Court head begs for work as litigation downturn worsens

In the strongest indication yet that litigation is on the wane, the Commercial Court has sent a begging letter to chambers pointing out that its judges can be used as arbitrators.

Mr Justice David Steel, the judge in charge of the Commercial Court, last month wrote to all heads of chambers and law firms to make sure that sets were “aware” that judges “may accept appointments as a sole arbitrator”.

In the letter, Steel J wrote: “Although the Commercial Court is busy, it seems to me important that the mutual interdependence of public and private dispute resolution in the commercial law field be given substantive recognition, the more so in the run up to creation of a new ‘business court’ building.”

One head of a top 10 chambers told The Lawyer that he sees this as a clear indication that the Commercial Court is suffering from the lack of litigation.

“When litigation was at its peak you never saw the court promoting arbitration,” he said. “It’s clearly obvious to me that the court’s simply not getting enough work.”

Steel J told The Lawyer: “The volume of business in the Commercial Court increased by 30 per cent in 2006.

“It will not be possible to absorb a lot of arbitrations, but it’s important that the facility under the Arbitration Act isn’t allowed to become redundant.

“The Lord Chief Justice has accordingly asked the court to focus on short arbitrations raising issues of law.”