EU to let foreign lawyers side-step English rules

English lawyers are concerned that an EU directive which comes into force next year will allow foreign lawyers to leap-frog established procedures to practice in England.

The European Union Establishment Directive will allow all EU nationals working in the UK to become either solicitors or barristers after three years of working here.

Currently, foreigners are prevented from joining the Bar or Law Society.

Law Society international affairs director Jonathan Goldsmith told the annual conference of the Law Society's Solicitors European Group at Lille that foreign lawyers will be allowed to choose which side of the law they will spend the rest of their UK careers on, but such a move would not be possible for UK nationals.

“This leads to the situation where a German lawyer who works here could become a barrister after three years without taking the aptitude test, but an English solicitor could not,” says Goldsmith.

There is also a question mark on when a foreign lawyer would be required to decide whether to join the Law Society or the Bar.

In theory, claims Goldsmith, a continental lawyer could spend the entire three years of his establishment period working as a solicitor and at the end of that period sign up with the Bar.

“The safeguard would be the maxim that professionals do not do what they cannot do,” he says.

Goldsmith adds that there are other issues to be considered in integrating foreign lawyers, such as whether they should have to pay SIF contributions and, if not, how far the Law Society should investigate their level of cover.

Also, the UK presents particular problems as it has three jurisdictions within one state. Under the directive, it is not clear whether the Scottish and Northern Irish bars will be forced to open themselves up to English and Welsh lawyers.

Luxembourg is currently trying to stop the directive, arguing that the vote for implementation by the Commission should have been unanimous rather than just a majority.

It is protesting because under the directive it would effectively lose control over its 600 lawyers. The country has no law school, so all training is done abroad and Luxembourg expects its lawyers to return. However, under the new directive they would be less likely to do so.