It hasn't exactly been a bumper year for the commercial bar. Worrying statistics released recently by the Lord Chancellor's Department show that for 1999 the Queen's Bench Division (QBD) suffered a 37 per cent drop in writs and summonses issued since 1998, and many predict that it will be a similar story for 2000.
It is a familiar tale – complaints about having to appear before masters, the growth of alternative dispute resolution – in particular arbitration – Woolf and the resultant front-end loading of cases and the growth of wasted cost orders. The QBD is losing the battle with its neighbours in Chancery (which suffered a drop of less than 1 per cent for the same period) for the sexy cases – Elton John being a prime example. This increased competition has also renewed calls for a general business division. However, it is not clear whether this argument will be given a voice during the consultation for the proposals for a new Commercial Court.
The Commercial Court itself, where a specialist commercial judge is guaranteed, has also suffered a massive drop in the number of claims issued – almost 50 per cent since the highs of 1997. Again, notable cases are scarce, save for the last of the Lloyd's litigation and Noga.
But this hardly tells the whole story. The Commercial Court has made a massive jump in the number of judgments made, from 23 in 1998 to 220 in 1999. It is also less clear whether the court, in 2000, will follow the same pattern as the QBD as a whole. Not only was 1999 at the height of Woolfian panic, but the statistics relate to the number of claims issued and many believe that although parties are less inclined to issue proceedings in the first place, when they do they are much more likely to make it into court.
Next year, Unilever and Mercury Asset Management's dispute over the handling of pension funds (Jonathan Sumption QC leading a team from One Essex Court for Unilever, against Fountain Court's Lord Goldsmith QC) and the Barings litigation are likely to be the headline grabbers.
As for the sets, the trials and tribulations of One Essex Court have dominated the rumour mill. Having enjoyed a reputation as the leader of the elite magic circle for several years, it has this year lost several high profile tenants.
But the set has been hitting back, reporting its highest ever earnings in the last three months of this year, with one silk doubling his earnings over the year to hit the £1m mark.
During the next few years, all eyes will be on who will join, or indeed replace, Grabiner, Sumption and Pollock at the bar's elite. One Essex Court's Elizabeth Gloster QC is sheer class and poses a welcome threat to what has been the exclusive preserve of men. Other favourites include Christopher Carr QC, also at One Essex, Fountain Court boasts Nicholas Stadlen QC, while Brick Court Chambers has the two Marks, Howard and Hapgood, Essex Court Chambers Johnny Veeder QC and Andrew Hochhauser QC and Blackstone Chambers already has David Pannick QC.
Blackstone's successes have been based on its clout in public law, and it will undoubtedly be hoping to boost its commercial strength. Expect a push on direct access from the commercial bar, which will be hoping that while 1999 has not been a bumper year, they get more of the same next year. The bar is still a long long way from throwing in the towel.