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EU legal professional privilege after Brexit

This guidance sets out the impact of Brexit for UK solicitors in relation to EU legal professional privilege (LPP).

It’s relevant for UK lawyers:

  • based in the EU who choose to provide legal advice in their capacity as UK solicitors
  • based in the UK but providing advice on cross-border EU operations

Scope of EU legal professional privilege

The scope of EU LPP concerns communications relating to a European Commission administrative or enforcement procedure.

EU LPP does not concern a company’s right to withhold privileged documents from private parties or relate to other government authorities.

National LPP rules will continue to be relevant in all national administrative procedures.

It should be remembered that, while the European Commission will have no direct jurisdiction over UK-qualified lawyers working in private practice or in-house in England and Wales (where their communications with clients will ordinarily be privileged), the Commission will be able to override that privilege where those communications are sent to, or are available to, clients (including their employers in the case of in-house lawyers) within the EU who are subject to their jurisdiction.

The major limitation with EU LPP is that it's been held – in case law (Azko Nobel C-550/07) and in subsequent Commission working documents – not to apply to in-house lawyers, on the basis that they’re not sufficiently independent from the company and therefore their advice is not independent legal advice.

There are several important caveats: for example, the summarising of external legal advice by in-house lawyers does enjoy privilege, as it’s the matter itself that’s held to be privileged.

Similarly, a document which is part of the preparation of a request for external legal advice is protected.

EU rules on third country lawyers

Following the end of the Brexit transition period on 31 December 2020, UK lawyers who have not requalified as EEA lawyers are treated as third-country lawyers. This is not impacted by the UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement.

Third-country lawyers practising in the EU have not been held to be covered by legal privilege.

The underlying reasoning was touched upon in the appeal in Akzo Nobel C-550/07, where it was stated in the AG’s opinion (paragaph 190), endorsed by the court, that there‘s:

“no adequate basis for the mutual recognition of legal qualifications and professional ethical obligations to which lawyers are subject in the exercise of their profession. In many cases, it would not even be possible to ensure that the third country in question has a sufficiently established rule-of-law tradition which would enable lawyers to exercise their profession in the independent manner required and thus to perform their role as collaborators in the administration of justice.”

The existing EU position on excluding LPP for third-country lawyers has been a longstanding source of grievance for non-EU lawyers based in Europe, and there have been calls for the EU to re-examine its position.

This has largely been due to concerns over whether such a position is compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), to which the EU is obliged to accede, and following its detrimental impact on EU-US trade, where US corporates have flagged concerns over whether advice from US counsel on EU operations could be held not to be subject to legal privilege.

Any shift in the Court of Justice of the European Union’s position is not expected in the short term.

Practical guidance

The fact that non-EU lawyers based in the EU, or involved in cross-border EU proceedings, have experienced this difficulty has led to the emergence of a number of practical solutions relevant to UK lawyers (assuming they have not sought to requalify as EEA lawyers).

It's become common practice for US lawyers based in the EU to co-operate with EU lawyers when providing legal advice, so that EU counterparts or colleagues can consequently sign off on any issued guidance or advice to clients. This is most applicable where law firms employ both EU and non-EU lawyers.

Other practical steps have been identified by the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC) and include ensuring that where possible representations are led by EU-admitted lawyers and that this is specifically referenced in communications.

Where non-EU lawyers are providing advice, engagement letters should clarify specific roles and how non-EU lawyers are assisting, but not leading, the representation. 

Additionally, the ACC notes that non-EU lawyers can provide internal documents which will be privileged if they have been generated exclusively for the purposes of obtaining legal advice from an EU lawyer.

It’s strongly recommended that UK lawyers based in the EU and/or advising EU-based clients review how they provide and/or participate in legal advice which could be relied upon in proceedings subject to an EU administrative or enforcement procedure without jeopardising client confidentiality.

National legal privilege

A lawyer practising in an EU member state should also bear in mind the national rules on LPP.

These rules relate to:

  • the confidentiality of legal communications with regards to national courts
  • investigations by national authorities
  • litigation between private parties

Following the end of the Brexit transition period on 31 December 2020, the respective member state is no longer bound by the EU Lawyers Directives which ensure recognition of home title by a UK lawyer, and the privileges which accompany this, including legal privilege. Instead, national rules apply.

The national rules differ across the EU, and UK lawyers are warned there’s no guarantee of legal privilege before national courts in certain jurisdictions.

This is often the case where the national regime does not contain provisions for non-EEA lawyers, such as foreign legal consultant status, or where the concept of legal professional privilege does not exist.

Jurisdictions where there’s no clear legal assurance of national LPP for foreign lawyers include:

  • Bulgaria
  • Croatia
  • Denmark
  • France
  • Greece
  • Hungary
  • Italy
  • Latvia
  • Lithuania
  • Luxembourg
  • Slovakia
  • Slovenia
  • Sweden
  • Switzerland

Even in jurisdictions where legal privilege is explicitly granted to foreign lawyers, this can be subject to registration with the national bar.

This contrasts with the English law position, which recognises privilege over communications between lawyers acting in their professional capacity and their clients (or their employers in the case of in-house lawyers), regardless of a lawyer's national bar registration, as long as such communications are made in connection with the provision of legal advice: see PJSC Tatneft v Bogolyubov and others [2020] EWHC 2437 (Comm).

UK lawyers should check the rules of relevant bars to comply with any local requirements.

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