The Business and Property Courts of England and Wales – launch on 4 July 2017

Sir Geoffrey Vos, the Chancellor of the High Court and a former Chairman of the Bar Council, came to the Bar Council meeting on 20 May 2017 to talk to us about the newly-styled Business and Property Courts. This followed the announcement on 13 March 2017 that, from June, the specialist civil courts including those in the Rolls Building in London (the Commercial Court, the Technology and Construction Court, and the Chancery Division of the High Court) were to be known as the ‘Business and Property Courts of England and Wales’. The 13 March 2017 press release said that this was to be the new name for the ‘international dispute resolution jurisdictions’ of England and Wales, and to ‘act as a single umbrella for business specialist courts across England and Wales’. The rebranding therefore has international and domestic implications.

Originally planned for June but delayed due to the General Election, the launch date for the new Business and Property Courts is now 4 July 2017.

One of the aims of the new name is to modernise the image of the Chancery Division. Sir Geoffrey said that the name ‘Chancery Division’ evoked Dickens and Bleak House.[1] The opening chapter of Bleak House is ‘In Chancery’, and Dickens mercilessly satirises the court:

This is the Court of Chancery, which has its decaying houses and its blighted lands in every shire, which has its worn-out lunatic in every madhouse and its dead in every churchyard, which has its ruined suitor with his slipshod heels and threadbare dress borrowing and begging through the round of every man’s acquaintance, which gives to monied might the means abundantly of wearying out the right, which so exhausts finances, patience, courage, hope, so overthrows the brain and breaks the heart, that there is not an honourable man among its practitioners who would not give—who does not often give—the warning, “Suffer any wrong that can be done you rather than come here!”

It is little wonder, then, that the new name is intended not only to be more readily understood both at home and abroad, but also to signal that the bad old days of Jarndyce and Jarndyce[2] really are gone.

By contrast, the Commercial Court has always prided itself on being a modern court responsive to the needs of business:

The Commercial Court was set up in 1895 following demands from the City of London and the business community for a tribunal or court manned by judges with knowledge and experience of commercial disputes which could determine such disputes expeditiously and economically, thereby avoiding tediously long and expensive trials with verdicts given by judges or juries unfamiliar with business practices.[3]

Of course, even the Commercial Court is not immune to increased competition from overseas – as its judges and those of us who practise in it are keenly aware. The Commercial Court in London has an international reputation, and it is hard to see what the Commercial Court has to gain – and easy to see what it has to lose – from being bracketed together with the Chancery Division under a new and unfamiliar name. The City UK, which has worked hard to promote London as a major centre for the resolution of international commercial disputes, has however welcomed the rebranding as a ‘forward-looking decision, indicative of the judiciary’s determination to ensure that Britain’s legal system remains world-leading and at the forefront of dispute resolution globally’ and as giving ‘greater clarity to users about the focus and coverage of legal services available at the Courts’.

On the domestic front, the press release referred to ‘the Commercial Court, (including the Admiralty Court and Mercantile Court)’. This formulation – suggesting that there is a single Mercantile Court which is somehow part of the Commercial Court – is also new. Until now, the Mercantile Courts have formally been separate from the Commercial Court, with their own Mercantile Court Guide (not updated since 2012 and as a result now unusable in some respects), although in London there has been a considerable overlap. The London Mercantile Court is administered by the Commercial Court listing office, and there is considerable fluidity between the judges of the two courts, with Commercial Court judges frequently hearing applications in the London Mercantile Court, and the Mercantile Court judge in London, HHJ David Waksman QC, frequently sitting in the Commercial Court.

It is intended, too, that following the launch on 4 July 2017, the Rolls Building courts in London will co-operate more closely with the Mercantile Courts in the regions. Sir Geoffrey said that in principle no case would be too large to be heard outside London, and that in time, the ‘judicial fire-power’ in specialist centres would increase. Although the press release said that the Mercantile Courts in Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Bristol and in Cardiff would be renamed Business and Property Courts, with expansions to Newcastle and Liverpool likely in the future, Sir Geoffrey said that the Mercantile Courts would become Commercial Circuit Courts, and their judges would be Commercial Circuit Judges. In addition, the financial limits in the county court have not been increased for some years, and Sir Geoffrey expressed hope that this would happen, in order to allow them to take on more business.

