Law firms in Wales could suffer a ‘brain drain’ to England if the country develops its own legal system, the Westminster government has warned amid heated debate on devolving new powers to Cardiff. 

A separate jurisdiction is not what lawyers in Wales want, Wales Office minister Alun Cairns has insisted.

Last October’s draft Wales Bill provides for a ‘reserved powers’ model in line with that of Scotland, which would enable Wales to make policy and law in all areas except those specifically reserved for Westminster. It prompted some supporters of further devolution to renew calls for full legal separation.

These backers include Justice for Wales, a legal pressure group. It claims that separation, including a different court system and separate professions, would create jobs, cut costs and improve access to justice.

Speaking at a conference on devolution, Cairns stressed that there is no ‘machiavellian plot’ to prevent the Welsh Assembly (pictured) being able to enforce its legislation. The government’s aim in the draft bill is rather ‘to ensure the principles that underline the legal jurisdiction in England and Wales are not modified any more than they need to be for that enforcement to be effective in Wales’.

Cairns said a single jurisdiction has served Wales well for centuries and that separation would be expensive and complex. He added: ‘It’s not what the legal profession in Wales wants. Be it from the law schools based in London, Cardiff or Llandudno, there could be a risk that legal talent would desert law firms in Wales for better opportunities in London, Manchester or Birmingham.’

Instead, said Cairns, current arrangements to ensure the justice system in Wales can react to changes in the law can be made ‘more robust’. He also dismissed the notion that it is ‘somehow an important assertion of [Welsh] identity to rebrand our courts’.

Cairns said the government will deliver the Wales Bill this year, as promised, but the process will be complicated further by Assembly elections in May.

The debate took another new turn yesterday when a scathing report by lawyers and academics from Cardiff University’s Wales Governance Centre and University College London described the  latest devolution proposals as ‘clunky and short-sighted’. The draft bill is so flawed assembly members should reject it altogether and demand the process is paused, the report said.

On jurisdiction, the report advocates consideration of two ‘middle ground’ options – the first involving territorial rules for applying Welsh law but within the single legal jurisdiction of England and Wales; and the second involving a distinct but not separate legal jurisdiction for Wales.