Set point

Performing with distinction before the House of Lords is the pinnacle of any advocate's career and the ultimate arbiter of success. It is an exclusive club to which only the finest barristers are invited. As a result of new research conducted by The Lawyer, the top-performing barristers and chambers can be revealed for the first time. This research is based on the 64 judgments delivered by the Lords in the period October 1999-July 2000. Confirming its entrance into the magic circle elite, commercial and public law heavyweight Blackstone Chambers wins top billing, both in the overall chambers table and, with the mercurial David Pannick QC, in the individual silks table.

While Pannick has long been rated as one of the finest advocates in the country, and despite being one of the bar's top earners (on the basis of gross receipts, Pannick is estimated to bring in about £1.75m a year), he is generally regarded as sitting just below the triumvirate of bar supremos Gordon Pollock QC, Jonathan Sumption QC and Lord Grabiner QC. But the fact that he appeared in more cases and posted more wins than any other silk over the last year – three victories and just one defeat – should help dispel this outdated myth.

Sumption's set and rival magic circle chambers Brick Court is beaten into second place, although it does score parity with Blackstone on the number of victories, winning in 9 of the 12 cases in which its tenants appeared. The appearance of no fewer than six tenants involved in ex parte factortame was certainly a major factor in Brick Court's success. Brick Court's senior clerk Ian Moyler, however, downplays the importance of winning in the House of Lords. "It's more important that we appear in these cases rather than analysing the winners and losers," he says.

It is true that all cases which go all the way to the House of Lords concern matters of public interest, rather than simply being a question of securing a resounding victory for the client – but surely no barrister gets involved in a case with the intention of losing.

As for the rest of the magic circle, Fountain Court performed best by stealing into third place with 11 appearances. The set began this year with the signing of public law silk Timothy Dutton QC from Farrar's Building (The Lawyer, 17 January) in an attempt to develop its public law capability to match its commercial clout. This dual capability is clearly one of the key ingredients for the particular success in the House of Lords of rivals Brick Court and Blackstone. However, Fountain Court's aspirations have suffered a blow, following the recent departure of senior junior Murray Shanks to 4-5 Gray's Inn Square. "I left because I was interested in pursuing more court-based work in the areas of public and employment," said Shanks (The Lawyer, 7 August). The set has also parted company with chambers director Ric Martin, and has been playing a game of tit for tat with Farrar's Building. Fountain Court swooped on Farrar's for Dutton in January, but Farrar's responded quickly, stealing in for senior junior Gillian Keene. However, Fountain Court has just made another signing from Farrar's, securing the services of commercial silk Stephen Rubin QC (The Lawyer, 23 October).

One Essex Court's poor showing can largely be explained by its lack of public law expertise – a practice area it has never laid claim to. It is also important to note that while the set has made seven actual appearances in the last year, judgment has only been delivered in two of those. Credit for the outstanding cases will be reflected when judgment is handed down, most likely in next year's tables. The final member of the commercial bar's magic circle is Essex Court, which posted two wins and two defeats.

It is clearly the mix of commercial and public law expertise that is the main driver for the successes of Blackstone and Brick Court. It is perhaps not surprising to see the two sets beating their magic circle rivals so comprehensively. "Members of Blackstone Chambers, while appearing before the House of Lords in commercial cases, are much more active in the area of civil liberties and human rights law. The latter has much more of a public interest factor, and therefore has a tendency to reach higher courts on appeal," says Blackstone's senior clerk Martin Smith.

Essex Court's first junior clerk Joe Ferrigno agrees: "Most of our work tends to be commercial as opposed to the public law and human rights law undertaken by chambers such as Blackstone. Commercial matters are often resolved in the Court of Appeal as they cannot wait for the length of time it takes to be heard in the House of Lords."

However, that is not to say that there are no surprise stories. Just look at Cloisters, sitting pretty in fourth place despite the turbulent two years the set has just endured (see box). Barristers now residing at Cloisters' newly-created rival Matrix Chambers, received judgment in six cases in the last year, compared with Cloisters' 10. Matrix chief executive Nick Martin says: "Matrix did not exist for much of this period, and our members were being 'clerked' by others." It will be interesting to see, then, how the set performs this year now that it is properly up and running, and how Cloisters fares, having finally demerged from its criminal group. Monckton Chambers is another to make a surprise showing in the top 10, winning five out of six cases, with a particularly strong performance from silk Nicholas Paines.

Despite the success of 4-5 Gray's Inn Square, its public law capability has been decimated this year due to seven tenants leaving to help establish Matrix and the further departures that followed the failed merger with Monckton Chambers. The set has also now lost Duncan Ouseley QC to the High Court bench, and it remains Michael Beloff QC's "present intention" to follow his former colleagues to Matrix. It therefore remains to be seen whether it can reproduce a similarly good showing next year.

Leading civil liberties set Doughty Street finishes just inside the top 20, but can hope for an improved showing next year following the introduction of the Human Rights Act, which is likely to be at the root of many contests in the Lords over the coming years. Doughty Street's Edward Fitzgerald QC and Keir Starmer have already won a case under Section 5(4) of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) in October this year. Other chambers which will be pleased with their performances include specialist criminal set 6 King's Bench Walk, common law set No 1 Serjeant's Inn and 3-4 South Square. The latter is a specialist commercial set that recently established a presence in Germany (The Lawyer, 15 May). It is profiting from the arrival of senior clerk Paul Cooklin from 3 Verulam Buildings, which itself makes a creditable showing with four appearances.

It is harder to analyse the individual performances of junior barristers than the silks or chambers. There does not appear to be much of a pattern in their selection, with very few appearing more than once. However, special mention must go to senior juniors Nicholas Bowen of 29 Bedford Row and Philip Sales of 11 King's Bench Walk (Eldred Tabachnik QC and James Goudie QC). It is also interesting to note that, according to the research, juniors at Blackstone, 6 King's Bench Walk, 11 King's Bench Walk, Fountain Court and Cloisters are used more frequently and get more exposure to the highest court in the land than their counterparts at magic circle sets Brick Court and Essex Court. This, despite Brick Court's juniors' 100 per cent record in the cases they did appear in.

In terms of future performance, it seems that Brick Court currently has the edge, with 16 cases already pending to go before the Lords. Blackstone, meanwhile, has 12, four of which are to be led by Pannick, while Essex Court has 10 and Fountain Court eight. But in the coming year, with human rights issues likely to dominate proceedings, it will be as interesting to chart the performance of self-styled 'human rights' set Matrix and its closest rivals Cloisters and Doughty Street, as it will to follow the progress of the commercial bar's heavyweights.