The Times of 9 April carried an interview with Sir Anthony May, President of the Queen’s Bench Division. Its title London-centric? We are taking power to the people conveys the gist of the article. The Administrative Court is to soon to open in Birmingham, Cardiff, Leeds and Manchester.
The Administrative Court handles a wide range of cases with a public law element – immigration and asylum matters, claims against central and local government and against regulatory bodies, as well as certain child care and prisoners’ rights cases. Setting up regional centres has obvious merit from the court’s own point of view – it has become grossly overburdened with, at one point, files stacked in cases in the corridor and a long waiting list of applications awaiting allocation to a judge. There are obvious advantages too from the applicants’ perspective – many of the claims, by their nature, are made by people who cannot afford the additional costs incurred in travelling to London, quite apart from the fact that claims involving, say, a local authority and one of its residents are better heard close to where they both come from.
The interview implies that this is not the end of the moves towards regionalisation of specialist courts. There are rumours that steps are to be taken to boost the Mercantile Courts, which exist to hear commercial cases in several large provincial cities. Lord Justice Jackson, presently engaged in his year-long Litigation Costs Review, is said to be concerned that the existing system does not reflect the very high proportion of the nation’s commerce – measured by contribution to GDP and the head-counts employed in them – which takes place in small businesses. If we seek reasons why litigation has fallen off, the historic centralisation of the more important commercial litigation in London is probably one of them.
The move could provide a welcome boost to regional solicitors and barristers who suffer from – and in part inflict on themselves – an impression that they do not get big work and are not capable of handling it. The measure of “big work” which is my concern is whether any substantial quantity of documents is involved. One of the things I hear, when talking about electronic disclosure outside London, is that “we never get cases which involve a lot of documents – they all go to London”.
Well, there is a circle here and it is not a virtuous one – if you are not perceived as having the capability of handling a lot of documents, then clients who have a lot of documents will take their work to the capital; because you do not get the document-heavy work, you cannot justify the investment in technology and the skills to use it and so cannot pitch for work on the basis of your experience. Meanwhile, clients complain about London costs and about the expense and difficulty of just getting to London on an over-priced, under-resourced and badly-managed railway network.
The government is talking of new high-speed railways lines to the north, with the first push to the West Midlands. A report is due by the end of the year. I suspect it is hot air, designed to draw the environmental sting from the government’s curious commitment to expand Heathrow, but the next government, due only just over a year away, is likely to build on these plans. We do not need to wait for that, however, if the courts can establish a reputation for delivering prompt and efficient justice in regional centres – and, crucially, if local practitioners can gear themselves up to deliver a level of service and cost which will entice clients away from London. With Sir Anthony May in charge of delivery from the centre, and regional capability in the hands of judges like HHJ Simon Brown QC, a Designated Mercantile Judge in Birmingham well-known to readers of this blog, it is possible to foresee a real change in the quantity, as well as the quality, of justice delivered outside London.
Sir Anthony May has been out promoting the new developments – see, for example, a report of a meeting in Manchester which emphasises the wider benefits to the region of having more justice, and a higher and wider level of justice, delivered locally.
I find myself grinding my teeth at the Times article for reasons which have nothing to do with either its content or its writing. I don’t know when a newspaper first sent an artist to make an illustration of a judge to accompany an article. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was not big on illustration from the life, so it was probably a little later. I bet the artist was told to make sure that his Lordship’s wig was clearly visible in the foreground, that his robes hung in sight and that he would be surrounded by leather-bound books. The judge was preferably to be viewed from below so as to enhance both his stature and the sense that he was looking down on us. Take another look at the photograph illustrating the Times article :
It seems an out-dated way to illustrate a judge who, as the article makes clear, is working to change things and move the court system forward.