Lawyers from the European Economic Area (EEA) operating in the UK post-Brexit will be stripped of their special status if there is no deal, the government has confirmed, causing issues for them and the firms where they work.
On Friday, the government published another batch of technical notices on the implications of a no-deal Brexit, including one on “providing services including those of a qualified professional”.
It said the Lawyers’ Establishment Directive and Lawyers’ Services Directive would no longer apply and EEA lawyers would be treated like any other foreign lawyer in the UK. The registered foreign lawyer regime would be unaffected.
This means EEA lawyers in England, Wales or Northern Ireland would no longer be able to provide reserved legal activities or seek admittance to local profession based on experience. Scotland has different arrangements.
Professionals arriving in the UK from the EEA after the exit date would have a “means to seek recognition of their qualifications”, the government said, but it did not give details of what this would be.
The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) said in response that one of the main groups affected by a no-deal Brexit was registered European lawyers (RELs), subject to a transitional period lasting to the end of December 2020.
The REL regime allows EEA lawyers to register with the SRA and provide the full range of legal services on a permanent basis in England and Wales. They can also work as sole practitioners.
The SRA currently regulates around 700 RELs and it said those who apply for the status before the UK leaves the EU would be able to take advantage of the transitional period.
It continued: “RELs will, subject to meeting the eligibility criteria, be able to seek admittance into the solicitor’s profession under the three-year ‘integration route’ during the transition period.
“By 2021 the very small number of RELs who presently practise as a sole practitioner will need to seek to qualify as a solicitor or make alternative arrangements.”
There would be an alternative option for RELs to qualify as a solicitor through either the Qualifying Lawyer Transfer Scheme or the new Solicitors Qualifying Examination; RELs could be eligible for exemptions from parts of the latter, depending on their qualifications and experience.
The SRA noted that the government notice did not deal with “any issues around European lawyers’ right to practise permanently in the UK after an EU exit”.
Law Society president Christina Blacklaws said: “The fact is that after Brexit all the measures that have been introduced to create a single market where EEA lawyers can operate in each other’s jurisdictions will no longer apply to Britain.
“This will cause firms a significant amount of expense to find work arounds and, with tight margins, small and medium-sized firms that employ EEA lawyers will struggle most to adapt.
“If they employ EEA lawyers, then these may have to requalify and that’s just one of the hoops. However, we welcome the commitment to having a transition period to allow EEA lawyers the time to do this.”
Ms Blacklaws said the notice did not provide “any answers” for UK lawyers in the EU who could face different barriers in each of the 30 EEA countries.