Hub - a new approach to dispute resolution?
“Discourage litigation. Persuade your neighbors to compromise whenever you can. As a peacemaker the lawyer has superior opportunity of being a good man. There will still be business enough.” Abraham Lincoln
Although written in the mid-1800s, around 70 years before women began to make their mark on the legal profession, Mr Lincoln's view otherwise survives as the aspiration for litigators. Not only for our relationships with our clients and colleagues, but in the very architecture of the litigation process.
That architecture is evolving in ways both small and large, which are watched carefully by other jurisdictions which share a foundation in English common law.
Recent years have seen the expansion of initiatives promoting alternative dispute resolution and other ways in which litigation can be avoided or curtailed. These are valuable and sensible initiatives, which allow the parties to tailor a bespoke outcome rather than allow a court to choose one of two outcomes; neither of which may be as good as the terms which parties could agree between themselves.
However, Mr Lincoln pointed out that even if compromise is pursued there would still be business enough. He was right.
There are any number of reasons why parties might be unable to reach a settlement. One of them may be trying to achieve a change in the law on an important point, or to set a precedent beneficial to them or their industry.
The contentious nature of the process may have caused them to lose sight of the desirability of settlement. The costs incurred (in money, time and emotional investment) may be more than they can walk away from. The litigation could be the symptom of a damaged relationship, rather than the cause.
For these reasons and others, there will always be cases which come to be decided by a court. Many of those cases will be of a commercial character, in which significant sums of money, forms of contract which influence an entire industry, or the viability of commercial enterprises can turn on the result; and a result delayed can be as devastating as an adverse outcome.
This is the impetus for the High Court's Business and Property Hub, for which the Lord Chief Justice has just approved a new Practice Direction to come into operation on April 29.
A new business court, designed to implement the reforms and improvements identified in the 2017 Review of Civil and Family Justice in Northern Ireland, the hub will comprise four judges working across areas such as commercial, chancery and judicial review.
Key features will include a focus on early case management (setting the timetable for the case at an early stage) and in appropriate cases the encouragement of alternative dispute resolution and early neutral evaluation (a judge – not the trial judge – giving a preliminary view on a key point, so the parties might then agree a settlement between themselves).
It is hoped that this hub will provide the best possible service and control costs, so if a commercial dispute arises it can be resolved with the minimum investment of time and money. Perhaps this might be another incentive for international businesses considering investment in Northern Ireland.
:: Mark Taggart (firstname.lastname@example.org) is partner/head of commercial litigation and debt recovery at DWF Belfast (www.dwf.law)