Commercial Court vies with Law Lords for Government funding

  • 16 February 2004
    The Department of Constitutional Affairs was due to reveal whether the Treasury had committed £100m to funding the new Commercial Court building last Tuesday (24 February).
  • 3 November 2003
    The Department of Constitutional Affairs came up with a potential £100m plan for a new court, to be paid for through a private finance initiative and a hike in court fees, to take to Lord Falconer for approval.
  • 24 February 2003
    Will the Commercial Court resort to a private finance initiative (PFI) for its revamp? The Lawyer commented, rightly, that the Government would probably opt for a PFI as the preferred model for a new Commercial Court building.
  • 24 February 2003
    The Lord Chancellor’s Department, as it then was, called a meeting with Commercial Court judges and lawyers where it was tipped to support proposals for a new court.
  • 17 December 2001
    The then Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg, issued a consultation paper looking at the proposed modernisation of the Commercial Court, but the project was then shelved.

A major standoff between the City and the Government is brewing over fears that plans for a new £100m Commercial Court may be shelved because Lord Falconer of Thoroton is spending £32m on a new Supreme Court.

Last Tuesday (24 February), the day before Falconer unveiled his Constitutional Reform Bill and announced that the Government will commit up to £32m for the Supreme Court, Commercial Court judges and users were due to find out whether a new Commercial Court building had gained Treasury approval.

But the crowd of judges, senior litigators and presidents of the Bar Council and Law Society were told that Falconer has not made a decision on the Commercial Court, meaning the proposal is not likely to have reached the Treasury yet.

Falconer is planning a new Supreme Court building, into which the 12 Law Lords will be moved in order to symbolise the new seperation of state and judiciary which is enshrined in his bill.

Senior Commercial Court judge Mr Justice Colman has called for the Government not to shelve the new Commercial Court in its drive for a Supreme Court.

Judge Colman told The Lawyer that, while last week’s meeting had generated some feelings of optimism, he is nevertheless worried about the Treasury’s ability to fund the project.

“I’m feeling fairly optimistic, but on the other hand, the spending constraints on the Treasury are very tight,” said the judge.

The Commercial Court is currently housed in the much-maligned St Dunstan’s House, an office block just off the Strand.

Department of Constitutional Affairs (DCA) civil servant Mark Camley last November put together detailed plans to erect a new £100m building in the Royal Courts of Justice, but Judge Colman said he fears that the Supreme Court will take priority.

“If the Supreme Court happens then there ought to be a new Commercial Court, because it’s been planned for so long,” insisted Judge Colman. “St Dunstan’s has for so long been regarded as a public disgrace which is unsuitable for its purpose. If the Supreme Court’s going to be built on political grounds, then the Commercial Court proposal ought to get going on grounds of necessity and the national interest generally.”

Any setback in the Commercial Court project is likely to anger Lord Mayor of London Robert Finch, who has thrown his weight behind the campaign for a new building.

At the press conference last Wednesday (25 February), where he presented the Constitutional Reform Bill, Falconer declined to comment when asked if he supported plans for a new Commercial Court.

Some litigators came out of last Tuesday’s Commercial Court meeting, held by Camley, feeling optimistic. One litigator who attended said Camley had made “good noises” about the project going ahead.

“But the issue of timetable slippage is worrying, particularly given that Falconer will not talk about the Commercial Court at the moment,” added the litigator.

Camley is taking his detailed plans for the new building to the National Property Board today (1 March) for potential approval.

President of the Law Society Peter Williamson has also planned a meeting with DCA minister Christopher Leslie MP to push the project forward.

But at last week’s meeting, Camley refused to comment on whether the planned new Supreme Court would have an impact on the Commercial Court project.

“St Dunstan’s House is a public disgrace. No Lord Chancellor and no Chancellor of the Exchequer should be anything but seriously concerned that a court of such immense international reputation remains housed in such disgusting premises.”
Mr Justice Colman, The Lawyer, 5 February 2001

“We’re in danger of failing to give our users the sort of service that they increasingly expect.”
Mr Justice Moore-Bick, head of the Commercial Court, The Lawyer, 18 March 2002

“There are wonderful new civil courts in places like Dublin and Singapore, because governments there have committed to the modernisation of their civil justice systems.”
Tony Guise, president of the London Solicitors’ Litigation Association, The Lawyer, 3 November 2003

“Anything I can do to help London legal I’m going to do. I suspect that I’ll want to certainly push as much as possible the continuation of the view that we need a new Commercial Court.”
Robert Finch, Lord Mayor of London, The Lawyer, 17 November 2003