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Westminster update: free trade deal agreed between the UK and EU

Your weekly update from our public affairs team on all the latest developments and debates in Parliament and across Whitehall.

Palace of Westminster

One thing you need to do

The UK's legal frameworks for 2021 onwards will differ significantly from the previous EU landscape.

On 13 to 27 January, we'll be hosting a series of free webinars led by external stakeholders and members from our policy committees to talk you through these changes.

View and book the webinar series

Five things you need to know

1. Free trade deal agreed between the UK and EU

The UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement was reached at the end of December and has been approved by Parliament. The Agreement came into force on 31 December with the end of the transition period.

With the UK now having left the single market, EU lawyers’ directives and EU laws will no longer apply to England and Wales qualified solicitors. The Agreement includes a chapter dedicated to legal services, which will provide some limited provisions on market access, practice rights and establishment.

UK lawyers are in principle allowed to supply legal services in EU member states using their home title in relation to home jurisdiction law and public international law. However, EU member states will be able to set registration requirements in their territory for UK lawyers.

On mutual recognition of professional qualifications (MRPQ), authorities and professional bodies will need to submit MRPQ proposals for approval by the new Partnership Council. This will affect those starting or continuing with their EU law practice.

We'll continue to work with European bars and law societies to explore whether an agreement on mutual recognition of UK legal qualifications in the EU could be put in place.

The Agreement will also not include any provisions on judicial cooperation in civil and commercial matters, as these areas were outside the mandate of the negotiations. The UK government has applied to join the Lugano Convention on jurisdiction and the recognition and enforcement of judgments in civil and commercial matters. However with the expiry of the transition period there will likely be a gap in coverage.

Read our guidance on legal services in the agreement

2. Parliament passes European Union (Future Relationship) Act to implement deal

On Wednesday 30 December the European Union (Future Relationship) Act, which implements the EU-UK trade deal in UK law, was passed by both houses of Parliament and given royal assent.

We briefed MPs and peers ahead of the debates in both Houses with our analysis of the key provisions for legal services.

The prime minister described the deal as “one of the biggest free trade agreements in the world: a comprehensive Canada-style deal worth over £660 billion”, and stated that British exporters will enjoy zero tariffs and zero quotas on trade with the EU. He highlighted the fact that there will no longer be any jurisdiction in the UK for the Court of Justice of the European Union. The prime minister argued that the agreement does “a great deal for services, for financial services, for the legal profession and many other professions”.

The Leader of the Opposition, Sir Keir Starmer, argued that the deal is a “thin deal” with many flaws, but noted that “a thin deal is better than no deal”. He noted that businesses have had no chance to prepare for the new regulations.

On services in particular, Starmer stated that there is very little protection in the deal for UK services. He stated that the deal fails to go beyond what was agreed with Canada or Japan, and that the result is no mutual recognition of professional qualifications.

Sir Bob Neill (Conservative) welcomed the legal services chapter in the deal, but stated that there is more to do in extending the definition of mutual recognition of professional qualifications beyond lawyers. He also expressed hope that the UK and the EU can swiftly agree early accession to the Lugano Convention, referring to this as a “matter of critical importance”.

In the Lords, Baroness McIntosh (Conservative) asked whether the government could provide a date for when the Lugano Convention would be adopted, but did not get an answer. Baroness Bennett (Green) argued that EU states would be able to “call the shots” on what lawyers and others could and could not do, and claimed the agreement would lead to “tangles of red tape”.

Read our parliamentary briefing

Read the debate in the Commons

Read the debate in the Lords

3. Tougher coronavirus restrictions now in place

A new national lockdown was announced in England on 4 January, as people were urged to stay at home.

For legal services, courts will remain open during this period and individuals will be allowed to attend court where required.

You may leave home to fulfil a legal obligation, or to carry out activities related to buying, selling, letting or renting a residential property.

Staff should work from home unless it is not reasonable for them to do so. Schools across England will move to remote learning, and only open to children of critical or key workers.

Find out more about what the new restrictions mean for legal services

4. Lords review Domestic Abuse Bill

The Domestic Abuse Bill had its second reading in the House of Lords on Tuesday 5 January. We briefed peers ahead of the session during which 91 members of the House spoke.

Baroness Williams of Trafford (Conservative) moved the bill and cited police-recorded crime data showing that incidents of domestic abuse increased 7% in the period of April to June last year compared with the same period in 2019. She grouped the measures in the Bill around four objectives:

  • to promote awareness, putting domestic abuse at the top of everyone’s agenda
  • to better protect and support victims of domestic abuse and their children
  • to transform the response of the criminal, civil and family justice systems to domestic abuse
  • to improve performance across local and national agencies

There were calls to include amendments in the bill to introduce economic abuse as a form of abuse, and the introduction of offences of non-fatal strangulation and using the threat of sharing personal images as a means of control.

These were referenced by Baroness Burt of Solihull (Labour) who also called for the protection of migrant women under the bill, who may not have recourse to public funds and are therefore left vulnerable.

We'll brief peers ahead of the committee stage of the bill, the date of which is yet to be confirmed.

Read the transcript of the second reading

5. New Ministry of Justice appointments

On Tuesday 22 December, David Wolfson QC was appointed as parliamentary under secretary of state at the Ministry of Justice, replacing Lord Keen. He will be responsible for all departmental business in the Lords, and leads on:

  • civil law and justice
  • legal services worldwide
  • relationship with the legal profession
  • Global Britain
  • Crown dependencies

On Monday 4 January, the cabinet secretary appointed Antonia Romeo as the Ministry of Justice's new permanent secretary. Romeo will take up her post on 18 January.

Coming up next week

On Monday, a Westminster Hall debate will take place on the rollout of COVID-19 vaccinations. There will also be the Treasury Committee oral evidence session on the UK's economic and trading relationship with the EU.

We'll be giving evidence to the Justice Committee as a part of an oral evidence session on the future of legal aid and court capacity on Tuesday.

In the Lords, the Constitution Committee oral evidence session on constitutional implications of COVID-19 is on Wednesday.

View all upcoming parliamentary business

If you made it this far

Read our latest guidance on coronavirus and the national lockdown in England.

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