The number of trials heard in the Commercial Court has dropped continuously for the last five years, it emerged last week.
The court’s annual report revealed that last year just 58 trials were heard – down from 81 trials in 2002-03. Claims are also dropping, with 1,104 claim forms issued in 2003-04, representing a drop of 140 from the previous year.
But the report also shows that for most of 2003-04 the court had only 12 regular judges, augmented in the summer of last year by the appointment of Elizabeth Gloster QC to the bench.
One judge, Mr Justice Tomlinson, has been occupied full-time in hearing the BCCI case, which began in early 2004 and which is expected to continue for another six months.
The report says: “The volume of work, particularly the number of long trials and the increased complexity of the matters that are considered without an oral hearing, has placed a very considerable strain on the resources of the court. However, with the support of Mr Justice Simon and Mr Justice Field (who sit for some of their time in the court), and those nominated to sit as deputy judges, it again proved possible to avoid standing any trial out of the list.”
During 2003 and 2004, 222 cases were given trial dates. Of those, 164 trials settled, a fall of 10 from the previous year. According to the report, the Commercial Court “believes that the promotion of settlements is an important part of its function”. The court also said that its ability to offer an expedited date for trial seems to have contributed to early settlement of disputes.
The report, although broadly positive, reserved severe criticism for the delays to improvements of the court’s facilities.
It said: “Although out-dated technology, very poor accommodation and a scarcity of resources continue to impede the ability of the court to serve its users in the way in which those users expect and the court would wish, there are grounds for optimism that the improvement in technology will continue. We cannot do more to stress the urgent need for an improvement in the accommodation for the court.”
The concerns have been echoed by many, including the Law Society’s chief executive Janet Paraskeva and Bar Council chair Guy Mansfield QC. In a recent interview with The Lawyer, Mansfield said: “The Commercial Court is absolutely vital. It has an effect on everything that is done in the City.”