Litigation booms in Bristol Gareth Chadwick

The widely-expected litigation boom failed to materialise in Bristol as it did elsewhere. Nevertheless, the faltering economy seems to have been a boon for local litigators

With a limited industrial hinterland centred on Avonmouth and with only one or two big engineering names in the vicinity, such as Rolls Royce and BA, Bristol does not have the industrial base that drives a lot of litigation in other regions. But with increasing amounts of insolvency litigation coming through, the local Bar has seized the opportunity to show off its credentials. Often criticised for its lack of specialist knowledge, insolvency work is proving to be one area where the Bristol Bar can boast expertise of national repute.

Barristers such as Stephen Davies QC of Guildhall Chambers are held in particularly high regard on the insolvency side and junior barristers such as Martha Maher, Nicholas Briggs and Richard Ashcroft, all also at Guildhall, are rapidly making names for themselves.

Paul Haggett, head of commercial litigation at Burges Salmon, says: “Locally, there's undoubtedly been a rise in insolvency litigation over the past six months and with growing expertise at the local bar, it's something that the region can proudly boast some expertise in.”

The two Chancery Division judges in the city, Mr Justice Neuberger, the presiding judge, and Judge Weeks, have also enhanced the region's reputation for handling insolvency litigation.

On the commercial side, it is 10 years since the city's Mercantile court was set up by Judge Jack. Since then it has made steady progress in attracting good quality work to Bristol. Senior circuit judge Mark Havelock-Allan QC was appointed last year, and according to Haggett, “is impressing everybody with the way he deals with cases and the strength of his decisions”.

Haggett said that the strength of the local courts is a source of optimism for litigators. “At some point we might reach the stage where we can persuade clients that there is a good reason to bring their litigation to Bristol even if they're not based here,” he says. “If you're able to have a consistency of judges and of approach – Judge Havelock-Allan, for example, does all his own interlocutory applications – it's something that sells well with clients.”

Woolf and the Civil Procedure Rules have had an effect in Bristol as they have everywhere, but it is in the quality of the work as much as the quantity. A vastly larger proportion of cases, particularly at the lower end, settle before ever reaching the court. As clients become more litigation-savvy, firms are being forced to tender more than they used to. In itself that can be as much a positive as a negative.

As Osborne Clarke's head of litigation Clare Robinson says: “Clients are definitely becoming more sophisticated and we're having to tender on a more regular basis. It's generally a good thing though, as there is certainly some work that would traditionally have gone down to London that we're getting the opportunity to pitch for through the tender process.

“I can see why people might say it's not the same as the last recession, but it's just that there are different challenges. It's a matter of finding the right market for your services and then playing to that market; getting your specialist teams in the right place at the right time.”