Consultation has recently closed on a Paper issued by the Court Service Department seeking views on the proposals for modernisation of the commercial courts. Whilst suggestions for improving facilities have been welcomed, concerns have been expressed over how these improvements will be financed and also on a proposed hike in commercial court fees.
Since 1895 the Commercial Court has enjoyed a pre-eminent reputation for high calibre Judges and the fair and efficient handling of complex domestic and international commercial disputes. It has also played an important part in developing a system of commercial law which is favoured worldwide. Both the business community and the Government owe it a considerable debt.
Despite the distinction of its judges and its staff, however, the Commercial Court is in real danger of lagging behind the needs of the business community it was designed to serve. The problem lies in the lack of dedicated facilities and the changing nature of the disputes upon which the court rules. The Lord Chancellor has recognised the need for an overhaul, commissioning Cap Gemini Ernst & Young (CGEY) in November 2000 to establish the business case for restructuring the Commercial, Admiralty, Patents, and Technology & Construction Courts. The CGEY Report, published in February 2001, recommended the consolidation of facilities for the four specialist commercial courts (either by refurbishment or constructing new buildings) and the integration of their operations and resource management.
In March 2001 Lord Irvine announced that he would "take forward plans to enhance the court with modern IT and video-conferencing facilities" and "examine the potential to house [the commercial courts] in a single building". These plans have met with enthusiastic support from users and practitioners. Likewise, the apparent abandonment of the suggestion that the specialist jurisdictions of the four courts should be merged has resulted in widespread relief.
As everyone recognises, the commercial courts' infrastructure needs improvement. Accommodation ranges from the dull basement of the Royal Courts of Justice to the cramped rooms in St Dunstan's House - recently described as a public disgrace by one Commercial Court Judge. So restricted is the provision of consulting facilities that it is difficult to advise clients in privacy, or even to obtain a mobile telephone signal. Conducting trials in courts which are too small to accommodate the documents and...