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‘Not a smooth process’: The legal profession opines on the Brexit negotiations to come

City lawyers have voiced their concerns as today (29 March) prime minister Theresa May has started the process of triggering article 50, launching a complex two-year negotiation before Britain leaves the EU in 2019.

May will today deliver her formal notice of article 50 under the Lisbon Treaty to European Council president Donald Tusk, kicking off the biggest overhaul of the UK’s constitutional and economic arrangements for more than 40 years. The move follows the EU referendum last June.

Highlighting the scale of challenge facing UK lawmakers following Brexit, a Thomson Reuters report released today shows that more than 50,000 EU laws were introduced in the UK over the last 25 years.

Among the issues raised by City partners are the desire to maintain a fully harmonised choice of law system and enforcement of judgments, the role of the City as major dispute resolution centre, ease of cross-border practice arrangements and recognition of qualifications.

Organisations such as the Law Society and the City of London Law Society have already warned of a hard Brexit’s threat to the £25.7bn UK legal sector. Law Society president Robert Bourns said his organisation estimates there are more than 200 foreign owned firms in London, including 100 US firms, which might consider a new European hub if they are denied access and establishment rights across the EU.

Linklaters, which gave written evidence to the Lords EU internal market sub-committee, has warned that if clients cannot conduct business between the UK and the EU as they do now and choose to relocate their activities, leading UK-headquartered firms will follow suit.

Herbert Smith Freehills (HSF) Brexit team co-leader Dorothy Livingston said: ‘The profession would welcome it if the EU member states and the UK continued the mutual recognition of legal qualifications as it is now, and agreed to afford the same respect and privileges to each other’s lawyers as presently.

‘We expect the UK to remain a major dispute resolution centre after Brexit in any event,’ Livingston (pictured) added.

Allen & Overy special counsel for the firm’s Global Law Intelligence Unit, Philip Wood said: ‘We believe that the most unsatisfactory result would be for the parties not to agree so that the UK just exits unilaterally. We believe that this might leave the UK and the other nations of Europe embittered and resentful for a generation. That would not be good for the future of Europe.’

Meanwhile, White & Case London executive partner Oliver Brettle reiterates that matters are far from clear. ‘The UK is heading for years of negotiations and the main thing for law firms is still “a case of wait and see”. However the question is whether Brexit, almost as importantly the run-up period of uncertainty, will depress the attractiveness of the City of London as a location for business, and will that have a knock-on effect on law firms.’

Reed Smith partner Claude Brown said that the move towards the harmonisation of criminal enforcement is one of the main issues to consider.

‘This move can be seen as a response to the “globalisation” of crime and terrorism. However, within the EU it can also be seen as a response to the less desirable by-products of the single market in that the freedom of movement of goods, capital and people makes it easier for the criminal community to conduct their activities within the EU,’ he said.

How these harmonisation initiatives are impacted by the negotiations that will follow the serving of the article 50 notice is, as with so much else, unclear,’ he added.

However regarding the adoption of EU legislation more broadly, Coffin Mew Solicitors partner Mark O’Halloran concluded: ‘The adoption of EU legislation is not going to be a smooth process. It is going to be complicated by an expectation that negotiations between the UK, the EU and its member states won’t reach resolution until near the end of the two years, potentially leading to a mad rush to get laws adopted.’

Read more in: ‘LB’s Brexit take: City law’s globalisation playbook has just been shredded’ and ‘The Brexit debate: The big uneasy’