Sir Geoffrey emphasised that the specialist procedures in the Commercial Court, Technology and Construction Court and Chancery Division will remain: he said that procedures in these courts are an internal matter, and the changes are outward-facing. He added that the question which he is asked most often by barristers is what we should put in the heading of statements of case once the new courts have been formally launched. This perhaps sheds light on the personality traits of some barristers (well known to their families but perhaps less clearly perceived by the barristers themselves), and suggests that they may be less willing than Sir Geoffrey to leave behind the era of Jarndyce and Jarndyce. They will no doubt be relieved to hear that the launch of the Business and Property Courts on 4 July 2017 will bring with it a new Practice Note in which the answer to this[4] and similar procedural puzzles can be found.

  1. He said, too, that ‘Mercantile Court’ brought to mind an Edwardian gentleman. The name belies the recent origin of these courts: they are in fact a modern creation, and what is now the London Mercantile Court was originally named the Central London County Court Business List.
  2. The case at the heart of Bleak House: ‘Jarndyce and Jarndyce drones on. This scarecrow of a suit has, in course of time, become so complicated that no man alive knows what it means. The parties to it understand it least, but it has been observed that no two Chancery lawyers can talk about it for five minutes without coming to a total disagreement as to all the premises.’ (Chapter 1, ‘In Chancery’).
  3. See https://www.judiciary.gov.uk/you-and-the-judiciary/going-to-court/high-court/queens-bench-division/courts-of-the-queens-bench-division/commercial-court/about-us/.
  4. Sir Geoffrey did in fact provide the answer at the Bar Council meeting. If I noted it down correctly, the format will (for example) be: ‘IN THE HIGH COURT OF JUSTICE’, below that ‘BUSINESS AND PROPERTY COURTS’, and then the name of the court – eg ‘COMMERCIAL COURT’.

Be prepared? – the perils of witness training

In two recent cases, one in the Commercial Court and one in the Technology and Construction Court, judges have deprecated the use of witness preparation even where the training falls short of witness coaching.

Witness coaching is prohibited by the Bar Code of Conduct[1], which states that ‘Your duty to act with honesty and integrity under CD3 includes the following requirements… you must not rehearse, practise with or coach a witness in respect of their evidence[2]. CD3, one of the Core Duties imposed on barristers by the Code of Conduct, is that: ‘You must act with honesty and integrity’.

Coaching’ is not defined in the Code of Conduct, but the Bar Council practice note on Witness Preparation[3] says:

In any discussions with witnesses regarding the process of giving evidence, great care must be taken not to do or say anything which could be interpreted as suggesting what the witness should say, or how he or she should express himself or herself in the witness box: that would be coaching.[4]

This Bar Council practice note draws heavily on the 2005 decision of the Court of Appeal in R v Momodou[5] and states[6] that there is currently no authority on these matters in relation to civil proceedings, and that until such authority emerges, it would be prudent to proceed on the basis that the general principles set out in R v Momodou also apply to civil proceedings.

In R v Momodou, the Court of Appeal made clear that discussion with a witness of his or her proposed or intended evidence in a criminal case was not permitted:

Training or coaching for witnesses in criminal proceedings (whether for prosecution or defence) is not permitted. This is the logical consequence of [the] well-known principle that discussions between witnesses should not take place, and that the statements and proofs of one witness should not be disclosed to any other witness. … The witness should give his or her own evidence, so far as practicable uninfluenced by what anyone else has said, whether in formal discussions or informal conversations. The rule reduces, indeed hopefully avoids any possibility, that one witness may tailor his evidence in the light of what anyone else said, and equally, avoids any unfounded perception that he may have done so. These risks are inherent in witness training.[7]

The Court of Appeal said that there was a ‘dramatic distinction’ between witness training or coaching, and witness familiarisation.[8] Witness familiarisation is:

pre-trial arrangements to familiarise witness with the layout of the court, the likely sequence of events when the witness is giving evidence, and a balanced appraisal of the different responsibilities of the various participants’,[9]

and the Court of Appeal added that such arrangements would usually be in the form of a pre-trial visit to the court, and were generally to be welcomed, but that out of court familiarisation techniques were also permissible. It emphasised, however that ‘None of this … involves discussions about proposed or intended evidence’.[10]

The Court of Appeal also addressed specifically the position of expert witnesses, saying that training of such witnesses in ‘the technique of giving comprehensive evidence of a specialist kind to a jury, both during evidence-in-chief and in cross-examination, and, another example, developing the ability to resist the inevitable pressure of going further in evidence than matters covered by the witnesses’ specific expertise’. As with witnesses of fact, ‘The critical feature of training of this kind is that it should not be arranged in the context of nor related to any forthcoming trial, and it can therefore have no impact whatever on it.’[11]

