Roll with it?

In the weeks running up to the opening of the Rolls Building members of the judiciary, barristers, clerks and litigators were called in to take a tour.

When they got back to their assorted offices their reports were mixed with many questioning whether the glitzy courtrooms were actually large enough to serve their purpose.

The first case to be heard in the £300m Fetter Lane Building is Berezovsky v Abramovich (see blog), which got underway on Monday (3 October). 

When the hearing kicked off only Court 26 was ready for business. But the prospect of Chelsea FC owner Roman Abramovich being sued over intimidation claims was enough to draw at least 19 barristers, a small army of lawyers and the press pack.

That shouldn’t have been much of a problem, after all Court 26 is one of the Rolls Building’s three so-called ’super courts’, which have been designed to attract major multi-party multi-national disputes. However, on seeing the court ahead of its opening one lawyer associated with the case took it upon himself to express his disappointment with its layout. Late one Friday the partner wrote to Tim Pollen, co-chair of the Rolls Building business managers’ group, to express his dismay that the room was simply not big enough.

Despite Commercial Court head Mrs Justice Gloster dismissing the complaint, others agree. One clerk suggests that the super courts are in fact smaller than those in the Royal Courts of Justice (RCJ). Another gripe is that in spite of a huge investment in technology to allow online filing of papers the system appears to be failing, with clerks still preferring to deliver papers to court in person.

That said, with the court filled to bursting, and the lack of a wifi connection curtailing all Twitter activity, there were certainly some teething problems when Berezovsky v Abramovich got underway. Even Abramovich’s legal army, all looking glam enough to represent one of the world’s richest men, had trouble finding seats.

But with whispers circulating that Berezovsky and Abramovich were both going to be present in court – the first time they would have been in the same room since Berezovsky handed his adversary a claim form in the Sloane Square branch of Hermes – there weren’t too many complaints from the press corps.

And with Abramovich’s heavies checking the room for potential threats before he, Berezovsky and their entourages made their entrances, there was plenty of drama for the Rolls Building’s first hearing. Even Inna Gudavadze, the widow of Badri Patarkatzishvili, whose untimely death is a key factor in the dispute between the feuding oligarchs, made an appearance.

After a brief lull to allow Gloster J to organise the seating arrangement, proceedings finally got underway, but it wasn’t long before the case hit another problem. In his opening statement One Essex Court’s Laurence Rabinowitz QC, representing Berezovsky, referred Gloster J to his filings; rather than turn to a lever-arch file as she would have done in the past, the judge turned to a large collection of computer screens, allegedly to find the required file at the touch of a button.

Only the computer malfunctioned and proceedings had to be stopped to allow a clerk to get to grips with it.

Slick and smart as it is – the Rolls Building is more corporate boardroom than stuffy courtroom – it is the practical things that will keep court users happy. Live feeds and IT problems can be sorted out, but walls cannot be knocked down to make courts bigger.

We have the judges, we have the lawyers and the clients, but when it comes to whether the basic facilities in the Rolls Building are satisfactory the jury, it would seem, is out.