Court waiting times on the rise as litigants line up

Plans to attract more litigants to London’s High Court appear to be paying off, according to the Lord Chief Justice Lord Judge, but the queue for court time is longer than ever before.

In his final annual report before standing down from the top judicial post (21 November 2012), Lord Judge LCJ revealed that the number of cases being heard in the Commercial Court is on the rise, while the number of appeal applications is also beginning to rocket.

In 2012, the judge said, more than 1,000 claims were issued in the High Court and over 200 in the Admiralty Court, five of those disputes were scheduled to last between two and five months.

“This reflects the general overall increase in work since 2008,” Lord Judge said.

Despite the best efforts of the judiciary to crack down on over running cases there will always be disputes that overrun. Take the $1bn battle between Excalibur Ventures and Texas Keystone and Gulf Keystone (see Top 20 cases for 2012), in which Excalibur was required to surrender £18m by way of security for costs to allow the case to continue to full trial.

Clifford Chance partner Alex Panayides acted for the claimants, which had managed to secure $50m by way of litigation funding for the case. Initially the court was told that the trial would take around six weeks, while lawyers for Gulf Keystone, Memery Crystal partners Harvey Rands and Nicholas Scott contended that the hearing should last between 10 and 12 weeks. The court opted for latter but still the battle over ran by almost two months, taking up a huge 57 days in court time and even then written submissions had to be made for both sides.

Judgment is due on the matter in the forthcoming term but as the Lord Chief Justice highlights it is becoming more and more challenging for judges to find the time to write judgments for these mega cases.

According to Lord Judge: “Providing judges with time to write judgments generally is an increasing problem.”

The report highlights that an increasing number of cases are settling before they even get to the court steps. The judge reveals that 1,386 claim forms were issued in 2012, but just 1,022 applications were heard, “the figures reveal how the vast majority of actions settle, mostly now well before trial,” he said.

Nevertheless, those big money cases are eating up court time. There are now eight or nine judges assigned to the court at any one time but waiting times for trials that run for three weeks and longer now stand at nine months, while listing applications of half a day or more can be as much as three months.

The judge reveals that many of this big trial matters are related to the individuals and corporations linked with the Eastern bloc. Exactly the type of cases the former Justice Minister Ken Clarke MP had wanted to attract when, back in 2011, he proclaimed law and lawyers to be the UK’s “greatest exports” (14 September 2011).

The courts and the disputes profession is doing its utmost to keep London at the top of the litigation tree. However, if waiting timer for trial dates continues to rise more will look for an alternative solution.