The European budget discussions which ended just over a week ago might have left you puzzled as to whether EU funds impact lawyers. Do you benefit, and if so how? Here is a little insight into how a tiny part of the cash has been used to help the legal profession.
The European Commission is now building an online search facility, whereby citizens will be able to look for lawyers in other member states in their own language. So, if you are a Hungarian-speaking personal injury solicitor, and a citizen of Hungary who does not speak English trips over while on holiday in your town, that citizen will be able to find you for the purposes of making a claim. (Actually, if you are a solicitor, this might not apply to you – see below.) Obviously, although not intended to be a professional tool, the facility can also help lawyers find lawyers in other member states, to help with local work.
The search engine is based on a project carried out by my organisation, the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe (CCBE), with European funding. We built a prototype which the commission is now using to build a working model on the European e-justice portal. It is expected to go live later this year.
It has raised some interesting implementation issues, which were not foreseeable when I first wrote about it over three years ago. For instance, the system gathers languages spoken by lawyers, as mentioned, but of course most bars do not gather information on lawyers speaking the native tongue of their own country. Imagine if you searched on the Czech Republic and found no lawyers speaking Czech. Of course, that is easily remedied, by assuming, almost certainly correctly, that they all do speak Czech.
The new system will also have to resolve different means of referring to the same place, for instance Brussels, Bruxelles or Brussel, depending on your language, or Baden-Württemberg and Baden Württemberg, depending on your use of hyphens. And postal codes, which are not at all harmonised around the EU, have led to more difficulty than you can imagine.
To return to my fictional Hungarian citizen, he or she will also have to know – for the purposes of the UK – in which jurisdiction the accident took place (England and Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland), and which of the legal professions (solicitor or barrister, or advocate for Scotland) is the appropriate lawyer. All this has had to be explained to the poor IT technicians building the search engine, so that it can be made as easy as possible for the citizen by way of drop-down boxes, maps or text.
The UK is not alone with its complications. Ireland and Poland both have two legal professions (in the case of Poland, it is based on the former Soviet-era distinction between advocates and legal advisors, which has been swept away in other former communist countries). Belgium has two bars, based on the language grouping of the lawyers, French or Flemish – although there is a small German-speaking community, which goes together for bar purposes with the French. So, presumably, citizens will have to decide whether they want a French or Flemish lawyer to handle their case.
And Germany has, for these purposes, the most unusual distinction of all, since it consists of two overlapping groups, one the membership of the regulatory body (BRAK), and the other that of the representative or trade union body (DAV), although this issue has not yet been addressed for the purpose of the search engine. However, it is true that the UK is the only member state with separate geographical jurisdictions within the same country.
Not all bars collect all search fields, although they are encouraged to do so. So not all bars collect languages spoken by their lawyers, or even practice areas. We have developed 20 practice areas, which were agreed after vigorous discussion among our member delegations. Some bars have to funnel their 60 or 100 own practice areas into our 20.
As for the UK, not all the bars and law societies have yet joined up. One not yet signed up is the Law Society of England and Wales. I am writing this on my knees, begging and praying that it will join, so that you, too, will appear when our Hungarian friend is looking for a lawyer in your area. In this way, even solicitors will be beneficiaries of EU funding.
Jonathan Goldsmith is secretary general of the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe, which represents about one million European lawyers through its member bars and law societies. He blogs weekly for the Gazette on European affairs