Special report: regional bar
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3 December 2012
2 December 2013
20 June 2013
31 March 2014
1 November 2013
10 February 2014
It is widely held that regional Administrative Courts have promoted access to justice and lawyers outside London have geared up to meet the challenge
The opening of regional offices of the Administrative Court has led to increased work for local sets of chambers across the country. The move has accelerated the process of litigation and promoted access to justice.
David Warner, St Philips Chambers
In recent years public and administrative law has developed from a niche practice area into an essential part of the legal mainstream.
As part of that development, Administrative Courts were opened in April 2009 in Birmingham, Leeds, Manchester and Cardiff, generating an important shift in emphasis. In November it was announced that the Administrative Court is now also open for hearings in Bristol.
With the exception of terrorism cases and certain specialist claims, the regional Administrative Courts deal with the whole range of public law litigation, from education to housing to healthcare. Cases that previously would have been decided in London are now being determined closer to where decisions were taken - and to those affected by them.
The idea behind the regional courts was to ease the burden on the London Administrative Court. However, when they opened in 2009, the workload of the new courts was light. In that first year they accounted for just 8 per cent of all claims issued to the Administrative Court. There has been a steady improvement in the figures since.
In their second year of operation the regional courts’ workload doubled, with 17 per cent of claims being issued outside of London. By 2011 that figure was nearer 20 per cent. In a talk at the Northern Administrative Law Association in 2011, the author of the reforms and president of the Queen’s Bench Division (QBD), Sir Anthony May, hailed the new courts as a great success that he expected to see flourish.
For the bar in Birmingham the Administrative Court has presented challenges as well as opportunities. To position themselves to take advantage of the new courts the bigger players in the City, St Philips and No5, have both established specialist administrative and public law teams. St Philips has also embarked on a programme of specialist recruitment, taking on local government specialist Dr Mirza Ahmed from Birmingham City Council.
The result has been an overall increase in the level of administrative and public law instructions for the larger sets in the city. However, a glance at those appearing in the Administrative Court in Birmingham suggests the influence of the specialist London chambers remains strong.
The challenge for the regional bar is to persuade the solicitors who instruct them in other specialist areas to rely on their growing expertise in this developing field. This is likely to require further recruitment and improved marketing.
David Lock QC, No5 Chambers
Have the new regional courts been a success? The answer is ‘yes’ to judge by the comments of the Prime Minister, who complained that judicial reviews were stopping the Government being able to govern. However, the logic of his argument was somewhat undermined by his complaint about procurement challenges that are, as any public lawyer could have told him, largely private law actions.
This is all rather reminiscent of Teresa May, the Human Rights Act and the cat.
To those of us practising mainly in what are pejoratively referred to as ‘the provinces’ by those who never venture beyond the Inns of Court, the Administrative Court in the regions has been a great success. The rooms may feel newer than the Royal Courts of Justice (RCJ) and there is less chance a stray bird will fly around above counsel, with the possibility of bird droppings interfering with an elegant submission. But the process of justice works the same whether the case is heard in Leeds or London.
The real difference is in what happens outside the courtroom. One-day trials in London are listed, post-permission, in 12 months. In contrast, in the provinces cases come on as soon as the parties are ready. There are courts, judges and support staff who will make things happen as quickly as the parties can comply with directions.
Cases do not get stuck for months as can be the case with the London Administrative Court. The courts exist to serve the interests of the parties and delivering administrative justice more quickly outside London is far better for local litigants on both sides.
So how has this affected the regional bar? The answer is that public law specialists are now developing reputations in all the regional court areas. Barristers have always had a ‘have wig, will travel’ approach but, in the past, the travelling was all one way. Today, respected practitioners based outside London are appearing in courts all over the country, including being instructed by London firms to do London cases in the RCJ.
Electronic access to material, decent chambers libraries and lower overheads all mean that chambers’ location is no longer that important to barristers. In fact, client service is just as good at chambers outside London and lower overheads mean it can be far better.
The London bar has reacted to regionalisation with, for example, Garden Court and Doughty Street setting up in Manchester. The process of the growth of public law specialists outside London is bound to continue.
Sarah Clarke, 3 Paper Buildings
On 5 November Sir John Thomas, president of the QBD, presided over the opening of the Administrative Court in Bristol.
The city was initially overlooked when regionalisation was proposed back in 2007 and the consensus among the bar in Bristol is that this was a long overdue move, given that Bristol is acknowledged as an important legal centre. Bristol is seen as the capital of the South West and has one of the strongest economies in the UK outside London, measured by GDP per head.
Despite the fact that many cities outside London are significant legal hubs with internationally acclaimed law firms and chambers, there is still a perception that the regional bar is not of quite the same calibre as London. The opening of the court in Bristol is another step on the way to proving that the Western Circuit bar is every bit as competent as the London bar.
The Administrative Court has 180 live cases and a further 220 are expected in the coming year. Judiciary is available in Bristol to hear the live cases but the court is gearing up for new ones by having eight weeks of circuit judge sittings and two weeks of High Court judge sittings in 2013 as extra cover.
As for benefits to the public, there can only be advantages in the opening of the Administrative Court. Cases will be dealt with locally and more expeditiously, which will lead to financial and time savings. Further, it is likely to lead to more instructions for the regional bar. It should be borne in mind that a total of 297 cases were issued with a Western Circuit connection in the Administrative Court in the past year.
Bristol is home to many hard-hitting law firms - DAC Beachcroft, Burges Salmon, Osborne Clark, TLT and Bevan Brittan to name but a few. Traditionally, such firms have instructed counsel in London and issued claims out of the RCJ.
