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18 February 1997
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The buzz words circulating in chancery chambers these days are 'bus- iness law' and 'financial law'. These denominations are well justified by the work actually being done. Even the property and trusts experts are focusing their marketing strategies on the business community. It is now well understood that the Chancery Division is a commercial court. It tackles all of the important areas of business litigation, apart from shipping. This is why it remains the busiest forum.
In the past, all major financial crises have found their way to the Chancery Division - BCCI, Maxwell, Polly Peck, Lloyd's and Barings. Both the Barings' shareholders' litigation and the actions against accountants are being dealt with in the Chancery Division.
The resolution of the pensioners' claims in relation to the Maxwell Pensions Funds occupied several chancery judges over hundreds of court days.
The Chancery Division is geared up for cases of this kind and appropriate judges are appointed. The court takes the need to allow such matters to be resolved in an expeditious and cost-effective manner very seriously indeed. The judges have pioneered limitations on oral argument and cross-examination in order to reach a conclusion more quickly and cheaply.
Not everyone accepts that such an approach is advantageous, but most agree that the forward-looking approach of chancery judges have made the Chancery Division the first choice forum for businessmen. The judges and deputy judges are of reliable and consistent quality. There is not an excessive use of deputies - for example, normally, deputies are not assigned to cases where it is apparent that a high court judge is needed.
A burgeoning area of chancery work relates to financial services. All proceedings under the Financial Services Act 1986 and actions for damages for breach of statutory duties imposed by it are assigned to the Chancery Division. This means that actions against investments houses, banks and financial advisers of all kinds are usually started in the Chancery Division. The Chancery Bar is the place for advice about the rules of the SIB and SROs, commodities and derivatives markets and the Stock Exchange.
But it is not only specialists in financial markets which shelter under the chancery umbrella. The Chancery Division offers a home to a series of narrower and more rarefied specialisations. Small numbers of chancery barristers practise exclusively in fields such as pensions, media and intellectual property, computer law, company reconstructions and amalgamations, and revenue law. These niche areas, taken together with real property and trusts, and the nuts and bolts of commercial litigation, make the division a thriving forum.
It is a sad fact of the law today that professional negligence actions - often against lawyers - make up a large proportion of the workload. And the Chancery Division is far from exempt from this trend. Many solicitors' negligence cases arise from real property of commercial transactions and are fought in Chancery.
The Chancery judges in the House of Lords have been responsible for several landmark decisions in recent months, such as Target v Redferns, Tan v Royal Brunei Airlines, and Westdeutch Landesbank. Each of these cases will have a far-reaching effect on the role equity and trusts play in the law of commercial transactions. There is every reason to suppose that the Chancery Bar and the Chancery Division will be enriched by the ever-increasing pace of change in the law in this area for some years to come.