Last lap of the marathon action

Roger Pearson reports on the longest single civil case in legal history

A High Court marathon between two Scottish farmers and chemical giant Rechem has ended.

The duration of the case has taken it into the legal record books, with 198 days in court over 14 months. The action, which employed 21 expert witnesses from around the world, generated a 323-page judgment from Mr Justice Forbes, and had an estimated costs bill of £7 million, has become the longest single civil case in English legal history.

However, Nicky Paradise of Nabarro Nathanson, who along with Muna Dandan masterminded the successful defence on behalf of Rechem, views it as an object lesson in case management. Without the strict regulation and case control observed by both sides she believes the marathon could have been considerably longer.

The case centred on claims by two legally aided farmers that toxic emissions from Rechem International's incinerator at Bonnybridge, Stirlingshire, between March 1992 and its closure in October 1984 caused catastrophic illness to 300 of their Ayrshire cattle.

The judge, after hearing evidence from leading international experts in environmental monitoring, meteorology, toxicology and veterinary pathology, said he was "left in no doubt" that Rechem was not responsible in any way for the illness that afflicted the herd.

However, it took 323 pages to summarise his handed down reasons. If he had read the judgment, he admitted it would have taken him 12 to 13 hours.

Rechem's PR is a good model for those involved in mammoth actions. The judgment was widely reported because a detailed and concise summary prepared beforehand by the PR team, distilling the main points of the judgment and findings, was handed to the media outside court afterwards and formed the basis for the bulk of the reporting.

Paradise has no doubts that this tactic played a vital role in ensuring that media coverage was accurate and quick.

In court the LiveNote system proved invaluable. It has won unqualified praise, particularly from counsel when it came to preparing closing submissions.

"Recalling what went on in the past and pinpointing it in written notes is not easy at the best of times and in a case like this the problem would be hugely magnified," she says.

"The LiveNote system undoubtedly played a major role in keeping track of what had been said and obviously in turn played its part in preventing the case running longer than it did."

The case was originally scheduled to take six months. However, it quickly became clear that this would be exceeded. There was also a possibility of the judge not being able to continue with the trial and two months into the action Rechem took out a £2 million policy on his life.

Rechem's team in court was headed by Desmond Brown QC, better known for his work in the libel courts. Paradise admits that the choice of a libel lawyer for a case of this nature might appear strange. However, she says it was essential to have an expert in cross-examination. Brown had also done work for Rechem.

Backed by Andrew Monson and Stephen Worthington, Brown proved that recognised specialists can turn their talents to other areas and do so very successfully.