Whizzie Lizzie and the Commercial Court

By | 7th September 2010

Some of the new building continuing around London and particularly in the City is going to give London a new skyline. Take a look at the Shard going up near London Bridge and you will see what I mean. I actually rather like London’s understated skyline. Walk over any of the bridges over the Thames and particularly if you look east there is a reassuringly familiar skyline interspersed with new buildings like the Gherkin to give it a bit of a modern feel.

Visiting offices of law firms as I do regularly, I find I am often treated to the most spectacular views over London, old and new, and naturally every view is different so one never gets tired of it.

I was reminded a few days ago in The Times of an area of London where I spent a part of my earlier practising life which has undergone an almost complete transformation. The area north of Fleet Street and bounded by Farringdon Street to the east and Fetter Lane to the west has largely been rebuilt over the past 30 years and it is now almost the turn of the Commercial Court whose new building, Rolls Building, is due to open in May next year. When I was in the first joint Eversheds office around the corner in Gunpowder Square, much remained as it had been in the 1960s. On this occasion, change has certainly been for the better and the renovation of places like New Street Square has made the old dirty little streets a thing of the past.

The lawyers seem to like it anyway, judging by the number of firms who have snapped up offices in the surrounding area. But back to the Commercial Court and the article in The Times of 2nd September where Frances Gibb explored the new Commercial Court and its new building and its “famously glamorous” new commercial court head, Mrs Justice Gloster.

Apart from the picture of the new building itself just around the corner from the present location of the court in St Dunstan’s House and a lovely picture of the judge, I was struck by what she had to say about the business of the court and the approach she is keen for it to adopt. The article covers a full page of the newspaper and because The Times has seen fit to cut itself off from many of its would be readers by removing the content from the internet unless you pay, I cannot give you a link, but on any view, “almost no waiting times” is an extraordinary achievement for a court which is “the largest business, property and commercial court in the world”.

Apparently one hour cases which come into the court now are to be heard this month. For an old practitioner like me, this is progress indeed, unless you were/are of the variety of lawyer who liked to string things out for ever!

Top of the agenda for the first woman head judge is the efficient resolution of cases. It seems that at long last, someone has acted to guard against the old adage that “justice delayed is justice denied”, at least in the context of business disputes. Of the 1259 actions issued in 2009, Frances Gibb reports that 951 or just over 75% involved a foreign party. When a lot of jurisdictions offer competing venues for dispute resolution (and only last week I wrote about the new Arbitration Centre in Singapore), this is a staggering figure.

And of course, Mrs Justice Gloster had something to say about e-disclosure. Despite much improved case management, the big issue remains disclosure.

“I think there should be a menu of disclosure options, which is what we submitted to Lord Justice Jackson (for his report on civil justice). So, in a fraud case, you might want very wide disclosure and that would still be an option. But there’s room for more targeted disclosure. The judge, in case management, has to identify what in any given cases are the appropriate disclosure targets—what is necessary and what is not”.

Even more encouragingly, Mrs Justice Gloster is launching training in e-disclosure (as endorsed by the Jackson report) in conjunction with City law firms. She says:

We all think we know how computers work. But if we are ordering different types of disclosure…it will be useful to have a grasp of how you can use search terms, define issues, limit it.

Three cheers to that!

It is an uplifting story of how offering dispute resolution in London to the world business community can be achieved successfully with the right management and leadership.

If I had to strike a cautious note, it would be that I hope the training in e-disclosure the judges will receive will not just be training in conjunction with City law firms as the report suggests but will also involve experts in the subject who have practical experience of the issues thrown up by e-disclosure built up over a number of years and which necessarily will be more wide ranging and comprehensive than any one firm or even a group of law firms can hope to deliver.

Now where is Mrs Justice Gloster’s number?