The changing face of the Commercial Court


This post was published on 30 June 2019. On 16 July 2019, the appointment of five new judges to the Court of Appeal was announced. This includes three Commercial Court judges: Carr, Phillips and Popplewell JJ.

The Commercial Court recently published its first annual report for some years. Given the pressure on court staff due to the chronic underfunding of the English and Welsh court system – from which the Commercial Court is not immune[1] – it seems likely that the decision to recommence publication of annual reports now is part of the ongoing drive to attract business to the Commercial Court in an increasingly competitive international market.

The Commercial Court Report 2017-2018 reveals changes in the Court’s constitution and its business. Here are a few interesting snippets:

The constitution of the Commercial Court

At the time of publication,[2] the judges of the Commercial Court were Teare J (Judge in Charge of the Commercial Court), Andrew Baker, Bryan, Butcher, Carr, Cockerill, Jacobs, Robin Knowles, Males,[3] Moulder, Phillips, Picken,[4] Popplewell, Waksman and Walker JJ.[5] This means – although the Report does not comment on this – that there are now, for the first time ever, three female Commercial Court judges, and one Commercial Court judge who is a former solicitor.

Recently retired judges who are still authorised to sit in the Court include Sir William Blair, Sir Ross Cranston, Sir Michael Burton and Sir Andrew Smith. The London Circuit Commercial Court Judge (from 1 July 2019, this will be HHJ Pelling QC[6]) and a number of specialist commercial Queen’s Counsel are also authorised to sit as deputy judges in the Court. Deputies are used only when the parties agree, or when the Judge in Charge of the Commercial Court consider that this is appropriate.

Commercial Court judges, as judges of the Queen’s Bench Division, sit on circuit hearing criminal trials for part of the year.[7] They may also hear cases in the general Queen’s Bench list, the Administrative Court and the Court of Criminal Appeal.

Commercial Court business

The balance of work has changed since the last report was published: international insurance and reinsurance disputes, together with shipping disputes, previously dominated the Court’s time. These remain among the larger categories of business, but now alongside commercial fraud, actions arising out of commercial sale and purchase agreements, and claims relating to banking, financial services and securities transactions. ‘Now the Court sees many more banking and financial services disputes than it used to, and disputes (based either in contract or tort) between high net worth individuals from around the world now provide a considerable share of the Court’s business.[8]

Seventy per cent of cases were international.[9] About a quarter of the claim issued related to arbitration: challenges to awards, applications for injunctions or for enforcement of awards, and other applications including for the appointment of an arbitrator.

Eight hundred and sixty-four claim forms were issued in the Commercial Court[10] in 2017-2018 (slightly down on 2016-2017, when 888 claim forms were issued). There were 57 trials (up from 51 in 2016-2017). The settlement rate was 60%. About half of the trials were under a week in length, 30% were one to two weeks, 16% were three to four weeks, and 5% were over four weeks. The largest claim was for US$3bn and there were over a dozen claims worth over £100m. In addition, many arbitration claims concerned awards for extremely substantial sums, sometimes into the billions of pounds.

The workload of the Financial List, established in 2015, remains at about 15 cases a year – apparently in line with predictions.

Alison Padfield QC

  1. The impact of this on the Court features obliquely in the Report’s introduction. This thanks the Court staff for their ‘very hard work and unfailing help’, which ‘has always been given unstintingly and without complaint, despite the pressure and difficult circumstances under which the Court staff have had to work’ (Report, page 5).
  2. On 27 February 2019.
  3. Males J has since moved to the Court of Appeal.
  4. Since January 2018, Picken J has also been the Presiding Judge of the Wales Circuit.
  5. Report, page 6.
  6. See (accessed 30 June 2019).
  7. An interesting point of distinction between the Commercial Court, as part of the Queen’s Bench Division (of the High Court) and the Chancery Division (of the High Court), whose 15 judges do not go out on circuit to sit in criminal trials.
  8. Report, page 7.
  9. Report, page 9: ‘A domestic case is one in which the subject matter of the disputes between the parties’ concern property or events situated in the United Kingdom and the parties are UK based relative to the dispute. For these purposes a party is “UK based relative to the dispute” if the part of its business which is relevant to the dispute is carried on in the UK, irrespective of whether it is incorporated, resident or registered overseas. All other cases are “international cases.”
  10. This excludes the Admiralty Court, for which separate figures are kept (see the Report at page 12 for details).