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EC steps in on law firms row in Bulgaria

Three months after five foreign law firms lodged a complaint with the European Commission, claiming that Bulgarian legislation prevented them from practising law in Bulgaria on equal terms with local firms, the European Union’s executive arm started infringement proceedings against Sofia on the issue.

“The European Commission has decided to send a letter of formal notice to Bulgaria in connection with its legislation concerning lawyers,” the Commission said in a statement. The EC also asked Bulgaria to submit, within two months, its observations on a number of problems identified regarding the application of EU law.

The particular areas on which the Commission sought clarification were: the nationality requirement for obtaining the qualification of Bulgarian lawyer; the fact that lawyers from other EU countries and Bulgarian lawyers did not benefit from the same rights for the exercise of their activity; the fact that law firms from other EU countries were prevented from establishing themselves in Bulgaria; and the rule prohibiting lawyers and law firms from other EU countries to make use of their own law firms’ names in Bulgaria.

As previously reported by The Sofia Echo, foreign law firms claim that Bulgaria Bar Act, adopted in 2006, only partially complies with the EU regulations.

DLA Piper Weiss-Tessbach, CMS Cameron McKenna, CMS Reich-Rohrwig Hainz, Wolf Theiss and CHSH Cerha Hempel Spiegelfeld Hlawati asked the EC to step in after their attempts to resolve the problem with the Bulgarian Government, Justice Ministry, Parliament, Supreme Bar Council and Commission for Protection of Competition (CPC) yielded no results.

Moreover, four of those firms were the subject of a 150 000 leva fine from the CPC in July 2008 on the grounds of unfair competition after Bulgarian law firms lodged a complaint.

The Bar Act requires law firms to be registered specifically as such, rather than commercial enterprises, and also requires that names of law firms be composed only of the names of the partners registered in one of Bulgaria’s bar associations. The provision destroys any chance of name recognition, which is crucial for the success of law firms, foreign lawyers have argued.

Their local counterparts said there was nothing wrong with the law, with the head of the Supreme Bar Council, Daniela Dokovska, telling The Sofia Echo in November that “Bulgaria’s Bar Act is fully compliant with European standards and this has been established by the EC in a review of the Act.”

The EC disagreed: “The Commission considers that some provisions of the Bulgarian Bar Act could constitute a violation of the freedom of establishment of lawyers and law firms in Bulgaria as enshrined in Article 43 EC. Moreover some provisions also appear to be in violation of Directive 98/5/EC, which aims to facilitate practice of the profession of lawyer on a permanent basis in a member state other than that in which the qualification was obtained.”


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