Lawyers' fury over Brussels 'tax'

BRITISH law firms are protesting over proposals from the Brussels Bar to charge up to u400 per lawyer per office for registration on a list of foreign lawyers.

“We have made it clear that we want it substantially reduced,” says Law Society head of international Hamish Adamson.

The list is being drawn up by the Brussels Bar. The suggested rates follow on from protracted negotiations between the Brussels Bar and the Law Society of England and Wales on how to regulate the numerous foreign law firms practising in Brussels.

A “memorandum of understanding” was signed last summer between the two parties, which laid down the ground rules for practice in the city. Belgian lawyers would register on an 'A' list, foreign law firms practising Belgian law would register on list 'B', while offices in Brussels which practise EU and home law could register on list 'C'.

However, it was agreed that registration on the 'C' list would have to be voluntary because the Law Society could not police it. Instead it would “commend” registration on this list.

According to Herbert Smith partner Stephen Kinsella, who is a member of the committee which is negotiating with the Brussels Bar, some changes needed to be made to the conditions for membership to the 'B' and 'C' list.

He says however that both sides are working amicably to resolve the matter and that the memorandum had “taken a lot of the heat out of the dispute”.

“There was a lot of suspicion from both sides. They thought we were chipping away at their market without being regulated. We thought they saw us as a handy source of revenue,” says Kinsella, adding that since the two sides met a lot of those fears had been allayed.

Kinsella says he will be proposing a fee for membership to the 'C' List which was broadly in line with membership of the Solicitor's European Group of around u30 per head. He says although it is fair to expect to pay for extra administrative costs, the rates should not be a tax on foreign lawyers.

Other areas of concern included the Brussels Bar's request for details of how offices were run. Stephen Tupper of Hammond Suddard says: “These are quite intrusive.”

However, there is optimism among solicitors that the outstanding points of disagreement can be resolved.