However, with the growth of chambers in Bristol and the move towards regionalisation of the court system, there has been a steady move away from this. Much of this is cost driven as commercial firms use counsel close at hand to advise them. There is also the advantage that local counsel will be more familiar with the Bristol judiciary and can use their local knowledge when advising clients.
In terms of chambers in Bristol, 3PB is recognised as having top employment and commercial practitioners, inter alia, who are regularly instructed in the High Court and above. Indeed, several other London chambers have set up annexes in Bristol, such as 12KBW, Old Square Chambers and Doughty Street, reflecting the fact that the city is fast developing a reputation as one of the most vibrant legal centres outside London. The opening of the court further establishes Bristol’s position on the legal map.
Hugh Sims, Guildhall Chambers
Bristol is probably best known for its bridge, Brunel and the balloon fiesta, but its bar and legal sector have grown in size and stature in recent years.
The increasingly competitive environment in London provides opportunities in Bristol. Solicitors’ firms have been opening offices in the City, no doubt motivated by the ability to operate a more competitive business model, a trend that has continued this year.
With its combined Civil Justice Centre and the opening of the Administrative Court in Bristol last month the region offers a pretty much complete alternative to London for most court users. And the bar benefits, and forms part of that offering.
Many regional chambers realised in the early 2000s that they needed to bulk up to offer a competitive, specialist service beyond the old common law practice areas, especially if they were aiming to compete with the best of the London bar. Guildhall Chambers is a good example.
When I joined chambers in 2000 it was less than half the size it is now and its team structures were undeveloped. It now has 71 members, 18 of which form part of the commercial team in chambers. This year we recruited a specialist employment team that complements our offering to commercial clients.
It seems inevitable that chambers will continue to grow in size. This growth and development of specialist practice areas has placed Bristol, and my chambers, in a strong position with regard to the challenges facing the region because it makes it both big enough to meet those challenges and responsive enough to adapt. We also like to think we are strong and intelligent enough to do so, although we all know from Charles Darwin that the key characteristic in a competitive environment is responsiveness.
The pressures on the public bar will no doubt continue, given the desire to reduce public expenditure on the legal sector, and this will affect the regional bar. But the bar has always operated on a competitive and flexible basis.
In a strange way the pressures felt by the London bar may operate to Bristol’s advantage. It has the potential to provide opportunities for ambitious and specialist practitioners to realise that Bristol has more to offer, enhancing what the city already does.
Stephen Connolly, Exchange Chambers
The regional bar operates in an increasingly competitive environment and the challenge is to find an offering that customers value and wish to purchase. That involves three fundamentals - quality of service, value for money and added value.
Quality of service is paramount, not merely in surpassing clients’ expectations, but also in maintaining a commitment to excellence and to specialist expertise.
The slur of generalists levelled at the regional bar is misplaced and the challenge is not, in any sense, to ‘catch up’ with London, but rather to reinforce the message to our customers that we are, in every sense, a match for London.
As to value for money there will always be some willing to promote their business on price alone and, faced with that challenge, the question is whether to match or better that price or to maintain a price commensurate with the work being undertaken. I would argue that the latter course is to be preferred, not from a fee income standpoint but to avoid the inevitable dilution in quality and expertise when the former course is adopted.
That is not to say that there is no place for flexibility in fee arrangements - on the contrary, any successful business must include such flexibility. I can think of at least one large firm that instructs my chambers on the terms of a service-led agreement that offers a reasonable discount against headline rates in return for preferred chambers’ status and prompt payment.
Added value is a wider concept than marketing. The challenge is to use added value as a tool to build profile and integrate the regional bar into the fabric of the wider legal and business community.
This is something the regional specialist bar associations have done a great deal to promote. The Northern Administrative Law Association is flourishing on the back of the opening of the Administrative Court in Manchester, while the Northern Circuit Commercial Bar Association has been a growing influence for the past four years or more and has done great work in raising the profile and promoting the interests of the commercial bar in the North.
There is no doubt the regional bar faces challenges, but with a commitment to quality, value and excellence it is well-placed to flourish.
Matthew Stockwell, St Johns Buildings
In April 2013 numerous changes will be introduced affecting the funding and delivery of legal services in England and Wales. The month will also mark the third anniversary of the regionalisation of the Administrative Court.
While there used to be a perception in some quarters that public law expertise could only be found in London, the establishment of local Administrative Court centres has, as anticipated, improved and extended the range, quality and reputation of legal services available locally. The regionalisation project has also promoted access to justice, particularly for vulnerable and disadvantaged groups, while increasing efficiency by reducing the delays and costs associated with centrally administered arrangements.
These developments have been particularly well-demonstrated in Manchester, which has consistently seen the greatest volume of activity outside London. Experience differs between local sets. Some chambers that traditionally undertook work heard in the Administrative Court, for example in immigration and planning matters, have seen activity increase, with greater retention of cases with a local connection.
Regionalisation has also accelerated the development of local expertise, for example in social welfare law, especially in community care, learning disability and mental health-related disputes.
The likelihood of further consolidation of chambers brings more opportunity for the development of public law expertise and the prospect of an increase in the volume of cases generated. For example, St Johns Buildings now has more than 260 members. The overwhelming majority of cases dealt with by members involve the actions of public authorities.
With the benefit of in-house training and a dedicated public law group, the potential for public law remedies is being considered as a matter of course across all disciplines. While increasing competition from the London bar is inevitable in a challenging legal services market, practitioners in the North West will continue to offer expertise, value for money and an accessible service.