Civil proceedings

The completion of the Manchester Civil Justice Centre is eagerly awaited and will put an end to a lacking regional court infrastructure. By Lesley Anderson QC

There seems to be no end to the reconstruction and regeneration of Manchester that followed the IRA bombing in June 1996. Visitors cannot fail to admire the audacity of Beetham Tower, the flagship new building from architect Ian Simpson, which rises 554 feet above the city centre like a silver dagger and is the highest residential building in Europe.

However, it was the new Manchester Civil Justice Centre (MCJC), which is on target for completion in May 2007 at a cost of £160m, that engaged the assistance of one of the tallest cranes in the country recently. This is the largest building project undertaken by the Department for Constitutional Affairs (DCA) since the construction in 1878 of the Royal Courts of Justice. The MCJC provides an opportunity to focus on civil justice in the North, and particularly the role of Manchester in delivering specialist legal services to the local, national, and increasingly international business communities.

A commercial legal centre

The Manchester legal community serves an immediate urban population of more than 2.5 million as well as an established centre of academic, industrial and financial excellence. So it is scarcely surprising that it was chosen to be the location of the first regional commercial court. Unlike other cities, there has not been the same tendency to establish branch offices of London law firms. Indeed, the colonisation has been the other way, with firms such as Addleshaw Goddard and Halliwells establishing bases in London.

The most powerful chancery/commercial sets of chambers have tended to grow organically through careful selection of pupils and established practitioners and, to a lesser extent, local mergers. The local Northern Circuit Commercial Bar Association has more than 90 members practising in Manchester and Liverpool, and more than 80 barristers in 10 sets of chambers undertake all aspects of chancery work. Roughly half of them practise from two specialist sets: Kings Chambers and Exchange Chambers.

There is a thriving alternative dispute resolution market and many local barristers and solicitors have qualified as mediators. Both branches of the profession provide the modern, responsive legal services that are in great demand by clients.

The present position

In terms of its existing accommodation, few would doubt that commercial and civil work in Manchester has been very much the poor relation to London. Despite the existence of the Minshull Street court as a dedicated crown court trial centre, High Court civil trials and hearings have fought (and usually lost) the battle for scarce court space in the main court centre at Crown Square in the face of increasing volumes of criminal work.

Although frequently burdened by substantial volumes of trial bundles and paperwork, Mercantile Court hearings are currently squeezed into the tiniest courtroom in the building, with only two rows of benches and the bar and solicitors within uneasy striking distance of the witness box. Chancery trials and hearings are often shifted to the ancient and peeling facilities at 184 or 186 Deansgate (and recently in the middle of a 10-day trial).

The unenviable choice for the users of two of the courtrooms in 186 is to open the windows, rendering proceedings inaudible, close the door and expire from heat in the non-air- conditioned room, or leave the door open and watch and listen to the visitors trouping to the toilets. However good the judge, convincing blue-chip commercial clients that they are getting justice is not always easy.

Technology and Construction Court (TCC) users fare better and enjoy modern facilities in large courtrooms, but only at the price of a visit to Salford, two miles from the city centre. Overall, the facilities were certainly broke and needed more than a simple fix.

The new building

Thankfully the DCA has risen to the challenge and has seized the opportunity to go beyond the merely functional. It is necessary to dwell on some of the facts in order to appreciate the scale and ambition of the project. The new building is positioned between Left Bank, Gartside Street and the proposed Hardman Boulevard and is close to the existing Crown Square building (which will continue for crime) and the new magistrates’ court. It will provide net accommodation of 300,000sq ft over 15 storeys, of which 13 are dedicated to court/ hearing rooms and support office and administration facilities.

There is to be a total of 47 court/hearing rooms and 78 conference rooms. This includes four ‘super courts’, one of which is dedicated to the Mercantile Court list; two large chancery courts; two TCC; two large civil jury courts; four large civil/High Court courts; six standard civil courts (including one secure courtroom); eight large family courts and 15 district judge hearing rooms.

And this is no ordinary public building. Australian architectural company Denton Corker Marshall was chosen following a worldwide tendering exercise. According to founding director Barrie Marshall, the competition provided the potential for “a building of international significance”. The glass atrium will extend from the ground floor up to the tenth floor and features a 60m x 70m glazed wall supported by 60m triangular steel columns. The so-called ‘mondrian walls’ at each end of the building comprise blocks of rectangular colour in a limited pastel palette and were inspired by Dutch abstract artist Piet Mondrian. The grey cladding to the eastern aspect ensures privacy, but is solar controlled to enable light to be deflected into the MCJC and to protect against the heat of the increasingly fierce Mancunian sun. Like it or loathe it, this is an ambitious building.

The importance of the building

The building is about more than simply design. First, the physical environment will match the modern, responsive legal services provided by the profession.

Second, for the first time the MCJC will provide under one purpose-built roof the services of specialist chancery, Mercantile, TCC and, it is hoped, administrative court judges at all levels. The historic status of Manchester at the heart of the County Palatine of Lancaster has ensured that there is High Court judge presence in the form of the Vice-Chancellor, currently Sir Nicholas Patten. At circuit judge or section-nine level there is to be a measure of cross-ticketing to ensure that, in appropriate cases, there is flexibility to list hearings before a suitably experienced member of the judicial team.

The recent appointments of His Honour Judge David Hodge QC and His Honour Judge Mark Pelling QC have further strengthened an already impressive team at this level, and a replacement is being sought for His Honour Judge Kershaw QC, who retired recently as one of two Mercantile Court judges. As specialist Chancery District Judge, George Needham has worked hard to ensure that chancery work is allocated and case-managed appropriately. Whatever the needs of a client, at whatever stage of litigation, it can be provided at the MCJC.

Third, it will provide accessible justice for clients by reducing delay and costs. With rail fares from Manchester to London now in excess of £300, it is vital to be able to offer public and private sector clients not just access to justice, but to provide it locally and cost-efficiently.

Finally, the project is of real importance to Manchester and the North West. It says something about the confidence of Manchester and its legal community that it is leading the way in providing modern civil justice in an exciting new building at a regional level. No wonder it is becoming known – colloquially at least – as the Royal Courts of Justice of the North.