Expedition in the Commercial Court

There are words which have a meaning in the law which is different, and usually more prosaic, than their ordinary meaning. Expedition is one such word. An order granting expedition of a trial is of course nothing more than an order that it should take place sooner than it would if it were listed to come on for trial in the ordinary way.

The Commercial Court Guide[1] provides that the Commercial Court is able to provide an expedited trial in cases of sufficient urgency and importance,[2] and that a party seeking an expedited trial should apply to the Judge in Charge of the Commercial Court on notice to all parties at the earliest possible opportunity.[3] The application should normally be made after issue and service of the claim form but before service of particulars of claim.[4]

No further guidance is given. A summary of the relevant principles in a judgment of the Commercial Court is therefore welcome. In Apache Beryl I Ltd v Marathon Oil UK LCC[5], Males J heard an application in mid-August 2017 for an expedited trial to take place at the beginning of the next term, which was then in two months’ time or less, with a view to judgment being given, or at least a decision being given if possible, before 21 October 2017. The claimant’s position was that without a decision by 21 October 2017 as to its rights and obligations under an agreement with the defendant, it was likely to lose the benefit of a put and call option in which that was the longstop date.

Males J said that it was agreed between the parties that the decision whether to order expedition was discretionary, and that there were four factors to be taken into account:[6]

  • A threshold question of whether objectively there was urgency
  • The state of the Commercial Court list
  • The procedural history including delay by the applicant
  • Whether there would be any irremediable prejudice to the respondent

Of these, he said, the fourth factor – which might also be referred to as the good administration of justice or whether a fair trial was possible – was the most important.[7] Males J referred to the decision of the Court of Appeal in W L Gore & Associates GmbH v Geox SpA[8] for the principle that the Commercial Court seeks to assist commercial people in resolving their disputes, but does so in a way which is consistent with the interests of others and with justice and fairness, so that a critical matter in deciding to order expedition is whether a fair trial is possible.[9] If a fair trial is not possible, it necessarily follows that an unfair trial should not be ordered. On the other hand, if a fair trial is possible and there is a prospect that the court can accommodate it, the approach set out in Gore v Geox would strongly encourage the court to do so.[10]

Males J decided that a fair trial was possible and ordered an expedited trial starting on 16 October 2017, ie two months later. His assessment of the four factors inevitably depended on the facts of the case, but certain of his observations have wider relevance:

(1) The judge was willing to approach the application on the basis that it might but would not necessarily be necessary to stand out from the list another case which had been fixed for a considerable time. He recognised that if one of those trials was to be vacated, this would be at considerable expense to the parties in whatever case was selected, and that would no doubt leave them with a real and justified sense of having been unfairly treated.[11]

(2) The claimant had known about the longstop date of 21 October 2017 since December 2016, but sought expedition only in August 2017. Proceedings were started in mid-May but expedition was not sought at that stage as it could have been and should have been in accordance with the Commercial Court Guide. To some extent, the judge found, this was a deliberate, tactical decision by the claimant not to apply for expedition, although he also accepted that there was a hope that matters could be resolved by agreement and that it was only after a lengthy meeting on 31 July 2017 that it became apparent that this hope was to be disappointed.[12] The procedural history was therefore a factor against expedition, but not a decisive factor; it would be ‘disproportionately penal’ to refuse the application on this ground if it was otherwise appropriate to order expedition.[13]

(3) Particulars of Claim, a Defence and a Reply had been served together with various requests for information, and the defendants proposed to serve a Rejoinder. The judge said that the pleadings tended to make the dispute appear more complex than it really was, and that what was needed was a succinct and clear statement of each party’s position on the key issues.[14]

(4) Disclosure had not taken place, and the judge observed that this was case in which disclosure was likely to be limited – possibly to documents which each party relied on with scope for specific requests where necessary and possibly some disclosure on one particular issue which he identified.[15] There would be some factual and expert witness evidence, but this was likely to be limited.[16

(5) Urgent directions needed to be given, and the judge said that he would hold a case management conference the following day.[17]

  1. Admiralty and Commercial Courts Guide (10th Edition, last updated September 2017).
  2. Para J1.1.
  3. Para J1.2.
  4. Para J1.2.
  5. [2017] EWHC 2258 (Comm).
  6. Para 11.
  7. See paras 11-12 and 23.
  8. [2008] EWCA Civ 622.
  9. See paras 12-13.
  10. Para 23.
  11. Paras 19-20.
  12. Para 21.
  13. Para 22.
  14. Paras 26-27.
  15. Para 28.
  16. Para 28.
  17. Para 31.