The judge who had been sitting at Birmingham's Mercantile Court since its inception in 1993, Malcolm Lee, died last year. During his time, the court had a fantastic reputation, was regularly used by local solicitors and was generally well thought of. Judge Lee's successor, Caroline Alton, has a hard act to follow.
The court still has a reputation for efficient clerking and a good set-up in general. "In terms of interlocutory stuff, it's still pretty quick," says Bernard Singleton, a partner in the litigation department of Lee Crowder.
According to Singleton, while Lee Crowder had a lot of confidence in the former set-up, it does not use the court as much now. Singleton says that the amount a court is used depends "on your confidence in the judge". Wragge & Co litigation partner James Gordon says the court's capacity is reduced because it is down one judge and also because of the complications arising out of the CPR, which are taking time to settle in administrators' minds. But of the court, Gordon says: "It's extremely user friendly. The judge's clerk Pam Denholm is extremely good. Quite often clerks are the most unhelpful people in the world, but Pam is the most helpful in the world."
Raymond Joyce, head of litigation and arbitration at Garretts in Birmingham, the associated law firm of Arthur Andersen, is concerned about the quality of the backroom administration. "Getting things issued, low morale, the burdens of the CPR, it's affecting all courts - but we use Birmingham where we can," he says. Joyce, who was Judge Alton's articled clerk when she was a litigation partner at Pinsent Curtis, is well-placed to comment on the judge's ability at close hand. "She is extremely sharp, she stands no nonsense and she's very robust with counsel, solicitors and witnesses and some people may interpret that as being brusque. She never gives you an easy time and that's probably taken to heart by some people," she says. Others, however, have complained that Alton is not as accessible as Lee, is not as prepared to sit at unsociable hours and is not as user friendly.