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THE EUROPEAN Commission is threatening to take Italy to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) for making it too difficult for foreign lawyers to practise Italian law there.
The commission has written to the Italian government accusing it of breaching a longstanding EU directive, requiring member states to allow foreign lawyers to practise the states' domestic law once they have passed an aptitude test.
The commission says a provisional test introduced by the Italian government is both too bureaucratic and too difficult - foreign lawyers have to take papers on more subjects than Italian lawyers themselves have to tackle on qualification.
It is threatening to take the government to the ECJ if it does not get a satisfactory response.
A similar threat is being levelled at France by the commission, over a ban preventing foreign lawyers based there practising their home law unless they qualify as avocats.
Although both cases are likely to be superseded by the commission's planned new Rights of Establishment Directive, which will dramatically liberalise the rules, a Brussels observer said the Commission was flexing its muscles in anticipation of opposition to the directive from several EU countries.
"It is sending a clear message to France and Italy that they will have to comply swiftly to the new directive," he said.
Due to be implemented in the year 2000, the new directive will allow lawyers in EU countries an automatic right to practise their home law anywhere within the union, and the right to practise the law of countries they have moved to after three years.
Luxembourg, with the Paris Bar's support, has already challenged the legality of the directive.
Commenting on the commission's threat to the Italians, Nicholas Wrigley, a partner at Clifford Chance's Milan office, which is associated with Grimaldi e Associati, said 90 per cent of the lawyers in its three Italian offices were Italian and that the firm had not yet needed to requalify any of its English lawyers.
But he added: "It is certainly something that we would like to consider in the future."