Oasis, Eric Cantona and the IRA may have all made their marks on the North West in the last year, but the northern circuit has not been distracted from its impressive progress.
As was widely predicted, Richard Henriques QC was elected with a strong mandate to take over the leadership of the circuit from much-admired counsel Rodney Klevan QC. The new leader is having to prove himself by dealing with the northern circuit's response to the radical changes afoot in the profession. By positive leadership he is ensuring that the circuit has an influential say in the Bar's reactions to the proposed reforms.
Standard fees in civil legal aid cases is one of the most pressing matters to be attended to – particularly given the fact that the white paper proposed that they be introduced during 1997. The short consultation period has served to concentrate the minds not only of predominantly legal-aid practitioners, but also of counsels appearing on behalf of insurers and trades unions.
It is felt that corporate clients will use standard fees as a measure of their counsel's fees, and this is of particular significance in the North West, where industrial and other personal injury work is in such abundance. Chambers' software systems have been pressed into action to provide the necessary statistical data for compilation with that of other circuits.
In spite of the sometimes gloomy impression of the North given by soaps Brookside and Coronation Street, there is in fact a discernible air of commercial well-being in both Liverpool and Manchester. This has had the effect of significantly increasing the amount of commercial work available, and the northern circuit has responded with characteristic promptness.
Both the Mercantile Court and the Northern Arbitration Service provide speedy and economic means for the resolution of disputes, and so the flow of commercial work to London has been noticeably reduced. Earlier this year, the Northern Circuit Commercial Bar Association was launched, which, through close contacts with local businesses and chambers of commerce, aims to provide specialist services to commercial clients who would prefer to deal with their disputes locally rather than in London. To this end, a video link between Manchester and London was opened on 25 July to enable Master appointments to be heard without the need for travelling south.
The complexities of the commercial world are nicely complemented by the circuit's praiseworthy pro bono work. The first of its kind and in operation for the past five years, the Northern Free Representation Scheme provides helpful representation principally in industrial tribunals and the CICB.
It is also intended to extend its range of assistance into representation before Special Educational Needs tribunals. The scheme's worthy commitment was recently recognised when it received the “Best Pro Bono Activity” award at a grand presentation gala in April which was organised by the The Lawyer and Halifax Independent Financial Advisers.
While Liverpool and Manchester remain the principal court centres on the circuit, Preston, the home of the Spinning Jenny and the teetotal Temperance Movement, has recently opened an impressive court centre to deal with the increasing volume of crown court cases.
The opening was attended by the Lord Chancellor and a number of High Court judges, and an open day attracted more than 4,000 curious members of the public who were entertained by mock trials conducted by local barristers.
New courts need new judges, and recently three circuit judges were appointed, two from the Manchester Bar and one from Liverpool. It is thought that they will be the last for some time and that when any further vacancy does arise, the competition will be keen.
Indeed, getting a foot on the first rung of the judicial ladder, that of assistant recorder, is no mean achievement. This year, there were 94 candidates on the circuit for just six assistant recorderships. Detailed enquiries about all applicants are made with the local judiciary, QCs and presiding High Court judges.
At the other end of the career spectrum, the competition for pupillage in the North West is equally intense. The circuit has responded well to the Bar's pupillage clearing house scheme (Pach), which is ensuring as many placements in chambers as possible. To nurture its new intake, a continuing education programme is being developed under the guidance of leading QCs and academics as well as helpful training programmes in advocacy and information technology skills.
But it is not all work and no play on the northern circuit. Mr Justice Forbes, who has recently come to the end of his first year as a presiding judge, was impressed by “the very real sense of common identity and comradeship which is shared by all members of the circuit”.
Anyone who has attended one of the northern circuit's convivial messes will know exactly what he means.
Mergers and expansion among law firms in the region have increased competition among lawyers.
The lawyers' view is that because of the moves, the amount of legal work in Manchester and the region will expand, and the quality of work will improve.
Paul Nicholls of Dibb Lupton Alsop predicts that there will be further movement within the local legal marketplace which will enable firms to “attract the highest quality lawyers out of London.”