There was an article in the press recently about a 'fight club' in the City, where particularly macho bankers, brokers, lawyers and the like can don boxing gloves and knock the stuffing out of one another, all according to the Queensberry rules, of course, and supervised by a trained referee. If recent events on the Tyne are anything to go by, solicitors from Newcastle firms Robert Muckle and Watson Burton will soon be haring down the M1 to settle some scores in the ring.
Until recently, the two firms, both in the top five in the North East, enjoyed a friendly rivalry. Then things got complicated. Watson Burton got into trouble after its commercial litigation practice negligently advised a client (now former client), as a result of which the client lost a significant sum of money. Unsurprisingly, the client decided to take its business to a new legal adviser, Robert Muckle. Round one to Robert Muckle.
Upon closer analysis of the circumstances of the loss, Robert Muckle advised the client to sue Watson Burton for professional negligence, which it did, and duly won. Although the figure has yet to be finalised, the compensation is around £150m. Round two to Robert Muckle.
But the story doesn't end there. After such an embarrassment, Watson Burton decided it needed some new blood in its commercial litigation department, and poached two highly respected litigation partners, both from the same firm. And that firm was? Who else, but Robert Muckle. Round three to Watson Burton. Fortunately, Watson Burton and Robert Muckle are two of the friendliest and approachable firms in Newcastle, but even so, it is unlikely that the litigation departments will be exchanging Christmas cards this year.
Elsewhere in the city, Eversheds and Dickinson Dees are competing in the public inquiry stakes. Eversheds' inquiries and investigations team, headed by partner and ex-Slaughter and May lawyer Susan Howe, is advising on both the Bloody Sunday and the Harold Shipman inquiries, while Dickinson Dees is involved in the Ladbroke Grove rail inquiry. Neither of the two, nor any other of the top three or four North East firms, have been badly affected by the restructuring in the NHS and insurance sectors. Dickinson Dees does not do a significant amount of work in these sectors and Eversheds, which does a lot of NHS-related work, retained its place on the NHS litigation authority panel (NHSLA). Ward Hadaway was a surprise addition to the panel for the North East region, replacing Crutes, which has put more resources into its employment and housing practices to plug the hole left by the insurance and clinical negligence downturn.
An area that seems to be booming is regulatory work, partly due to the amount of new regulations that have come in, and partly due to the structure of the North East's economy, with a large public sector and a high proportion of family and owner-managed firms. John Marshall, litigation partner at Dickinson Dees, says: “The growth area is in relation to the regulatory work – the environmental, health and safety and white collar crime-related work. Due to the fact that there are more regulations and the regulations now have teeth on them – proper teeth – it has a dramatic effect if you're caught. As a result, people are taking them a lot more seriously.”
Marshall's optimism is, on the whole, shared by the major litigation players in the North East. “I don't think it's a bad time for anyone in litigation at the moment, unless you're in insurance or clinical negligence, where there are some issues,” he says. “On the commercial litigation side, it's generally a pretty good time for people.”
|Spotlight: Jane Duffy & ors v Newcastle United FC|
| This case, the 'Save our Seats' campaign, appeared in the Court of Appeal (CA) on 29 June 2001. Lord Chief Justice Woolf and the Honourable Lord Justices Waller and Clarke presided. This David and Goliath row erupted after thousands of fans were moved in favour of corporate clients as part of a £42m refurbishment of St James' Park, the home of Newcastle United Football Club.
Some 2,100 supporters (of which 250 were involved in the action) insisted that, according to the £500 Newcastle United bonds they had purchased in 1994, the club had a commitment to them that the seats allocated were guaranteed for 10 years. The club, however, argued that the bond only entitled them to a seat in the ground and not the same one for the full 10-year period.
Judge Waller dismissed their appeal from the High Court. He upheld the club's arguments that the small print in the bond contracts allowed it to move bondholders from their allocated seats with "good and sufficient cause".
Newcastle United's usual law firm was DLA in Sheffield, but for this case it preferred to instruct local firm Winskell & Winskell, a two-partner niche practice, specialising in commercial and commercial litigation work. Winskells had received various smaller instructions from the club over the preceding five years, but litigation partner Robin Winskell admits: "We were in the right place at the right time."
The case attracted huge local and national publicity, but even solicitors in Newcastle are surprised to learn that it was handled by such a small firm, and handled so successfully. It was presumed that either DLA or one of the local big guns would have received the instruction. Winskell is only too happy to put them right. "It's a case I'm very proud of," he says. "It was a massive challenge and a fascinating case."
Unsurprisingly, the success of the case has led to a raft of new instructions for Winskells. "We've had all sorts of things on the back of it," says Winskell, "including some high-value commercial disputes that we're currently working on."
The claimant Jane Duffy was represented by McCormicks in Leeds. The counsel were: Jonathan Crystal (Cloisters) and Murray Rosen QC (11 Stone Buildings). John Tonna and Peter Ralls QC (both of 29 Bedford Row) acted in the initial stages of the case.
Newcastle United was represented by Winskells. Counsel were: Nicholas Stewart QC (Hardwicke Building) and Charles Morgan (Enterprise Chambers).
|Litigation in focus|
| A & ors v National Blood Authority
Mr Justice Burton, in the High Court on March 26 2001, ruled that the NHS was liable for the Hepatitis C-containing blood that was transfused into 114 patients between 1 March 1988 and 1 September 1991. Deas Mallen (now part of Blackett Hart & Pratt) represented the claimants. Counsel were: Michael Brooke QC (Four New Square), Stuart Brown QC (Park Lane Chambers) and Ian Forrester QC (Blackstone Chambers). The defendants were represented by Davies Arnold Cooper. Counsel was: Nicholas Underhill QC (Fountain Court Chambers).
Hagen (and 439 ors) v ICI Chemicals & Polymers Ltd and Kvaerner Redpath Engineering Services Engineering Services Ltd
Pride Valley Foods Ltd v Hall & Partners (Contract Management) Ltd
HJ Banks & Company Ltd v The Coal Authority and the Secretary of State for Trade & Industry
Adams and Richmond v Allerdale Borough Council and Wilson, Branthwaite, Askew, Conaway, Hodgson and Perry
Labelling Dynamics Ltd v Watson Burton
R v Metro Sports Ltd & Mark Donnelly