Each year as the ties between the European Union's member states strengthen, lawyers are being asked to increase their knowledge of legislation coming out of the continent.
But now, as the Law Society prepares to introduce a new
European element to legal training, some people are questioning whether the education system is adequate in preparing students for a career in the new legal arena.
At present the Legal Practice Course, which has just completed its first year, has a pervasive European law content, while the subject is optional in some degrees.
Most people currently employed as trainees claim they have little knowledge of the area, and many remark on the difficulty in acquiring it.
However, from September qualifying law degrees will swap the current six core subjects for seven “fundamental principles”, including EU law. The Diploma in Law is set to follow suit.
Many say EU law will become further entrenched in the minds of the UK's legal profession as directives and legislation from the European courts find their way into every area of British working practice.
“When the LPC was introduced obviously one of the things the Law Society took into account was that students should have a very clear knowledge and understanding of European law,” says the Law Society's chief training officer Paulene Collins.
“You can't keep changing a course every year. Obviously as the course develops it may be necessary to think of increasing the European element, but quantifying it is not the answer, it's changing attitudes that is the answer.
“European law should be
integral in our thinking. It shouldn't be thought of as something which is separate. I think it will eventually become so much a part of our thinking that we won't ask whether there's enough of it in courses because it will just be there.”
However, immediate past chair of the Trainee Solicitors' Group (TSG) Fiona Boyle, a University of Northumbria LPC lecturer, says the course must be constantly updated to keep future lawyers informed of the UK's legal position.
“The people now training to become solicitors will be practising in a much more European environment than has existed before,” says Boyle. “That means that although there is some emphasis on teaching European law now, it's probably not enough. And even if it is enough now, then by next year it probably won't be. The focus has to be ever-
Boyle says another problem, echoed throughout the profession, involves informing those solicitors already practising.
“The trouble is, that with most people who have been qualified for five years or more it is quite possible that they have never studied European law,” she says.
“Unless they make a conscious effort, or if they are confronted with it on a day-to-day basis, then it is easy for them to see Europe as something peripheral when in fact that is increasingly not the case.”
Another common misconception within the profession is that European law remains a specialist area held solely in the domain of the larger firms.
However TSG international relations officer, Lovell White Durrant trainee David Taylor, says “it is not just the large City firms that need to be aware of Europe, it runs right through to high street practices.
“You've got to be aware of European law because the European Court of Justice is now the highest court,” says Taylor.
“There is now a European aspect to almost every area of law. You can get away quite often without having to deal with it, but unless you are aware of the European legislation and the implications of what you're doing then you could quite easily misadvise your clients.
“You could almost become negligent if you are not aware.”
Taylor's comments are supported by the chair of the Legal Education and Training Group, Herbert Smith's Richard King: “European law is absolutely
essential to everyone everywhere, whether they are in a high street practice or a City firm.
“European law is something that is universally important.”