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Bob Neill: Brexit poses many tough questions across the civil justice sphere

Bob Neill: Brexit poses many tough questions across the civil justice sphere
4 min read

Irrespective of your political view, our justice system will require significant ongoing alignment to the corresponding EU arrangements post-Brexit, writes Bob Neill

Maybe it’s thanks to my 25 years practising as a barrister before entering Parliament that my politics has always been driven by evidence and guided by hard-headed reality. The dictum, attributed to Keynes – when my information changes, I change my conclusions – is a mantra I stick by, and seems to me to be a pretty good footing for policy formulation, too.

It is on that basis that the Justice Committee embarked upon a comprehensive fact-finding mission in October 2016 to assess the implications of Brexit for the justice system, publishing its final report just over a year ago.

After receiving a plethora of written submissions and taking oral evidence from 13 expert witnesses, it became clear that the evidence all pointed in one direction. Irrespective of your political leaning or whether you are for or against Brexit, once we leave the EU our justice system will require significant ongoing alignment to, and close cooperation with, the corresponding EU arrangements.

Failure to do so not only risks undermining one of this country’s key exports – the legal services sector, responsible for a net export of £4bn in 2016 – but could also, potentially, weaken our ability to protect the public and fight terrorism and other serious crime.

In practical terms, that means the government should seek continued access to the extradition arrangements, joint investigative resources and information exchanges we currently enjoy.

That of course includes the European Arrest Warrant, but also frameworks like Eurojust – which allows Member States’ police, prosecutors and judiciary to coordinate in the investigation and prosecution of serious crime – and information sharing tools such as ECRIS, SIS II and Prüm. Together, these provide us with real-time access to offender records, information on wanted and missing persons, and biometric and vehicle registration data.

Put simply, the rise in transnational crime requires a robust international response. None of the organisations we spoke to, including the National Crime Agency, could have been any clearer in their warnings: leaving any one of these interlocking systems would pose a huge public protection risk to the UK.

Both in its response to our report and in its position paper on security and law enforcement, the government has said that it intends to continue, and indeed, deepen, cooperation post-Brexit. But as the Prime Minister understands from her time as Home Secretary, all of this is dependent on us maintaining equivalency with the EU on data regulation. The Justice Committee will want to see more flesh on the bones in that regard.

Going beyond this immediate priority, Brexit poses many tough questions across the civil justice sphere. EU regulations require the civil, commercial and family judgments of the courts of one country to be recognised and enforced in others; they also clarify jurisdiction (the question of which court will hear a case) in cross-border disputes where it would otherwise be ambiguous.

These regulations, known respectively as Brussels I and II, have many uses, whether you’re a large City corporation looking for certainty in the legal ramifications of a major contract, or an ordinary person seeking maintenance from an ex-partner overseas.

We will want to replicate them; after all, a judgement is only worthwhile so long as it can be enforced. However, the default fall back – the Lugano Convention – only provides a more costly and slower alternative to the existing procedures. The UK will need something better than that, as well as an early transitional arrangement to ensure day-one continuity.

Finally, the committee is keen to reiterate the importance of our legal services sector. It is second to none, which is why we remain the venue of choice for international litigation and dispute arbitration, a great gainer of income for this country. In fact, the sector was worth over £26bn to the UK economy in 2016 alone, equivalent to 1.5 per cent of GDP. What is more, it underpins a vast swathe of the work the financial services sector carries out. 

Our legal services require fly-in, fly-out arrangements, or in other words, a system whereby lawyers can have their qualifications mutually recognised throughout the EU27; can move seamlessly from one office to another; and have the professional standing to advise their clients wherever in Europe they might be.

The stakes are too high to neglect any one of these issues. I hope ministers will be able to provide us with further reassurances during the course of our debate on Thursday. 


Bob Neill is Conservative MP for Bromley and Chislehurst and chair of the Justice Select committee. His Westminster Hall debate will take place on Thursday 29 March.

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