THE ECONOMY of the North West appears to be in good shape, which is good news for the legal profession in the region. Manchester and Liverpool seem buoyant, the latter boosted by an increasing profile in the run-up to being European Capital of Culture in 2008. Economic vibrancy tends to give rise to legal work, whether because of the successes (contractual or property disputes or the like) or failures (insolvency etc). As long as there is no general downturn, the economic situation through the next couple of years should be favourable for litigation.
And although the Woolf reforms and the emphasis on alternative dispute resolution have significantly reduced the number of cases both issued and going to trial, here, as everywhere, the greater emphasis on advisory work and settlement frees up judges’ time to ensure that those cases that will fight are dealt with more promptly.
The new civil court centre in Manchester is due to open in 2007. This is a huge step forward and will provide a practical, modern setting for litigation. It has been planned for many years, but there was considerable scepticism in the profession as to whether the funding would ever materialise. That scepticism has proved unfounded. The centre will provide ample court space, rooms outside court for litigants to be able to speak privately to their lawyers and accommodation suitable for trials both small or document-heavy.
Moreover, a large civil court centre will permit back-to-back listing among those judges ticketed for chancery, mercantile and technology and construction work. As in the Royal Courts of Justice on the Strand, this will allow for a more aggressive listing of cases than is possible with individual judicial lists, saving judge time without inconveniencing litigants. This should mean that courts will have everything in place to allow for the prompt disposal of litigation in an appropriate setting before top-quality judges.
The North West has also been fortunate in a series of high-powered appointments since Lord Scott (or Mr Justice Scott, as he then was) started the trend of High Court appointments for the post of Vice- Chancellor for the region – all of whom seem to have enjoyed their time there. The present Vice-Chancellor, Mr Justice Patten, has gone out of his way to put everything in place for an efficient and user-friendly system for the launch of the new court centre. This has included meeting local solicitors to explain what is proposed.
Down the scale, the process of appointing full-time civil judges has been reaching far beyond the region. The critical thing is to get the right people regardless of where they come from. There are, of course, strong local candidates, but it is good to see the appointment of prominent practitioners from outside the North West. Two top silks from leading London chancery/commercial sets have been appointed as the new permanent judges to sit on chancery work in Manchester and Liverpool. These are supported by wellrespected district judges.
The recent trend for greater use of the local courts ought to mean that North West business cases that would have been issued in London remain in the region instead. This may well lead to increased involvement of London counsel and solicitors in the region. Since both the bar and firms of solicitors in Manchester and Liverpool are in good shape, this could be a very positive development. The more the region’s legal services are seen as an open market and on a par with those elsewhere, the greater the number of heavy disputes that will stay.
Impact of Clementi
The opening of the new court centre in 2007 is likely to coincide with the implementation of the Clementi reforms (or possibly the ‘Super Clementi’ reforms, since the present proposals go further than those advised in the original report).
Clementi could bring about as great a shake-up in the provision of legal services as it is possible to imagine, although we do not know precisely what form any bill will take, or what changes to their rules the professions will make in consequence.
One reform may have particular impact in the North West if the final bill permits multidisciplinary partnerships. Firms in the North West might be well placed to take advantage of the opportunities this would present. Medium-sized or small firms pursuing a niche practice have a significant proportion of the North West market and they are more likely to know many of their competitors than they might in London, for example, as well as other prominent local professionals such as surveyors and accountants.
That said, the Clementi reforms are unlikely to benefit all North West law firms, since there are winners and losers during any time of change. Overall, though, the changes are likely to be a boost to an already strong market as firms seek the right structure and financing to permit them to maximise their opportunities.
But however the Clementi recommendations work out, there appears to be a bright future for the legal profession in the North West. The level and quality of civil and commercial work remaining in the region increased significantly once High Court judges started being appointed to the post of Vice-Chancellor in the region. And the proposed court centre and the opportunities it will give to maximise the benefit of the quality judges available are likely to have a welcome and positive effect.
Michael Booth QC is head of the chancery
and commercial section at Kings Chambers