Behind closed doors: THE CCBe. Divided they stand on Euro legal practice

EACH week while Europe's legislators debate the pros and cons of a single currency five of the member states' top lawyers meet by telephone to forecast the future of the union's legal profession.

Since its establishment 35 years ago the five-member presidency of the Council of Bars and Law Societies of the European Union (CCBE) has been responsible for canvassing the views of legal bodies across the continent and producing opinions on a wide range of European directives.

Based in Brussels and drawn from practices in France, Spain and Belgium, the current president and his team form the leadership of one of the most influential professional bodies in Europe, enjoying an open door from legislators and having the ear of the Parliament.

The team is supported by a standing committee, comprising the heads of all delegations who meet every two months, and its entire membership of approximately 80 people, nominated by their home countries, who come together at plenary sessions twice a year.

Formed as a focal point for the combined legal professions of the EU, the CCBE has examined a broad range of issues, including the mutual recognition of diplomas and the production of a code of conduct common to all members.

But for a number of years one subject has eclipsed all others, dominating the CCBE agenda and sending the organisation's 17 members into a tailspin. The issue, rights of cross-border establishment for foreign lawyers, has divided CCBE ranks by pitting lead players such as France and Spain against the equally high-profile UK and Germany.

Outsiders have levelled strong attacks against the body claiming it has taken an exorbitant amount of time to resolve the arguments for and against rights of free trade, while the Parliament's legal affairs committee had become so frustrated with the CCBE's inaction that it delivered an ultimatum calling for a resolution by mid-November. The debate finally reached a climactic 14/3 vote at the CCBE's plenary session in Dresden last month, agreeing lawyers should be entitled to practise under their own title on foreign soil.

However, few believe the CCBE agreement came soon enough and many say the group's in-fighting has damaged its profile.

“The CCBE is a necessary organisation but it is not properly used,” says the Law Society's new international director Jonathan Goldsmith. “It's under-used and misused.”

He adds: “It's clearly necessary for all of Europe's lawyers to get together into a forum, but they've spent so many years on the issue of establishment that they've not tried to tackle any of the other issues that need to be tackled.

“There has been a split on the establishment directive and a difference of approach, but what we want to do now is to make sure that in areas where there are common interests we work together and don't let differences colour relations.”

Ian Dunbar, former president of the Law Society of Scotland and now a member of the CCBE's UK delegation along with Goldsmith, says difficulties within the organisation have arisen because it was founded on the “false premise” that a single profession exists across Europe.

Established during the ratification of the Treaty of Rome, the CCBE aimed to speak with one voice for EU lawyers. However, Dunbar, like many, believes it is unlikely unanimously agreed positions will be reached on contentious issues because each of the organisation's member countries is governed by its own national rules and traditions. He says the CCBE's varied membership may find common ground on matters of mutual interest but, on issues such as establishment – which will see Europe's lawyers directly competing for work – opinion is divided.

“There is seldom a way to represent the whole of the legal profession in Europe because we are a number of different professions,” says Dunbar.

“There are so many different ways law is practised and it will be years, if ever, before there will be one European legal profession. At the moment the idea just doesn't work”

Dunbar says while the CCBE is beginning to “get its act together” to become more effective, certain factions continue to pursue their own interests rather than campaigning for the needs of the profession transnationally.

“France has tended to put national interests first, there's no doubt at all about that,” he says. “They've hardened their attitude if anything while other countries have bent over backwards to compromise.”

But CCBE president Heinz Weil, a Paris-based German lawyer who has been involved with the organisation for the past 11 years, believes the reputed split in ranks has been exaggerated. He says claims that the UK and France are bitter enemies are inaccurate and, aside from the drawn-out discussions on establishment, there has been little dissension amongst the membership.

“I have the impression that very often, including in the press, the differences are exaggerated,” says Weil.

“There's no doubt that it has taken a very long time to begin to resolve the establishment issue, and I personally would have preferred things to move much faster, but one must also understand that national traditions are different from one member state to the other and it must take some time to reach a common understanding.

“Often the position taken by the national Bars and law societies are taken in view of national considerations and this makes a compromise even more difficult. Nevertheless, considerable progress has been made over the past five years and on most issues which were controversial then, an understanding has been reached.”

Weil says the CCBE is now looking at future issues, leaving the preparation of an establishment directive in the hands of the legal affairs committee. He says that while the group will retain its input in the preparation of rules governing foreign practitioners, incoming president Ramon Mullerat is likely to focus on the World Trade Organisation's General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATT) and the threat of competition from other professions.

International Bar Association president Professor Ross Harper says issues identified by Weil mean the CCBE must maintain its profile in Europe and “while there will never be unanimous agreement among all countries”, the group has a vital role to play in the evolution of the European Union.

“There is so much happening with the law and the European Commission that lawyers have a duty to participate in the legislative process,” says Harper. “It is important lawyers combine their intellectual resources to form a view, even if its not a unified view and the CCBE is by far the best vehicle for that.”

The Presidential voice

HEINZ Weil is arguably one of the most powerful men working in Europe today.

As the current incumbent of the president's chair of the Council of Bars and Law Societies of the European Union, Weil holds in his hands the future direction of Europe's legal profession.

Throughout 1995 he has been charged with resolving disputes over questions posed by the EU institutions and with directing the union's 17 member states toward a unified position.

Last month he brought an end to the on-going debate over rights of establishment, effectively ending years of infighting among CCBE members by reporting to the European Parliament that the majority supported a permanent right of establishment under home title.

But, after 11 years of working with the CCBE – including an earlier stint as chair of its committee dealing with rules of conduct – he will stand down next month, ending both his year-long reign as president and his role as a delegation member.

“I was a member of the German delegation for eight years and since then I have had three years as a member of the presidency,” says Weil. “After 11 years of being involved in an organisation like this one, which requires a lot of time, I would like to do something else.”

Originally based in Germany, Weil studied law in Frankfurt before moving to France to take a dual qualification. After being admitted as a French avocat he left the profession to work for a brief spell as general manager at a medium-sized company.

In 1974 he established his own practice, Weil & Sordel, in Paris and the firm now works largely as counsel to German and French companies with activities in each other's countries.

Weil says the main purpose of the CCBE is to represent the interests of the legal profession en masse to the institutions of the European Union.

“I think the most important achievement of the CCBE has been to establish a better understanding between the Bars and law societies of the European Union,” he says.

CCBE Facts

The CCBE consists of 17 delegations whose members are nominated by the Bars and law societies of the member states.

The Bars of Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Hungary, the Slovak Republic, Switzerland and Turkey are represented by observer delegations.

The CCBE unanimously adopted its Common Code of Conduct in Strasbourg in 1988.

The last UK president of the CCBE was barrister John Toulmin QC, who presided over the organisation in 1993.

The current president is Paris-based German lawyer Heinz Weil, who stands down at the close of 1995.

Weil will be succeeded by Barcelona-based practitioner Ramon Mullerat, who will have Michel van Doosselaere of Brussels as his premier vice-president and Michel Gout of Paris as his second vice-president. Caroline Goemans of Brussels will remain as the CCBE's secretary general and a second vice-president elect is yet to be named.