The Lawyer Litigation Tracker 2017 reveals a ground-breaking year for the English courts, with landmark judgments reached in a number of areas of law that have set precedents and reformulated long-standing legal principles.

However, it was also a year in which fewer cases went all the way to judgment. Some 2,412 judgments were tracked by The Lawyer Litigation Tracker in 2017. This is a 5 per cent decrease on the 2,532 handed down in 2016 and an 18 per cent decrease on the 2,938 in 2015. This was caused by a sharp decline in the number of judgments in the Civil Division of the Court of Appeal (CoA) and the Administrative Court.

Only 514 cases reached judgment in the CoA in 2017 — a 15 per cent fall from the 605 cases in 2016 and a 30 per cent drop from the 732 cases in 2015. Likewise, the 498 judgments in the Administrative Court were 26 per cent less than the 676 judgments in 2015.

The decline in judgments in these courts was primarily caused by a decrease in human rights cases, which feature prominently there. Across all courts, the number of human rights judgments decreased by 37 per cent, from 345 in 2015 to 251 in 2017.

Despite the annual decrease, the year ended on a high. Some 679 judgments were handed down in Q4 17 — a 44 per cent increase on the previous quarter and a 12 per cent rise from the corresponding period last year.

Litigation hotspots

While the overall number of cases reaching judgment has dropped, some specific areas of litigation have grown. One example is banking and finance cases. Some 97 banking and finance disputes reached judgment in 2017, a 31 per cent increase on the 74 in 2016 and a 43 per cent increase on the 68 judgments reached in 2015. Although banking disputes emanating from the recession are starting to dwindle, the number related to regulation and compliance is primed to increase, meaning the area will remain a hotbed of litigation activity.

Tax disputes are also increasing. Some 138 cases reached judgment in 2017, compared with 117 in 2016 and 105 in 2015. A three-year high of 38 tax cases reached judgment in Q4 17. This increase stems from rising tax collection targets, which are leading HMRC to take a more aggressive approach to tax avoidance and compliance.

Competition cases are set to increase because of recent legislative developments

The number of land and property cases has also increased significantly — from 293 cases in 2015 to 342 in 2017 — while insurance disputes increased by 44 per cent from 25 judgments in 2015 to 36 in 2017.

Looking further ahead, one of the biggest growth areas will be competition law. Some 21 competition cases reached judgment in 2017 — a 32 per cent rise on 2016. Competition cases are set to increase because recent legislative developments in the UK, specifically in the form of the Consumer Rights Act 2015, make it easier for parties to bring competition claims. The growth in claimant law firms and litigation funding have also contributed to the increase.

Some types of dispute have decreased in number in recent years but are primed for a resurgence. One example is employment claims. Between 2015 and 2017 there has been a staggering 48 per cent drop in the number of judgments coming from the Employment Appeal Tribunal. Opinion in the market suggests that the Supreme Court’s decision to remove employment tribunal fees will reverse this trend.

Therefore, although the number of cases reaching judgment is dropping across the board, there is still plenty of work in certain areas for law firms and chambers in the English courts.

Clyde & Co still on top

Some 1,126 law firms acted for clients on cases that reached judgment in 2017. The most active firm, measured by number of cases, was Clyde & Co. The firm has mainlined its position at the top of the ranking after working on 54 cases totalling 131 case days. This compares to 57 cases totalling 122 days in 2016.

Sixteen of the firm’s cases in 2017 involved a contractual dispute, while seven cases involved an employment matter. The firm also acted for clients in six land and property disputes and six arbitration cases. Clients included Aspen Insurance, G4S Care and Justice Services UK and Guardian Asset Management. It also advised Petrosaudi Oil Services (Venezuela) and FTSE 100 energy company Glencore.

Irwin Mitchell was the second most active firm, acting for clients in 43 cases totalling 81 case days. This compares to the 43 cases across 69 days it worked on in 2016. The firm acted predominantly for individuals. Commercial clients included The Law Society of England and Wales, Milton Keynes-based DLA Delivery and Vue Entertainment.

With 42 cases, DAC Beachcroft ranked third. The firm spent 88 days in court. This compares to the 133 days the firm spent advising clients in 42 cases in 2016. In 2017, it acted for Hyundai Heavy Industries and the Royal Mail. The firm also advised a number of NHS health trusts in medical negligence claims. These included the Royal Devon & Exeter NHS Foundation Trust, Rotherham NHS Foundation Trust and the North Cumbria University Hospitals NHS Trust.

RPC finished in fourth place after advising clients in 41 cases across 98 days. Leigh Day and Mishcon de Reya were joint fifth with 40 cases. The former spent 134 days in court, while the latter spent 139 days. Pinsent Masons was seventh (39 cases totalling 98 days) with Herbert Smith Freehills eighth (38 cases totalling 112 case days). Charles Russell Speechlys (32 cases totalling 91 case days) and DLA Piper (32 cases totalling 97 case days) complete the top 10.

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