Inn with the in-crowd

What do Gazza and Terry Venables, Asil Nadir and the Maxwell brothers, George Michael and Pavarotti have in common? They have all litigated in the Chancery Division.

This is the introduction to the booklet produced by the Chancery Bar Association (CBA) in conjunction with the Northern Chancery Bar Association and the Bristol and Cardiff Bar Association. The booklet outlines the work of the Chancery Bar, and, a top question for barristers, whether they will get into court if they specialise in chancery work.

As recent cases have shown, the distinction between commercial and chancery work is becoming blurred – it is sometimes simpler to say what is not chancery practice than what is.

CBA chairman Hazel Williamson QC explains that even with the blurring of the lines, certain areas will remain classed as commercial, but aspects of commercial transactions, for example company restructuring, securities and debentures will always fall into the realm of chancery practice.

She adds she is “quite confident about chancery practice developing and flourishing because it is a traditionally specialist area”.

“The quality is extremely high because its practice has to do with legal concepts. And with changes in circumstances, the Bar may well contract, but there will always be a place for those providing a specialist high quality service,” she says.

Williamson stresses that chancery barristers are winning the battle to rid themselves of the Dickensian image of sitting drafting lengthy trust deeds.

And secretary of the association Geoffrey Vos QC says: “Most 'chancery' matters could be conducted in the Commercial Court, and often are.

“Chancery practice has changed in the last 15 to 20 years, with less emphasis on the traditional areas and more on the commercial, and there is much more litigation in the Chancery Division.”

Vos points out that even the Commercial Bar recognises the Chancery Division is the best forum for the resolution of commercial disputes and questions, stressing that although one forum is not necessarily more intellectual than the other, one has a different and often a more rigorous approach.

Those two approaches were married recently in last month's merger of Nicholas Riddle's chancery set with Adrian Smith's commercial set at 14 Castle Street in Liverpool. Riddle says that although there have always been mixed sets of chambers in Manchester, he was initially reluctant to consider merging. But in the face of economic realities, the thinking behind the merger “was to strengthen each side of practice and give the client a wider range of services as well as cross-fertilisation, and is also more cost-effective”.

Whether other sets will follow remains to be seen. One chancery barrister considers that such a move is unlikely to happen in London, but the move has left the way open for other sets to follow suit at the provincial Bar.

The CBA is holding a seminar on confidentiality, privacy and the press chaired by Mr Justice Laddie with Peter Preston of The Guardian, Alastair Wilson QC and Kevin Garnett QC as speakers on 27 February.