David Black of the Litigation and Dispute Resolution team at leading law firm Arthur Cox, explains how the new Commercial Hub at Belfast’s High Court promises to have a major impact for local businesses by reducing the time and costs associated with litigation.
The recent launch of a new Commercial Hub at Belfast’s High Court, aimed at improving efficiency and speeding up the dispute resolution process, marks one of the biggest changes to the commercial litigation landscape in recent years.
The Hub represents the outworking of some of the key recommendations in the Review of Civil and Family Justice in Northern Ireland published in 2017, and has been widely welcomed by the legal profession for introducing practices to streamline resolution of commercial disputes in Northern Ireland, whether under public or private law.
The Practice Direction for the Hub, which came into operation on 29 April 2019, clearly sets out how cases will navigate through the Commercial Hub and outlines the Court’s expectations.
In a further bid to deal with commercial disputes efficiently and cost effectively, and to reach the wider business community, the Hub will sit throughout Northern Ireland, where suitable facilities permit. This aims to provide access to justice throughout the region, moving away from the current Belfast-centric approach.
The Hub has introduced a more robust case management system including an Early Directions Hearing, Case Management Conference, and a Pre-Trial Review should it be required, each of which should be progressed without undue delay, meaning closer engagement will be required from the parties.
The Early Directions Hearing should take place within three weeks of the service of the writ of summons or other originating process. The purpose of this review is to allow the Court, and importantly to force the parties, to give critical thought to the timeline and focus of the case by reference to whether experts will be required, setting timetables for discovery, and to incorporate directions for consideration of Alternative Dispute Resolution.
This is followed by a Case Management Conference - an important milestone as it will allow the Court to fix the pre-trial timetable and allow for an early consideration as to whether the case should be "fast-tracked" or prioritised within the Hub. This will be of particular value to commercial clients that have a dispute which is truly urgent and must be resolved quickly.
The function of the Case Management Conference is described in the Practice Direction as being, “to ensure that the proceedings are prepared for trial in a manner which is just, expeditious, and likely to minimise the costs of the proceedings”.
A Pre-Trial Review will only follow if it is deemed necessary to ensure the case is ready to be heard and to fix any logistical arrangements regarding, for example, witnesses or the use of technology.
The Commercial Hub aims to provide the opportunity to utilise modern technological advancements such as eDiscovery. This practice is already widely in use; however, the Commercial Hub will facilitate a collaborative approach to discovery to achieve savings in terms of time and cost.
Parties will be encouraged to agree a discovery plan and give consideration to whether no discovery, or limited discovery is appropriate, or if the use of key search-words or predictive coding to facilitate eDiscovery is suitable, again to cut down on the costs associated with traditional methods and to reduce reliance on printed court bundles.
In an additional effort to reduce time - and therefore money - spent at court, the Hub continues to encourage use of Alternative Dispute Resolution methods, such as mediation. Should any party display an unreasonable refusal to consider such a course of action, the Judge has power to impose costs sanctions.
The promotion of efficient and effective resolution of commercial disputes through the Hub will undoubtedly be of great benefit to businesspeople across all sectors in Northern Ireland as they seek to resolve disagreements.
By streamlining, speeding up, and adding rigour to the litigation process, the Commercial Hub will actively encourage parties to seek resolution within Northern Ireland. At the launch of the Commercial Hub in September 2018, the Commercial Judge, Mr Justice Horner, outlined that the new Hub is an “opportunity for reform and improvement” which will provide the Northern Ireland business community with the best possible service for resolving commercial disputes.
A key message to take from the introduction of the Commercial Hub is that the focus is truly on resolution, and the early resolution of disputes remains the priority. This strengthens the importance of full and frank engagement in the Pre-Action procedure to encourage resolution before embarking into the litigation process.
With significant experience advising organisations on either side of commercial disputes in Northern Ireland and further afield, Arthur Cox is ideally placed to guide clients through the newly improved process.
The Litigation and Dispute Resolution team at Arthur Cox is well positioned to advise on all matters related to commercial disputes. Please call +44 28 9023 0007 for further information from David or your regular Arthur Cox contact.