Free trade deal welcomed as 'springboard' for closer ties between UK and Australian legal professions – The Global Legal Post

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More lawyer secondments identified as one potential benefit of UK’s first major post-Brexit FTA

England and Australia flag together

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Lawyers in the UK and Australia have welcomed the signing of a free trade agreement (FTA) that promises to increase market access between the two nations.

An agreement in principle was unveiled yesterday (15 June) following discussions between UK prime minister Boris Johnson and his Australian counterpart, Scott Morrison. Among the representative bodies broadly welcoming the deal were the Law Society of England and Wales and the Law Council of Australia (LCA), a pan-Australian bar association.

The  deal is the first FTA to be negotiated from scratch since Brexit and is expected to boost trade in goods and services between the UK and Australia, which were valued at £20.1bn in 2019/20.

Provisions opening the way for secondments abroad for Australians and UK lawyers up to the age of 35 under the working visa scheme drew particular attention from lawyers in both countries, which enjoy close ties underlined by the existence of two prominent Anglo-Australian law firms – Herbert Smith Freehills (HSF) and Ashurst.

Law Society president Stephanie Boyce said the proposed free trade agreement (FTA) could help reduce any remaining barriers to cross-border practice. “The FTA is a springboard to continue developing the relationship between Australia and the UK. The two countries already have a strong foundation given the long-standing relationship between Australian and the UK legal regulators, representative bodies and professionals.”

However, Boyce noted: “There are still practical barriers that prevent the realisation of the full benefit of trade in legal services between our countries.”

Those difficulties, according to a senior lawyer familiar with both jurisdictions, are complex. Australia is a federal jurisdiction and legal services regulation are the preserve of Australia’s states and territories, which means support from the commercially significant states of Victoria, New South Wales and Western Australia would be essential. 

Boyce said some trade barriers operated ‘behind the border’, meaning further negotiations would be essential.

“Before the negotiations, we were clear that it would be beneficial for the legal sector to have a greater variety of business structures – such as the UK LLP – available in both jurisdictions, greater recognition of professional qualifications, regardless of route to qualification and without need for additional study, as well as increased mobility options. We hope that the deal’s ambitious commitments on market access for services professionals will provide a strong step towards addressing these issues and look forward to seeing this reflected in the final deal.”

Dr Jacoba Brasch QC, president of the LCA, said the deal allowed Australian and UK lawyers to practise as foreign lawyers in the respective countries, providing arbitration, mediation and conciliation services using their home qualifications and title.

The LCA said it would work with Australia’s government to find “ways in which the FTA can facilitate two-way mobility between Australian and UK lawyers and reduce existing barriers to trade in legal services”.

Gavin Vallely, Australia managing partner of HFW, said: ”We welcome the increased recognition of professional legal qualifications between Australia and the UK, which will enhance the opportunities for our people to experience working in different offices across our international network.”

He added: “I was fortunate to have four years working in London, which was an invaluable experience for the progression of my career.”

HSF’s Rebecca Maslen-Stannage said: “As a global law firm with major operations in both countries, we are pleased that [both] governments have agreed mobility provisions relating to the legal profession within the new trade agreement. This is a positive outcome which will help us to operate more easily across regions.”

Earlier this month, the six member nations of the Asia-Pacific trade treaty known as the Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) – Japan, Canada, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand and Mexico – agreed to allow the UK to begin the formal negotiation process for entry into the trading bloc yesterday (2 June).