Court in the middle
17 September 2007
Early last year Birmingham's legal community, including the Birmingham Law Society, No5 Chambers and St Philips, joined forces with the city's professional services lobbying group Birmingham Forward to publish a ground-breaking report calling for a permanent residency for the High Court in Birmingham.
The report, authored by Deloitte, outlined the benefits such an initiative would bring to the city and the wider Midlands region.
Among these benefits are: improved access to justice for residents and organisations in the region; efficiencies and cost savings for the taxpayer; improved administration of justice; greater utilisation of judges and court resources; good leadership for the legal community; less discrimination against legal practitioners living outside London, particularly those with family responsibilities; fairer competition between City and local lawyers; and an enhanced relationship between High Court judges and the region's commercial and professional community.
A lack of work
High Court judges in the Midlands spent less than 10 per cent of their time dealing with civil cases in 2005. The national average is more than 50 per cent.
The reasons for this are twofold. First, many Midlands cases are being heard and determined in London, most particularly in the public and administrative law fields. Second, commercial and other types of civil cases in the Midlands are almost invariably heard and determined not by High Court judges, but by senior circuit judges sitting in the High Court.
The number of High Court sitting days in the Midlands has fallen by 10 per cent since 1998. Furthermore, in 2005, 36 different High Court judges sat in the Midlands for an average of seven and a half weeks each, over six half terms, for a total of only 39 weeks of the year.
The absence of High Court judges to manage and determine cases in the region means that around 600 sitting days in the High Court in London concern matters that arise in the Midlands. If these matters were litigated locally, it is estimated that litigants would save between £1.8m and £2.4m per annum.
The lodging system
At present, the UK's 107 High Court judges are deployed around the regions under a circuit system and reside in lodgings maintained specifically for that purpose. Two High Court judges act as presiding judges for the Midlands, although neither has permanent residency.
This lodging system, established in the mid-1960s, is out of step with modern thinking, and there is evidence that the system is starting to creak. Birmingham Forward's report recommended that the present exclusively visiting arrangements for the deployment of High Court judges in the Midlands be replaced by a core of High Court judges who permanently reside in the region.
In response to the report, Lord Justice May, vice-president of the High Court's Queen's Bench Division, who is chairing a working group on High Court resources outside London on behalf of the Lord Chief Justice, called a meeting in Birmingham to assess the level of interest in having administrative law cases issued and heard in the city.
The meeting commended the report to Lord Justice May, who described it as an "extremely well worked paper" and undertook to seek judicial support.
In addition to Birmingham's legal community, the campaign is supported by all seven West Midlands councils.
The initiative is also finding friends in high places. Earlier this year, Shadow Attorney General Dominic Grieve promised to take Birmingham's campaign to the Lord Chancellor Charles Falconer. He said he believed it was a "near certainty" that an Administrative Court would be located in the city and urged Birmingham to use that as a blueprint for a full High Court.
The Administrative Court
This summer the campaign moved up a gear when May LJ requested further data for consideration. In particular, he sought a report from the city highlighting the potential demand for a permanent Administrative Court in the city.
The Administrative Court, a branch of the High Court, is responsible for reviewing the lawfulness of decisions or actions made by public bodies. For example, it looks at misuse of powers and supervises compliance with the Human Rights Act. It assesses claims of unfairness and even allegations of public bodies reneging on promises. Typical cases might include ones in which a local authority has decided to close a public leisure centre without hearing representations from the affected community, or when a hospital refuses to provide a certain type of treatment.
The report demonstrated that given the number of local authorities, health organisations and NHS trusts operating in the region, in addition to the rapidly developing property sector, at least 1,100 Administrative Court matters would be commenced each year. This equates to around 10 per cent of cases heard annually in the Administrative Court in England as a whole. This excludes asylum and immigration cases, which May LJ is expected to recommend could be heard by an Administrative Court in Birmingham.
The report argued that challenges to the decisions of councils, health trusts and other public bodies should be brought to justice in Birmingham's law courts, not on London's Strand.
The statistics on their own are overwhelming, but the fact that the city has been asked to provide this additional report suggests the option of creating a local Administrative Court is being taken very seriously by May LJ and his working party. Some have voiced hopes that a High Court pilot will be established in the city in the next three to five years. Here's hoping.
Guy Hinchley is managing partner at Mills & Reeve