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Brexit: How is it affecting immigration lawyers?

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Legal Cheek spoke to two barristers to find out just how crazy the situation is

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Nearly three weeks on from the unexpected referendum result, the world is still fascinated by what a vote to leave the EU means for the big wide world of commercial law.

The details of what a post-Brexit City of London will look like are still thin on the ground, but what is clear is that corporate lawyers have already begun to change and adapt.

In the wake of the shock result of 24 June, Freshfields overhauled its European management structure; firms like Clifford Chance and Simmons & Simmons set up hotlines for jittery clients; and City outfit Berwin Leighton Paisner even froze its pay, citing “political and financial uncertainty” in the post-leave vote UK as its reason.

There are also big concerns about what this all means for training contract numbers. Non-UK EU citizens make up about 10-20% of corporate firms’ London trainee intake, and it looks like this might be about to change.

It’s easy to become overly fascinated by the City, but offshoots of the Brexit vote have reached all corners of the legal profession, including the often-overlooked world of immigration law.

The immigration status of EU nationals currently living in the UK is one of the hot legal topics of the moment. Though the likes of Sadiq Khan have been quick to reassure confused and fearful EU nationals that they are “welcome” in the UK, new Prime Minister Theresa May has refused to echo Khan’s sentiments.

This melting pot of uncertainty has culminated in immigration law firms experiencing a massive increase in client enquiries, often from some of the three million non-UK EU nationals living in the country.

As reported in Buzzfeed, firms are inundated with hundreds of requests and enquiries from EU citizens who are unsure about whether they’ll be able to stay in the EU once (or rather if) Brexit happens.

But is life on the frontline of immigration law practice really as manic as it’s been made out to be?

According to Garden Court Chambers barrister Colin Yeo, absolutely.

Speaking to Legal Cheek about life as a lawyer in today’s climate, he told us:

All immigration lawyers I know are experiencing a huge leap in demand from very concerned EU nationals and their family members, many of whom have been living here for many years.

And why exactly is this? Yeo continued:

EU nationals are very concerned about their position and their future in the UK. Most do not have any immigration or registration documents because they do not need them in EU law, so the Home Office has a mammoth task ahead of it trying to document over three million people.

It’s a trend No5 Chambers barrister and immigration law specialist S Chelvan has also noticed.

People are, he told us, “very concerned and scared” about the referendum result, a result very few people were prepared for. The Sri Lankan born barrister added:

In effect, what we now have is project fear arising from uncertainty — no-one’s made plans.

It’s an uncertainty he believes has been pedalled by politicians, and now it’s down to the lawyers to pick up the pieces.

But just how long are they going to be picking up the pieces for?

It could be quite some time. Chelvan, who studied his masters at Harvard, continued:

The current state of play will continue until article 50 is invoked and negotiations are finalised, or when the two year limit is met and not extended by the 27 other member states.

Yeo is similarly pessimistic about what the future looks like for immigration lawyers:

Unless the UK joins the European Economic Area and free movement laws continue to apply this is going to be a distressing and painful time for those affected.