The re-naming of the Civil Justice Section as the Civil Litigation Section in March made the title of the Section’s spring conference – “The business of civil litigation” – particularly apt. The speakers, from the judiciary, the Bar, private practice and the Law Society, focussed on helping practitioners hone their skills to enable them to work more efficiently and profitably.
The keynote speech of the conference was given by His Honour Judge Simon Brown QC, of the Birmingham Civil Justice Centre. He reminded those for whom the overriding objective had become but a distant memory that it remains at the core of how the courts manage cases, and how the courts will expect solicitors to work efficiently in compliance with the rules in order to assist the court in the management of cases. He welcomed the benefits that technology brings, and made it clear that he expected parties to use technology whenever possible.
Master Colin Campbell, Emeritus Costs Judge of the Senior Courts Cost Office and now a consultant with costs lawyers Kain Knight, spoke on “Winning on costs”. In 35 minutes, he presented us with an immense amount of guidance on the best way to maximise one’s costs recovery. He dealt with budgets, proportionality, indemnity costs and time limits (which he observed were frequently not complied with, the peril of which was highlighted by the sanction of a default costs certificate). He also discussed detailed assessments, and concluded by pointing out that the delays in obtaining appointments for a detailed assessment are now so great that he encouraged practitioners to resolve cost disputes by mediation.
The problems that HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) is experiencing in coping with the demands put upon it were expounded upon by Tony Guise of Guise Solicitors in his presentation “Using technology to build your litigation practice”. In his usual humorous, light-hearted way, Tony had the conference in fits of laughter as he recounted the various attempts by HMCTS to embrace IT, although in fairness, he did point out that there have been successes too, such as the new IT system in the Rolls Building in London. Worryingly for practitioners, he highlighted a number of problems with the J-codes in costs.
The relationship between practitioners and HMCTS was explored further by Keith Etherington, the Law Society Council member for civil litigation, in “How to get the best from Salford Business Centre”. If those practitioners present were by now thinking that all the troubles with the litigation system could be placed at the door of HMCTS, they were perhaps surprised to hear Keith point out how efficiently Salford Business Centre now operates.
Keith’s message was that the Salford Business Centre is here to stay, and practitioners must learn to live with it and that, rather than criticise it, practitioners need to make sure that their own house is in order. The Centre’s early teething problems have, by and large, been overcome; turnaround of documents is now, typically, about five days; and, in fact, many of the problems (which took up the staff’s time when they could be more usefully engaged) arose from the shabby way in which documentation was filed by solicitors. The manager of the Salford Business Centre, Martin Huddleston, who Keith said had a genuine commitment to produce a more efficient service, has demonstrated to Keith how the aversion of many solicitors to paperclips and staples makes life very difficult for the Centre. It receives thousands of items of post every week, and far too many of those items of post, when extracted from their envelopes, are nothing more than loose sheets, amongst which a cheque might be found.
The greatest failing of all is the continuation of the unacceptable practice of sending, in hard copy form, documents which had already been faxed to the court. Typically, the hard copy document does not contain any note to the effect that the documentation has already been faxed, so valuable time is wasted by staff trying to find the relevant file, unaware that the same documentation has already been received and is being actioned by another member of the Centre. But Keith’s presentation was given in such an informal and jovial style that practitioners barely noticed they were being scolded.
The conference was rounded off with a perceptive discourse on the new part 36 of the Civil Procedure Rules, delivered by Ed Pepperall QC of Sir Philips Chambers in Birmingham. As chairman of the sub-committee that drafted the new part 36, there was no one better than Ed to take practitioners through the wide-ranging changes that have been made to part 36. Those changes have addressed the previous problems in relation to part 36 offers made in counterclaims, split trials, very high claimant offers and the withdrawal of offers during the relevant period. He told the conference that the intention was that part 36 should be a self-contained procedural code.
The Civil Litigation Section autumn conference will take place on 22 October 2015.