And justice for all

The establishment of regional Administrative Courts has helped the North of England compete with the South in the provision of top-notch legal services. The rest, says Bill Braithwaite, is up to the lawyers

In 2007 Lancaster University and the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies held a conference on the changing landscape of legal services in the North West. There was a note of real optimism, and I said in a ­presentation: “It is possible, even probable, that the Administrative Court will open a branch in Manchester. That would be a ­terrific boost for lawyers in the North West because an area of increasing interest is public and administrative law. If this does happen, it will be a marvellous boost for the regional economy.”

Of course, it did happen, and has now operated successfully for over a year. There remains a feeling, however, that many ­chambers are yet to fully grasp the nettle and make the most of the ­opportunities ­afforded by the new ­Administrative Court. 

What the court does

The Administrative Court deals with the administrative law jurisdiction of England and Wales. It also has supervisory ­jurisdiction over inferior courts and ­tribunals, which means that it has power, usually exercised by Judicial Review, over people or bodies exercising a public law function – a wide and still growing field. For example, decisions by local authorities in relation to welfare benefits, special educational needs, some decisions of the immigration authorities, decisions of regulatory bodies and decisions ­relating to ­prisoners’ rights. It therefore covers many expanding areas of interest to both lawyers and the general public.

In case of injury

An interesting example of how easier access to justice may be relevant arises in the field in which I ­practise, namely catastrophic personal injury (PI). If someone is injured severely, ­compensation can do much to make life easier but the State finds it difficult to ­provide funding for many aspects of ­catastrophic injury. For example, discharge from hospital can be impossible because the pre-accident home is unsuitable. A ­compensation claim may well resolve this problem, but what about those who do not have a claim?

Another example is ­rehabilitation: it may be available on the NHS, but there may not be a local facility, or the funding may be refused. Good ­rehabilitation can make the difference between a good quality of life and a struggle to survive. Again, for those ­without a ­compensation claim, it may be necessary to try to force the State to fulfil its obligations.

There is an area here where committed ­personal injury lawyers will start to take steps to force local authorities and health bodies to provide better services for ­seriously injured people. Local access to the ­Administrative Court will be a great help.

Sticking to the PI theme, in the future I would expect chambers to target this type of work as an add-on to the ordinary litigation service. The presence of regional ­Administrative Courts makes this a viable proposition.

Disciplinary hearings

Another example of an area where ­regional Administrative Courts will be of real value is in relation to General Medical ­Council ­fitness to practise hearings. These ­disciplinary hearings are now heard in ­Manchester, as well as elsewhere, and the availability of the Administrative Court in the same city will be a great advantage.

What is likely to happen is that ­practitioners in specific fields will ­gradually become familiar with the possibilities offered by a local court, will start to use
the facilities and will create a specialised area of practice.

Pushing the provinces

That should be particularly exciting for us in the North because we have suffered in the past from being generalists rather than ­specialists.

When I took silk nearly 20 years ago I was told that the only way I could ­survive outside London was if I did every available type of work, ie crime, civil, family, building and anything else that was offered. I have been fortunate that ­changing times have allowed me to do nothing but ­catastrophic PI, and I see the regional Administrative Courts as taking a further, major step in that direction of encouraging provincial lawyers to strive to specialise and compete at the highest level. That in turn will have a benefit for litigants, who should be able to find true specialists ­locally.

Taking a wider view, it is noticeable that the availability of top-quality legal services has spread to the North, and the creation of the regional Administrative Courts is another very significant step in allowing us to compete with London practitioners. There is a lot of work to do but the ball is very much in our court.

Bill Braithwaite QC is joint head of Exchange Chambers