The Lawyer’s new litigation blog on the Northern Rock case kicked off…

As the world collapses around us like so much flat-pack furniture, litigation begins its rise as the UK’s most important legal practice area of 2009. In response, The Lawyer has launched a weekly litigation email and revamped the litigation page on TheLawyer. com to feature a weekly blog. We start with Northern Rock in the dock.

The Rock’s hard place

Once the wigs and suits had rooted themselves in Court 76 of the Royal Courts of Justice (RCJ) there was barely room for the busload of Geordies to squeeze themselves in. Yet squeeze they did, for the judicial review into the Government’s nationalisation of Newcastle bank Northern Rock had been a long time coming for its former shareholders.

Aside from the fact that the shareholders have a vested interest in the outcome of the trial, the spectacle of 12 barristers slugging it out in front of Lord Justice Burnton and Mr Justice Silber had been a clear draw.

Yet on the first day of ­proceedings the trial was distinctly lacking in theatricals, with the morning taken up by Lord David Pannick QC’s take on why the shareholders are likely to get nothing by way of compensation from the Government. Even ­Silber J found it difficult to stifle his yawns, and in the end gave up trying.

For a moment it looked as though Lord Anthony ­Grabiner QC, instructed by Slaughter and May to ­represent the Government, might cause a bit of a stir when ;his ;mumblings prompted ;a ;break ;in ­Pannick’s flow. Although Pannick tried his best to spice things up by turning 90° and making a show of announcing ;“Lord ­Grabiner… Lord Grabiner is asking me a ­question”, it turned out that his Lordship had ­merely ­misheard his other Lordship and wanted him to repeat what he had said.

It is hardly surprising, then, that the busload of Geordies, seeking sanctuary in the protest occurring on the front steps of the RJC, started trickling out, one ­passenger at a time, as ­midday loomed.

By the afternoon RAB’s counsel Michael Beloff QC had taken the floor to outline the legal reasons as to why the Government’s efforts at compensating shareholders were nothing short of a ­“charade”. It is Grabiner’s turn tomorrow. Let’s see how he answers that.
Posted: 14 January

Pannick stirs up truffle

Unsurprisingly, Grabiner wasted no time in rubbishing all ;the ;arguments ;put ­forward by shareholders large and small. But perhaps in deference to the busload of Geordies, who remained in court for the duration of the trial, he was not his usual flamboyant self.

Renowned for his love of a good old-fashioned courtroom argument, Grabiner, who addressed the court from Wednesday lunch to Thursday lunch (with a merciful overnight break in between), was somewhat subdued. Had the hedge funds been making their claim without the backing of the UK Shareholders Association, whose members actually lost their life savings when the Rock was nationalised, his performance would surely have been more severe.

As it stood, Grabiner was at his chippiest regarding the temperature in the courtroom. His concerns about the heat on Wednesday were clearly heard, because by Thursday a multitude of open windows meant those in the public gallery nearly froze. Not that Grabiner cared – he was there to work, so if he wanted the windows open, open they would be.

Other than that, the ­highlight of the latter part of the trial was Pannick’s ­likening of a shareholding in Northern Rock to ownership of a truffle. What if, he proposed, said truffle was locked in a box that only one locksmith had the powers to open? What if the ­truffle’s owner agreed to pay the locksmith to open the box, only to find that the ­locksmith – reasoning that without his help the truffle would have rotted to ­nothing – decided to keep the treasure too. Would that be fair? Could that be what the Government, acting as grand locksmith overlord to Northern Rock’s truffle core, had done in nationalising the bank and failing to compensate its shareholders?

Only Burnton LJ and ­Silber J can answer that question. They should do so in around six weeks’ time.
Posted: 16 January

To sign up for the litigation email, go to the litigation page on