Guidance in the Bar Code of Conduct in a related but different context (the duty not to mislead the court) refers to the preparation of witness statements, and states that:

you are entitled and it may often be appropriate to draw to the witness’s attention other evidence which appears to conflict with what the witness is saying and you are entitled to indicate that a court may find a particular piece of evidence difficult to accept. But if the witness maintains that the evidence is true, it should be recorded in the witness statement and you will not be misleading the court if you call the witness to confirm their witness statement.’[12]

The reference to witness statements makes clear that this guidance relates to civil rather than criminal proceedings. It is not addressed in the Bar Council practice note, which as we have seen indicates that, in the absence of authority, it would be prudent to proceed on the basis that the general principles set out in R v Momodou also apply to civil proceedings. There is therefore an inconsistency between the Code of Conduct guidance and the clear statement in R v Momidou that ‘the statements and proofs of one witness should not be disclosed to any other witness’. This inconsistency is not explicable by the difference in procedure, as witness statements in civil proceedings simply take the place of oral evidence in chief: the process of taking the statement is merely the mechanism by which the evidence is put before the court, and there is no difference of principle. The extent to which the practice referred to in the Code of Conduct guidance will be regarded by the civil courts as permissible has yet to be determined, but there is no doubt that, given the clear statement in the guidance, it is acceptable from a regulatory perspective as far as barristers are concerned.

This is the legal and regulatory background against which judges in two recent commercial cases have deprecated the use of witness preparation even where such training falls short of witness coaching. Flaux J said in the Commercial Court in Republic of Djibouti v Boreh:[13]

The second reason for approaching the evidence of the Djibouti witnesses with considerable caution is that it was quite obvious that they had had witness training and been carefully prepared for giving evidence. Mr Douale admitted as much.[14]

And:

Whilst I am not suggesting that witness training in itself is improper, (provided that it does not amount to coaching of a witness as to what to say, which would be improper) it is to be discouraged, since, as this case demonstrates, it tends to reflect badly on the witness who, perhaps through no fault of his or her own, may appear evasive because he or she has been “trained” to give evidence in a particular way.’[15]

Last month, in Harlequin Property (SVG) Ltd v Wilkins Kennedy[16] in the Technology and Construction Court, Coulson J referred to Flaux J’s remarks with approval:

I was unsurprised to learn that Mr MacDonald had had witness training. For the same reasons outlined by Flaux J (as he then was) in Republic of Djibouti v Boreh … I consider it to be a practice “to be discouraged since…it tends to reflect badly on the witnesses who…may appear evasive.” In my view, the training he received exacerbated Mr MacDonald’s natural tendency to avoid answering any difficult question.’[17]

We can expect commercial judges to continue to criticise attempts to refine the evidence which is to be given by witnesses in court. Judges want, so far as possible, to hear a witness’s evidence in his or her own words. The 2007 Report of the Commercial Court Long Trials Working Party, in which two Commercial Court judges[18] were heavily involved, said:

Inevitably, in nearly all cases the witness statements are drafted by the lawyers, although based on interviews with the witness. But this process often leads to the statements being in lawyers’ language rather than the words of the witness. Also, all too frequently the statements spend far too long summarising documents that a party wishes to have in evidence and arguing the case. Not enough time is spent recording the witness’s actual memories of relevant events.[19]

The Admiralty and Commercial Courts guide[20] similarly emphasises that the function of a witness statement is to set out in writing the evidence in chief of the witness and that as far as possible, therefore, the statement should be in the witness’s own words; that it should not contain lengthy quotations from documents; and that it should not engage in argument.[21]

  1. The Code of Conduct is in Part 2 of the BSB Handbook (2nd Edition, April 2015, updated December 2016).
  2. Rule rC9.4. There is no specific prohibition in the solicitors’ Code of Conduct (Version 18, published 1 November 2016): see Chapter 5, ‘Your client and the court’, including IB(5.9) to IB(5.11); and see this interesting article by Professor Richard Moorhead in the Guardian in relation to David Cameron’s preparation for his appearance before the Leveson inquiry in 2012.
  3. Issued October 2005; last reviewed May 2016. Practice notes issued by the Bar Council do not constitute ‘guidance’ for the purposes of the Code of Conduct: see further paragraph I6.4 of the Handbook (pages 11-12 of the pdf version).
  4. At para 17.2.
  5. [2005] EWCA Crim 177.
  6. At para 16.
  7. At para 61.
  8. At para 61.
  9. At para 62.
  10. At para 62.
  11. At para 62.
  12. Code of Conduct, para gC7.
  13. [2016] EWHC 405 (Comm).
  14. At para 65.
  15. At para 67.
  16. [2016] EWHC 3188 (TCC).
  17. At para 18.
  18. Aikens and Gloster JJ; Aikens J chaired the working party which prepared the report; I was its secretary.
  19. At para 69.
  20. Last updated 18 March 2016.
  21. See paras H1.1(i), (iii) and (v)),

