Focus: Bristol Mercantile Court. Region courts mercantile success

In 1994 Bristol won its own mercantile court. As Nigel Puddicombe explains, the move has boosted the local legal scene. Nigel Puddicombe is a commercial litigation partner at Cartwrights in Bristol. When lawyers in the West of England began lobbying for their own regionally-based mercantile court in the 1970s and 1980s, there was plenty of opposition from those who believed there would be insufficient work for such a court. It was pointed out, in particular, that the long-established Commercial Court in London was able – and willing – to take on more commercial cases from the region.

However, the North West (Liverpool/Manchester) and the Midlands (Birmingham) already had successful mercantile courts and the North East was also lobbying hard for a similar facility. So it was hardly surprising that the fast-expanding commercial centres in the South West wanted to follow suit.

The rapid growth of commercial activity in the 1970s and 1980s, in a region stretching from Swindon and Cardiff down to Devon and Cornwall, added to the pressure for a Bristol Mercantile Court to be established.

With the growth of business across this region came a corresponding increase in disputes and law suits in the business world. It was this expansion of specialist litigation which was one of the main reasons for the setting up of the court.

Eventually, at the beginning of 1994, Bristol and the South West got its mercantile court and the region has used it with increasing success ever since.

In its first year of operation, for example, the court issued 110 summonses with six actions set down for trial. Last year, these figures were 317 and 55 respectively with 1998 looking to be even busier. These figures do not include the 500 or so writs issued through the court against insurance companies in the long-running pensions misselling saga.

Interestingly, over half the writs issued by the court have been successfully disposed of without any trial.

More than half the cases before the court currently arise in Bristol and the surrounding district but an increasing number are also drawn from towns and cities such as Cardiff, Exeter, Bournemouth and Gloucester. Cases heard in recent months involved professional negligence, agency claims for commission, and property and insurance disputes.

The court's first judge, Judge Raymond Jack QC, has played a crucial role in its development.

He has steered it through its early days to its present position as a tribunal with a growing reputation for speed, fairness and consistency.

For commercial litigators, Judge Jack has produced the right product. Listings are efficient and relatively fast. The judge conducts close enquiries into every writ, nudging along those cases which he feels are not moving fast enough, with the result that cases can be driven forward more effectively.

The case management style that he has evolved is a forerunner of those proposed by the Woolf reforms, which means that when these reforms are eventually introduced the court's credibility can only be enhanced.

There is no doubt that the main advantage of the mercantile court lies in the amount of time and money that such specialised tribunals can save.

Judge Jack, for example, handles each case from day one, quickly identifying any litigants looking for unacceptable tactical delays and weeding out the obvious no hopers.

He is also comfortable with recommending mediation, something which solicitors in Bristol are well placed to undertake given the establishment in 1994 of Bristol Law Society's mediation scheme.

The increasing caseload being handled by the city's mercantile court and the finite amount of time and judge-hours available was a challenge which was always going to arise in the court's early years. But, in the four years of its existence, it has never yet been necessary to take a case out of the list.

With a first fixture taking about 11 months and a second or third fixture generally about five months from the directions hearing to trial, users can be confident that the court can offer the best value in terms of time.

The court's success has mirrored the increasing trend among local large businesses to instruct local solicitors rather relying on the large London firms.

Perhaps the only area of concern is that solicitors are still inclined to instruct London barristers rather than the local Bar.

However, commercial expertise in the Bristol area is increasing, making it more attractive to instruct locally for regional cases.

There is no doubt, however, that the existence and success of Bristol Mercantile Court – largely due to the efforts and energy of a respected and approachable judge – have given the region's legal community a greater sense of worth.