Bristol barristers beat the Woolf from their door

With its successful insurance litgation practices and the popularity of the Mercantile Court, Bristol is one of the few regions where barristers are actually benefiting from the introduction of the Woolf Reforms. Bal Khela reports

Unlike many other barristers, those currently practising in Bristol actually claim to have witnessed an increase in litigation as a direct result of the Woolf Reforms. There are other factors contributing to the local bar’s current success, but not all of the news is positive, and serious questions remain over whether this current rate of growth is sustainable.

The increasing presence of, and support for, Bristol’s Mercantile Court since its inception in 1995, has undoubtedly been one of the major catalysts for the continued growth of local chambers (see box). Richard Hyde, a clerk at St John’s Chambers, believes the court will help consolidate Bristol’s commercial reputation and enhance the profile of local counsel. “Civil litigation has increased for the Bristol bar because it has matured with the expertise that was previously only thought to exist in London,” he says.

The other major impetus has been a rise in insurance litigation. “We’ve not seen a fall-out as a result of the Woolf Reforms, and our volume is no less than it was 12-18 months ago – and on some levels it’s actually greater,” says Hyde. “We saw considerable growth in chancery work, and this was mirrored by the Mercantile Court due to cases tending to follow a good judge. Its greatest selling point is the question: why bother to wait 16-18 months to have a case heard in London when it takes just six months in Bristol?”

One of the reasons the Woolf Reforms have not caused a downturn in the amount of litigation in Bristol’s courts so far, is the success that south-west insurance practices have had in retaining their position on the defence panels for personal injury cases of numerous insurance companies. Palser Grossman is one such firm that has benefited from panel changes, a success it has passed on to the local bar, albeit the Bristol annexe of London set Old Square Chambers, where its preferred barrister is Barry Cotter. Partner Philip Griffiths says: “We use Barry because he’s an experienced and able counsel who provides a first-class service.”

However, is this rise in litigation sustainable? The introduction of the Woolf Reforms led many people to delay issuing claims, which, as the impact of the new Civil Procedure Rules (CPR) became clear, have since begun to filter through. “Cases going under Woolf are being accelerated,” says Hyde. “This could be because next year’s cases are being heard this year, and at the same time we’re also still dealing with cases from last year. So, if anything, we’re seeing a higher workload and seem much busier due to cases having been held up.”

Woolf has had other impacts, too. John Taylor, senior clerk at Old Square Chambers, says that the Bristol annexe relies heavily on personal injury work, with PI instructions amounting to 76 per cent of the set’s workload. He says: “We’ve noticed that the quality of personal injury has improved since Woolf, as we’re now beginning to be used by more defendants.”

The new CPR have also made Bristol counsel more cost-effective than their London counterparts. It now stipulates that travel costs should be borne by the claimant’s counsel, thereby encouraging the use of the local bar. Hyde says: “There has been a drop of London counsel coming to Bristol as a result of Woolf due to the alteration of fee structures.” Bristol, however, as with any other region, still faces the endless problem of convincing local solicitors and clients that it has the requisite specialist knowledge to handle high-value, as well as volume, litigation. Many of the larger local firms have already successfully resolved this perception problem with their clients, and the bar must now follow suit.

One way to do this is to show chambers taking a commercial approach to service delivery. Guildhall Chambers, for example, has followed what is now common practice in London, by appointing a chambers director.

Another growth market is employment, again with Old Square attempting to grab the lion’s share. “We are the London set on the Bristol doorstep,” says Taylor. However, the benefits are being felt across the board. Albion Chambers, for example, has seen a massive rise in the last 12 months. Albion clerk Michael Harding says: “We’re doing twice as much employment work than previously, particularly unfair dismissal and sex and discrimination cases.”

So, for the time being at least, the Bristol bar is confident of continued success, although it still suffers – as do all regional chambers – from the perennial problem of perception. It is still widely believed that the local bar has failed to develop a sufficient depth of specialist barristers, hence the continuing success of Old Square, which offers the best of both worlds – its London reputation with the advantage of a Bristol annexe. Given the regional bar’s current buoyancy, it would not be surprising to see more London chambers seeking an entrance into new markets by merging with their provincial counterparts, a policy that could certainly prove mutually beneficial.