The Leader Column

Yet more bad news for the UK's highly rated but increasingly beleaguered court system comes with the announcement that a new Community Patents Court looks set to be established in the High Court's backyard.
The move comes just one month after The Lawyer revealed that the UK Patent Court's principal judges, Justice's Jacob and Laddie, were seeking to shake up the court's procedures to stop the flow of patents work to their cheaper and more efficient rivals on the Continent.
The judges were spurred into action following complaints that the benchmark fee for a patents case in the UK had reached £1m compared with £200,000 in Germany; and an English case takes one to three weeks compared with a typical German two hours. These drawbacks have already severely diminished the UK court's popularity – it heard just 26 applications or trials in the first six months of this year, while its rival in Germany heard around 600 last year.
The arrival of a Community Patents Court could spell the end of the Patents Court. It will certainly cease to have any relevance for anyone advising multinationals and is likely to fade away completely with national patent applications going through the Patents County Court. While this is unlikely to impact on the future employment prospects for Laddie and Jacob, who should be able to transfer to the new court, it serves as another damning indictment of the UK's commitment to its courts.
After a three-year consultation process stemming from a 40 per cent drop in claims, and criticisms from its own senior judges that St Dunstan's House was a “public disgrace”, plans to reform and update the Commercial Court have been put on hold. This is despite the fact that as recently as March 2001, the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine, said: “UK commercial and maritime legal services are thriving, attracting £800m of business a year, but we must modernise the Commercial Court to make sure that London maintains the premier centre for settling commercial disputes.”
The court needs modernising, so the obvious answer must be to levy the users. It has been suggested that the costs be passed on by increasing daily rates, but when a similar trick was tried in Singapore it failed after the lawyers took their business to arbitration. So, what to do? Make the users pay, but be up-front about it. Allow the law firms and chambers to see that to benefit from a successful, modern court, you have to invest in its development. Give them a stake in a Commercial Court worthy of its reputation.