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The Commercial Court and the Queen's Bench Division (QBD) of the High Court are being plunged into crisis as they attempt to relieve a massive backlog of asylum and judicial review cases.
A year-long review of the Crown Office List, the Bowman Report, concluded that the delay in hearing judicial review, asylum and immigration and public law cases urgently needs to be reduced in time for the incorporation of the Human Rights Act.
To facilitate this, judges from the Commercial Court and the QBD have been drafted in to hear cases in the Crown Office List which is to be renamed the Administrative Court.
Senior clerks at leading commercial sets are complaining that the effect has been simply to transfer the delay to the commercial bar.
"We might as well pack up until October," says one senior clerk.
"Even where we have already secured a listing for a case in July we have been told there is no guarantee that it will be heard," says another.
With the courts closed for the summer there is a threat that cases will not be listed until September or even October, meaning a lean summer for the commercial bar.
It is also understood that there is not the budget or enough available courts to draft in deputy High Court judges to alleviate a growing backlog of commercial cases.
Another threat is that parties will seek to resolve their disputes in other jurisdictions. Denmark is one destination that is already becoming increasingly popular for cost and strategic reasons (The Lawyer, 17 May 1999).
The delay is also exacerbating the smooth implementation of the Woolf reforms.
"It is causing severe frustration. Under the new rules, if case management conferences are not dealt with within a year the case will be stayed," says one practice manager.
With the publication of the Bowman report in April, the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine said: "I have appointed an additional four High Court judges and at least 11 courts will be hearing Crown Office work for the whole of the summer term. This will mean that the Crown Office will be hitting the targets proposed in Sir Jeffery [Bowman's] Report by the end of September."
A spokesman for the Lord Chancellor's Department says the situation is under review.