It is evident that the overall majority decision of the UK to vote to withdraw from the EU has wide-reaching consequences, particularly within the legal sector. A pity that this was never fully addressed or considered during the referendum campaign – by either side – but I suppose it does not suit to dwell on the past, and the lack of clarity provided during the campaign.
Yet, following the discourse surrounding Brexit since the referendum last summer, it becomes apparent that the economy and immigration seems to be high on the UK government’s priorities. Whether discussing trade agreements, creating a stronger economy, reducing EU red tape, or debating freedom of movement and the need for borders (see: Northern Ireland), it seems the UK government is only interested in the financial aspect of Brexit. It seems to have forgotten about other issues, let alone law and order.
Interestingly enough, the Justice Committee in the UK Parliament is currently undertaking an inquiry into the implications of Brexit for the UK justice system. With regards to the scope of this inquiry, the Committee is interested in views on the likely effects of Brexit on the processes of criminal and civil justice, as well as views on the financial effects on the legal sector and business and the economy more widely. It is also interested on steps which should be taken in the process of Brexit negotiations or by other means to minimise any adverse effects and enhance any positive effects.
It was whilst giving evidence to this Committee inquiry that criminal law practitioners recently highlighted the challenge that leaving the EU will pose to international criminal justice cooperation. Moreover, it was suggested that the topic of justice is not currently high on the UK government’s Brexit agenda.
Members of the Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association and Criminal Bar Association spoke in relation to the importance of the European arrest warrant (EAW). However, both representative bodies told Committee members the UK government had not consulted them on the mechanisms for the EAW to continue post-Brexit. It seems rather incredible that the UK government would fail to consult on such an important legal issue, but there we have it.
CLSA member and solicitor Michael Gray, founding partner of Gray & Co Solicitors, told MPs it was disappointing that the justice debate had not happened sooner:
‘because it would have been useful for the public generally to see what an intricate, complicated web of cross-border cooperation we have in place, and that people have worked hard to put in place’.
Mr Gray was responding to Committee member Keith Vaz MP, who had noted justice had not been a priority for the UK government. Indeed, Mr Vaz pointed out that discussions pertaining to Brexit has consistently focused only on trade, immigrations, and the economy to date.
Earlier in the session Mr Gray told the committee that the EAW was a ‘very powerful tool’ being used on a daily basis, adding that it was not just an important tool in the fight against crime, but also in bringing justice for all those concerned.
However, he predicted ‘huge problems’ in future negotiations, noting Norway and Iceland’s lengthy efforts to establish their own bilateral extradition agreements that mirror the EAW.
Meanwhile, CBA chair Francis FitzGibbon QC acknowledged there was no reason why access to the European Criminal Records Information System should not be negotiable. At present, no non-EU member states can access the system, which was set up in 2012.
However, Mr FitzGibbon warned that to get access to that kind of information, the UK would have to be compliant with EU data protection standards. Moreover, Mr FitzGibbon pointed out that difficulties would arise when the UK was outside of the EU with regards to the sharing of data. This would subsequently cause problems for co-operation across the board when it came to law and order matters.
In addition, Mr FitzGibbon predicted that the implications of the judgment on surveillance handed down in Secretary of State for the Home Department v Watson and Others in the ECJ, and forthcoming data protection reforms, could potentially cause ‘significant’ problems post-Brexit.
It is obvious that there are many issues to contend with and consider regarding Brexit, particularly in the legal sector. I will follow the Justice Committee’s inquiry, which evidently is much-needed. It is simply frustrating to read the comments given by representatives from the CLA, and CBA, and remember how little consideration was truly given to the potential consequences of the UK withdrawing from the EU when the decision to propose holding a referendum first came to pass.
The UK government only appears concerned with matters of law and order and justice when constantly repeating that with Brexit, the UK courts are now sovereign. It is a vague mention, and it is not enough. More thorough consideration is needed going forward.