms can set up in one EU member state and export their services across the EU by establishing branches of the same structure in other member states. In a no-deal scenario, legal entities would lose the automatic right to use their preferred business structures in certain EU27 countries, and the UK corporate form of limited liability partnerships might no longer be accepted in some jurisdictions. As can be seen, we must avoid a no-deal scenario.

Growing concern that the UK could exit the EU without a deal has led the Law Society to publish a series of papers that give solicitors guidance on how to take steps to mitigate some of the risks. Law cuts across every area of life, and often UK and EU lawyers work across borders and enforce and litigate on family, data or business disputes. The first tranche of Law Society papers gives advice on some of the potential rule changes where a deal between a business here and in the EU goes wrong, what happens in family law if a couple splits up, and how we should approach data sharing should we quit the EU without an agreement. There is another paper on providing legal services in the EU, and I understand that further papers are in production. Perhaps the Minister could take this opportunity to explain how her Department is preparing itself and the legal services sector for a no-deal scenario.

It is fair to say that services, including legal services, have not been given the same attention in the Brexit process as manufactured goods have. The sector wants a bespoke agreement that comprehensively covers legal services and is based on mutual market access, mutual recognition of regulatory frameworks, regulatory co-operation and continued mutual access to talent. I have high regard for the Minister, her understanding of this sector and her ability. I hope that she takes the opportunity provided by this debate to set out how she will champion the English legal services sector in negotiations on the future relationship with the EU, with the intention that legal services are not left behind and will be given the tools to maintain their world-leading reputation for excellence after Brexit.

Hansard

...and at the conclusion of the debate

Mr Djanogly

It is not often that I get the chance to respond to the Minister, because normally so many people want to speak. I am pleased to do so. I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Henley (John Howell) and for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), and the hon. Members for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) and for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi), for their contributions, and the Minister for her response.

I did not hear a lot of difference in the approach across the piece. We know the issues and what we want to get to. Interestingly, my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst spoke about a Committee report from two years ago that dealt with the same issues. Two years later, we have come to the same conclusions in this report—it is not even as though this is a new finding. We all want mutual market access, we want the importance of a labour mobility framework and we see the need for legal certainty.

Several hon. Members said that if those things are not achieved and, as a result, English law clauses are included to a lesser degree in contracts, there is potential for very lasting damage to our legal services. That must be of great concern to everyone in this room. Various treaties were mentioned—Lugano and so forth—but relying on those would be second best. We want the best for our legal services sector. I hope the message has been received and that, as we go into further negotiations, the Minister will bang the drum for legal services as I am sure she will.



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