Supreme Commands

Our selection of some of the most significant civil cases to be heard in the Supreme Court this year shows the importance of the issues at stake

As the most senior court in the domestic judicial system, the Supreme Court is the last port of call for many litigants. In the past calendar year the court has considered 221 permission to appeal applications, of which 64.5 will be heard. The disputes are varied in their nature but connected by their ability to change the shape of the law. Here, The Lawyer lists some of the most significant civil cases to be heard in coming months.

The most challenging cases will demand the attention of a seven-strong judicial panel including Supreme Court president Lord Neuberger. The panel has been convened to hear the conjoined appeals of Pitt v Holt and Futter v Futter, in which Wilberforce Chambers’ Christopher Nugee QC and Robert Ham QC appear for the appellants against Serle Court’s Philip Jones QC for HMRC. The legal battle will test, for the first time, the Hastings Bass rule after the Court of Appeal (CoA) narrowed the trust ­regime in March 2011.

The court has also convened a seven-strong panel to hear the mammoth pensions case, Bloom & Ors v The Pensions Regulator & Ors, Re: the Nortel Networks UK Pension Plan; Lomas & Ors v The Pensions Regulator & Ors, Re: the Lehman Brothers Pension Scheme. This dispute will have implications for the pension liabilities of insolvent companies and how they are dealt with by the Pensions Regulator.

The Nortel Networks UK Pension Plan, which has more than 38,000 members, is bringing the case along with the trustees of Lehmans. The hard-fought battle involves 16 barristers, including eight silks, although the line-up could change as more heavyweights are brought in.

Our list is just a small sample of the cases that will be heard in the Supreme Court in 2013.

Last week, the court added to the March listings the big-money divorce case, Petrodel Resources v Prest. The CoA delivered its shock verdict in that dispute just last October, ruling that Petrodel, a company owned by Michael Prest, should not be forced to hand over assets totalling £17.5m to his former wife. Divorce lawyers claimed the ruling created a ‘cheat’s charter’, allowing wealthy husbands to hide assets in their companies.

There will be much change on the Supreme Court bench, with three vacancies arising. As no further departures are expected until 2018, there will be much competition.

The deputy president and Scottish representative Lord Hope will retire in June, following Lord Walker, who is due to stand down in March. The last vacancy is left by Lord Dyson, who is now the Master of the Rolls, following Lord Neuberger’s appointment as Supreme Court president.

There is just one woman on the bench, Lady Hale, and no ethnic diversity. According to reports, the application pack included this telling statement: “The selection commission is anxious to attract applications from the widest field, and in making recommendations will bear in mind the nature of the court and the way it is likely to develop over the next few years.”

The next year will be one of significant change at the court, and with major credit crunch cases working their way through the lower courts, the scrutiny will be as intense as ever.