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On 1 July, Essex Court head of chambers Gordon Pollock QC, 79 days after first taking to his feet to present the case against the Bank of England for BCCI’s liquidators, concluded the longest opening statement in English legal history.
The length of his opening address is particularly surprising given that it was before Mr Justice Tomlinson, the Commercial Court judge who is responsible for a rulebook that demands opening statements in “heavy cases” should be kept “very short”.
As chair of the Commercial Court users’ group and judge in charge of Commercial Court listings, Judge Tomlinson helps to oversee authorship of the court’s annually-updated guidebook.
It states: “Oral opening statements should as far as possible be uncontroversial and in any event no longer than the circumstances require. Even in a very heavy case, oral opening statements may be very short.”
The record opening address coincides with government demands for the High Court to reduce significantly the court time spent hearing cases.
At the same time, one of the UK’s most renowned legal academics, Professor Gary Slapper of the Open University, is calling for a reform of the way barristers open cases.
“There’s an argument to be had about whether a tighter management of courtroom submissions, and greater reliance on written submissions, would be more or less conducive to the accomplishment of justice. A pilot operation of the rule would help to produce evidence,” said Slapper, who is preparing a paper on the subject.
In contrast to the UK, opening addresses in equivalent commercial cases in the US take on average just a few hours. James Quinn, global head of Weil Gotshal & Manges’ litigation department, said: “I’ve never heard of an opening in any case – criminal, civil, commercial, whatever – lasting more than four or five hours. It just doesn’t happen.”
Barrister Philip Shepherd QC of 24 Old Buildings said: “There’s much more pre-trial work in the US than in England, particularly in terms of evidence deposition taking. This extra frontloading in the US keeps their cases considerably shorter on average than in this country.” Judge Tomlinson was unavailable for comment.