Won’t you stay? – prejudice arising from concurrent civil and criminal proceedings

Civil courts are sometimes asked to stay their proceedings in order to avoid prejudice to a party who is facing concurrent criminal proceedings, for example where there is a factual overlap concerning allegations of dishonesty or fraud. The courts are slow to grant a stay, and will always try to resolve the issue by case management measures short of a stay; but they will stay proceedings, in the exercise of their discretion, in an appropriate case.

The starting point is s 49(3) of the Senior Courts Act 1981, which provides:

Nothing in this Act shall affect the power of the Court of Appeal or the High Court to stay any proceedings before it, where it thinks fit to do so, either of its own motion or on the application of any person, whether or not a party to the proceedings.

CPR 3.1(2)(f) provides that the court may, unless the rules provide otherwise, ‘stay the whole or part of any proceedings or judgment either generally or until a specified date or event’.

The party seeking to stay civil proceedings where there are concurrent criminal proceedings is typically the defendant in both sets of proceedings, although as two recent decisions illustrate, this is not always the case.

In Bittar v The Financial Conduct Authority[1], the Financial Conduct Authority, supported by the Serious Fraud Office (‘SFO’), which was the prosecutor in concurrent criminal proceedings, sought a stay of its reference to the Upper Tax Tribunal (Tax and Chancery Chambers – Financial Services) pending resolution of the SFO’s criminal proceedings in respect of a charge of conspiracy to defraud. The SFO’s objections included that the defendant might seek to introduce evidence given or findings made by the Tribunal into the criminal proceedings, and said that it, too, was entitled to a fair trial.

The Tribunal said that there was a strong presumption against a stay and that it was a power which had to be exercised with great care and ‘only where there is a test of real risk of serious prejudice which may lead to injustice[2]. It declined to order a stay, partly on the grounds that any prejudice could be mitigated by case management measures including, if necessary, deferring the hearing of the reference itself until after the criminal proceedings had concluded.[3] In the meantime, the Tribunal gave directions for the parties to prepare for the hearing, and said that the matter should be kept under review.[4]

In Polonskiy v Alexander Dobrovinsky & Partners LLP,[5] the claimant asked the High Court to stay civil proceedings which he himself had brought, and to stay a counterclaim brought by a defendant, pending the resolution of criminal proceedings against him in Russia. He relied on an alleged risk of injustice to him not in the criminal proceedings, but in the civil proceedings. This was an unpromising start and, although the court considered the matter in detail (in a judgment which was 153 paragraphs long), it ultimately declined to grant a stay. The defendant in the civil proceedings tried unsuccessfully to persuade the court that the test to be applied was that a stay should be granted only in ‘rare and compelling circumstances’,[6] which is the test usually applied where the court is being asked to stay civil proceedings in favour of other civil (court or arbitral) proceedings.[7] The court rejected this submission and instead applied the principle, derived from earlier decisions of the Court of Appeal, that the court has a discretion to stay civil proceedings until related criminal proceedings have been determined, but that this is ‘a power which has to be exercised with great care and only where there is a real risk of serious prejudice which may lead to injustice’.[8]

  1. [2016] UKUT 265 (TCC).
  2. At para 16.
  3. See para 17.
  4. See para 17.
  5. [2016] EWHC 1114 (Ch) (Mr G Moss QC, sitting as a deputy judge of the High Court).
  6. See paras 135-139.
  7. See eg Reichhold Norway ASA v Goldman Sachs International (a firm) [2000] 1 WLR 173, CA, 186 (Bingham LJ).
  8. See paras 133 and 139; the quotation is from R v Panel on Takeovers and Mergers, ex p Fayed [1992] BCC 524, CA, 531 (Neill LJ); approved: Attorney-General of Zambia v Meer Care & Desai (a firm) [2006] EWCA Civ 390, para 36 (Sir Anthony Clarke MR).