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Litigation is not what it once was. The number of cases in the courts is falling. Indeed, even the word 'litigation' is falling out of use, and solicitors' firms are renaming contentious departments 'dispute resolution'.
The changes can be traced back to April 1999, when the new Civil Procedure Rules (CPR), instigated by the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf, came into force. The rules were intended to improve access to justice, cut costs and cut the amount of litigation in the courts.
To a large extent the Woolf reforms have done what they set out to do. Several large cases in 2004 settled before going to trial, including an air time services dispute between T-Mobile and Virgin Mobile.
However, this does not mean that big commercial litigation has disappeared for good. The most high-profile ongoing cases currently being heard are without doubt Three Rivers District Council & ors v Bank of England (better known as BCCI) and Equitable Life v Ernst & Young. Both concern allegations of negligence.
The former has been in Court 73 of the Commercial Court since January 2004, and has featured the two longest opening statements in English legal history. Gordon Pollock QC of Essex Court Chambers for Deloitte & Touche, the liquidators of the Bank of Credit & Commerce International (BCCI), spoke for 80 days. Fountain Court Chambers' Nicholas Stadlen QC for the Bank of England is still going strong more than 100 days into his statement. Lovells and Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer are the solicitors' firms involved.
Meanwhile, in nearby Court 76, Herbert Smith, Barlow Lyde & Gilbert and a host of other firms, as well as 17 barristers, are just getting into their stride in insurance company Equitable Life's 2.6bn claim against former auditors Ernst & Young and 15 former Equitable directors. That case is expected to last for most of the year.
BCCI and Equitable are just two of the many cases still being fought out. And even settlements mean that lawyers are being kept busy - commercial disputes are just as common as ever.