European governments plan to exploit Brexit by ‘sponsoring’ new indigenous law firms to take on City giants in their own countries. That was the latest rumour circulating last week as fretful speculation continues about the impact on UK legal business of leaving the EU.
In a separate development, the Netherlands issued draft plans to become one of several EU countries to establish an anglophone English law commercial court targeting international dispute resolution. Parties’ fees for the court, set to open on 1 January, are likely to be set at €15,000.
Brexit was the subject of a panel discussion at this year’s Bar Conference on 4 November. Hugh Mercer QC of Essex Court Chambers, chair of the Bar Council’s Brexit Working Group, warned: ‘There is a hard line being taken by a small group of bars in the EU who are driving the agenda. They view legal work as a cake – “the Brits have that, we want it”.
‘They are kicking themselves in the foot. What they are saying is, “we had all that time [since the UK joined the EU in 1973] and we let all these British law firms like Freshfields come in and set up offices, and they’ve gone streets of ahead of us. Now we have the opportunity to correct this”.’
Mercer added: ‘It does seem to be partly state-led as well. A member of the House of Lords told me some governments are going to sponsor some law firms being set up to provide advice and services in English law – specialists in English law.’
Mercer suggested this could be a business opportunity for UK lawyers, as such firms would fail without British influence. The same might also apply to the new foreign courts, he suggested, although they are intended to work without English lawyers’ input. Parties in the Netherlands court, for example, will have to be represented by a Dutch advocaat.
Later in the panel session, Irish bar chairman Paul McGarry expressed scepticism about solicitors in England and Wales planning to use Irish registration as a conduit to EU practice post-Brexit. ‘A thousand English solicitors have been placed on the roll in Ireland, but only a tiny number have taken out practising certificates,’ he said.
‘I don’t think, even if they go down [the PC] road but don’t actually move [and just] “brass plate”, that will work.’
Mercer responded: ‘It beats me why firms don’t just set up [the likes of] Freshfields Dublin and do some work out of there. Only if you’ve got some effective operation in that country are you actually established. That gives you an acquired right.’