Jean-Yves Gilg

Editor, Solicitors Journal

Lawyers gear up for busy period as UK votes to leave EU

Lawyers gear up for busy period as UK votes to leave EU


New Conservative government will dictate nature of any reformed relationship with the EU, says former government lawyer

New Conservative government will dictate nature of any reformed relationship with the EU, says former government lawyer

As Britons awoke on 24 June to news that the UK had voted to leave the EU, lawyers faced the prospect of an unprecedented period of work.

Some 51.9 per cent voted in favour of Brexit, which saw David Cameron announce his resignation as prime minister Meanwhile, the final result shook global financial markets as the value of the pound and FTSE plunged.

Once the UK confirms its decision to leave the EU via article 50 of the Treaty on the European Union (TEU), it has two years to negotiate its EU exit. The legal profession, which contributes £25bn to the UK economy, was long expected to reap the short-term benefits of a Leave vote, and is now tasked with picking up the pieces.

The Law Society said an 'unprecedented and complex range of legal issues' had been created and 'the solicitor profession was already firmly focused on finding solutions'.

The Law Society president, Jonathan Smithers, commented: 'It's clear that there is an enormous amount of work to do in the coming months and years to establish the terms of withdrawal from the EU and scope necessary changes to domestic law.

'The UK will also need to resolve issues relating to its trading relationship with other parts of the world, specifically in terms of international trade agreements.

Smithers emphasised that there was no immediate change to anyone's legal rights or obligations and stressed the importance of England and Wales remaining an attractive and stable jurisdiction with a high-quality legal profession and internationally respected courts.

The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) chief executive, Paul Philip, commented: 'We, like everyone else, will be looking at the implications of the Brexit vote in general and for the legal market in particular. Any transition will take time and it would be premature to draw any further conclusions at this point.'

Reflecting on today's decision, the chairman of the Bar, Chantal-Aimée Doerries QC, said: 'The Bar of England and Wales is ready to assist in an achieving an orderly restructuring of the UK's relationship with the EU in the coming months and beyond. The long-term effect of Brexit on the legal services sector's contribution to the UK economy will depend significantly on the nature and terms of the post-Brexit relationship with the EU.'

'Despite all the turbulence, however, I am confident that London will remain a leading centre for international dispute resolution. The reputation of barristers and our judiciary overseas, beyond the EU, is very high and I expect it will remain so in the years to come. We shall continue to work closely with our partners in European bar associations.'

However, Philip Kolvin QC, head of Cornestone Barristers, warned of the legal uncertainty that lies ahead. 'The consequences for our legal system have barely figured in it. But EU-inspired or mandated legislation is part of the bedrock of societal protection. I speak of health and safety, town and country planning, ecological protection, freedom of information, data protection, competition, discrimination, public procurement, indeed the very concept of proportionality which governs much of our regulatory system. Ahead of us lie profoundly significant legal questions.'

One of the main reasons for the UK to remain in the EU centred on the trade benefits the UK enjoys as a member state. Emily Heard, head of procurement, competition and state aid at Bevan Brittan, expects no legal implications of existing measures as, for now, it's 'business as usual - until told otherwise'.

'Existing world level and future European level trade agreements mean public bodies are already subject to and are likely to continue to be subject to broadly equivalent requirements of transparency, non-discrimination, and equal treatment in any event. Many of those European obligations have been implemented by way of national legislation or regulations which remain binding unless and until parliament revoke them.

'So for now, it is business as usual. The exact future changes to, or impact on, UK domestic law will depend on the basis on which the UK agrees its future relationship with the EU'

Carl Gardner, a former government lawyer, said the new Conservative government would play a significant role in any future agreement with the EU.

'No doubt official contacts are already discussing with other capitals what Brexit would mean in terms of process. Conservatives in choosing the new government this autumn will in effect decide for the whole country whether we opt for something like EEA membership - or whether concerns about free movement mean we must have a more distant relationship, outside the single market. I don't think the timetable for talks can be unilaterally imposed by the UK; nor can we start breaching EU law during the next two years, unless we want to risk being thrown out without any agreement.'

Immigration took centre stage in the debates leading up to the EU referendum. David Cameron's failure to honour his manifesto pledge to curb net migration in 2010 to tens of thousands was roundly criticised and his negotiation of an emergency brake on in-work benefits with EU Council Members in February proved worthless.

Jonathan Beech, managing director of Migrate UK, said the referendum decision will see the introduction of costly policies for organisations that employ EU workers.

'Thousands of EU migrants, currently in UK company roles, will potentially have to exit in the future if they fail to qualify under the current points based System that we use for workers outside the EU.

'All our clients already face big challenges and costs when hiring non-EU workers under UK immigration laws, which makes it hard to find the skills they need. The UK Government needs to urgently and comprehensively revise the current points based system to offer different criteria to employing EU nationals compared to non-EUs, if we're to retain the talent we need.'

Kevin Poulter, employment partner at Child & Child, said: 'Although there is unlikely to be any immediate change to employment law, the workplace could be hugely affected by the vote for Brexit. Many UK businesses rely on free trade and the free movement of workers within Europe. SMEs are likely to suffer as a result of restrictions on trade, leading directly to a loss of income and ultimately reducing employment opportunities.

'Other and more established organisations have come to rely on the breadth of workers, talent and skills that EU membership has provided free access to. Although they are by no means alone, any change to the immigration status of existing workers will be acutely felt in sectors where large numbers of unskilled labour is required, such as hospitality, construction and seasonal work.

'There is likely to be a short term relaxation around migration, particularly for those already resident in the UK, but without any certainty and an unstable economy, investment will be unlikely in the foreseeable future, affecting us all.'

Matthew Rogers is a legal reporter at Solicitors Journal @sportslawmatt

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