Arbitration's new era

Elizabeth Birch says a new dispute resolution group aims to capitalise on a change of culture at the commercial Bar. Elizabeth Birch is a barrister at 20 Essex Street.

Commodities and shipping are two commercial arenas that have developed their own unique arbitration areas.

But outside these specific areas, parties have seldom had the chance to adopt arbitration as a method of dispute resolution because of the absence of a scheme to provide expert arbitrators in their dispute area.

In the past few years, battle-weary litigants, in their search for something better, have turned to mediation. Unfortunately mediation is no answer where parties want a binding determination.

Lord Woolf has set up an agenda to reform the litigation processes, but only arbitration can offer what a large section of the market wants – namely, an informal, inexpensive and confidential means of resolving disputes.

Those at the commercial Bar have always used their expertise, gained through many years of appearing in arbitrations, to assist parties in the resolution of their disputes by sitting as arbitrators on an ad hoc basis. This has become an increasing trend at the chancery Bar.

Alongside this the centuries-old divide between the commercial and the chancery Bar is merging in the common ground of City work, just as the barriers between solicitors and the Bar are similarly disappearing.

The Bar is turning to new pastures as the client with a deep pocket and an abundance of patience becomes ever more rare, and the market is becoming increasingly discriminating in its search for effective dispute resolution.

This change most recently manifest itself in a new arbitration group which I, a commercial barrister, have set up with Reziya Harrison of the chancery Bar. The group, Arbitration for Commerce and Industry (ACI), aims to combine the strengths and experience of those at the commercial Bar, the chancery Bar and the solicitors' profession in what is traditionally called "City work".

It aims to offer inexpensive and quick arbitration to business and industry, particularly in the areas of financial services, banking and insurance. More importantly it provides a 50-strong team of lawyers, each with a specialism. This, combined with a provision in the scheme rules for an early preliminary meeting, should enable the arbitrator to make directions with a view to cutting through the issues quickly and concisely.

The arbitrator will be well placed to help the parties to define the issues with the minimum of formality and will direct preliminary issues to cut through the complexities.

ACI schemes include fixed-fee (the first in the country of its type), standard arbitration and fast-track arbitration. The group also offers individually tailored schemes to institutions which desire streamlined arbitration by a neutral body.

The ACI recognises that in the financial environment in the City it is the expertise of lawyers as a whole (not, individually, barristers or solicitors, chancery Bar or commercial Bar) which will enable many disputes to be resolved quickly, cheaply and fairly. This scheme aims to cross the divide in the market to provide what we believe it wants and needs.