One of London's key assets has long been its reputation as one of the world's leading international legal centres. Not only does London boast an impressive array of law firms who can handle almost any legal issue for clients, but it is widely used by litigants from all over the world as the place for civil dispute resolution, whether through litigation or arbitration. Many of those familiar with the civil justice system in England & Wales are aware of its many strengths, but also of its historic weaknesses. Lack of investment in new technology, poor and aging facilities and a scarcity of judges have all been cited as criticisms over the years.
None of these features have been helpful to the prestigious image that the UK wishes to portray to the wider world about its legal system. But now, with the prospect of the UK leaving the EU and with attempts by Germany and France to muscle in on drawing business away from the City, there is a pressing need to ensure that the positive image of London as a forum for legal disputes is not placed in jeopardy.
There have already been measures taken to improve things over the past decade. The introduction of a new revamped "Intellectual Property Enterprise Court" (IPEC) to deal with intellectual property cases proved a very popular and successful innovation. This Court is aimed at enabling small and medium sized entities and individuals to litigate disputes involving such things as patents and trademarks. Unlike in the High Court, strict caps on costs and more streamlined Court procedures apply in IPEC. The aim has been to provide access to justice to those for whom the costs of such litigation might previously have been prohibitively risky or expensive. However, IPEC has become the victim of its own success in many ways and is now clogged up with cases. More judges are needed to clear the log jam. As the saying goes, justice delayed is justice denied.
A new £300m Court complex opened at the Rolls Building in Central London in 2011. This provided a much more modern venue for dispensing civil justice than some of the dusty old courtrooms of the Royal Courts of Justice ever did. Recent dramatic increases in civil court fees have raised eyebrows in legal circles. But they have undeniably raised revenues too. So there should be more money available.
Now, the City of London Corporation has announced ambitious plans to bring together the City's county and magistrates’ courts into one new building where the main focus will be on fraud, economic crime and cybercrime. We are promised substantial investment in new technology and an objective to make for a world-leading "flagship" centre for dealing with economic and cybercrimes.
Maintaining London's pre-eminence as an international legal centre depends on ensuring that people and businesses continue to want to write contracts under English law and to have their commercial disputes dealt with here. The enhanced ability to deal with the new age of cybercrime will be crucial if London is to retain its position against foreign competition. It is encouraging that the need for such modernisation is being taken seriously by government. But when exactly the new Court will open for business and whether, when it finally does, it will be sufficiently resourced, remain to be seen.
Michael Gardner is a partner and head of IP & commercial at Wedlake Bell.