Two stories caught my eye this week. The first was the very welcome news that Peter Fraser QC has been appointed as a High Court Judge. The second was the start of a new Financial Court, staffed by specialist Judges from the Chancery Division and the Commercial Court.
What might those two apparently separate issues have to do with each other? More than might at first sight appear.
The Judiciary has decided to set up a Court specialising in complex financial disputes staffed by specialist experienced Judges. It will serve the equity, derivatives, foreign exchange and commodity markets for claims of over £50 million and for test cases. Clearly this is a pitch for important cases with international ramifications to be dealt with in London. The Court will apparently use a docket system meaning that the benefits of assigned Judges, first pioneered by the ORs and then the Judges of the TCC, will be available. This is obviously sensible. It will cement and enhance London’s position. Why? Because if you are providing the best specialist and experienced Judges with international reputations , making the best decisions, having followed the best procedure, then you will be a world beater. Quite right too.
How does that link in with the appointment of Mr. Justice Fraser? Mr. Justice Fraser is the fifth Judge to be appointed to the Technology and Construction Court. He follows Ramsey J, Akenhead J, Coulson J, and Edwards-Stuart J (‘the Ramsey 4’). Peter was an accomplished practitioner with a heavy and exclusive domestic and international construction practice. Conspicuously able and fair to his bones. He was also, interestingly, appointed a Criminal Recorder as early as 2002. He comes at a time when Sir Vivian Ramsey has been retired for the best part of a year and Akenhead J has sat on his last case before imminent retirement. Edwards-Stuart J reaches statutory retirement in the autumn of next year. So, as things stand, the Court will be staffed by Coulson J and Fraser J, come the autumn of 2016. Of course, there are other Judges ticketed to sit in the TCC. They include Stuart Smith J and Carr J who sit in the TCC with distinction. They had wide ranging commercial practices which included construction and engineering, but they would never have held themselves out as full time brickies.
Does this matter? I venture to suggest that it does. Veterans will remember the protracted and painful process which led to the TCC being staffed by High Court Judges. That is not to denigrate the many ORs or Senior Circuit Judges who sat in the Court or to dwell on the view of the old Senior Judiciary (happily long ago ………) which thought that building disputes were cases about arguments with your plumber.
The Court needs a cadre of Judges who are world recognised construction and engineering specialists. If the Court is to thrive both at home and abroad, it needs the weight that it had when the Ramsey 4 were in place. A world class Court needs a strong body of world class judges recognised internationally for their experience in this area. One can argue about whether it should be three judges of that weight and experience (almost certainly too few), four (perhaps sufficient but a little light) or five (enough).
There is, obviously, a real shortage, at the moment, of such judges. One can argue about whether it is the restriction of Recorderships to those who specialise in crime (which, whether or not it is intended, is what is in fact happening), or the pensions (impenetrable but a very important drag on recruitment ) or the fact that a generation of construction practitioners was simply not being interested in becoming High Court Judges. It matters not. It may be that in due time the current competition for recruitment of Deputy High Court Judges will help (and indeed may have the side wind consequence that when they are appointed, having done no crime, they will be chained to their desks in the Rolls Building), although the first news from that competition does not generate confidence. The short point is that the TCC needs a high quality cadre of specialist Judges who did that work full time in practice and who have international reputations.
Just like the new Financial Court.