The Commercial Hub of the High Court of Northern Ireland

August 6, 2019

Mr Justice Horner became a High Court Judge in 2012. Having served many years in the Commercial Courts as Senior Counsel, he quickly became the Commercial Judge and it is fair to say that there is no better qualified person to review and reform the commercial practice of the courts.

On 29 April 2019, Practice Direction 1 of 2019 came into operation. The Practice Direction extends the practice of the Commercial Court as well as consolidating current practice by superseding and incorporating a number of prior Practice Directions. The Practice Direction applies not only to proceedings issued on or after 29 April 2019 but also to proceedings issued before that date. It seeks to make commercial litigation more efficient, both in terms of cost and time.

The new Commercial Hub (“the Hub”) will hear, not only Commercial cases but also particular Chancery, Ancillary Relief and Judicial Review cases. The most appropriate judge will then be appointed to hear the matter within the Hub. The onus is on practitioners to refer matters to the Commercial Judge for entry to the Hub, however Judges and Masters may also make referrals.

The new Hub intends to sit, not only in its historical venue of Belfast, but also across Northern Ireland when suitable venues are available. It also aims to resolve legal disputes “expeditiously, efficiently and cost effectively”, through preliminary issue hearings, encouraging ADR and Early Neutral Evaluation.

The opening paragraphs provide a stark warning to all practitioners as to the applicable sanctions should the Practice Direction not be fully complied with. It also places an onus on all parties to ensure compliance with court directions requiring applications for extensions of time to be made before the deadline passes, ie ask for permission rather than simply telling the court.

The Hub will see the introduction of a case management system which will replace the current review system. Except for special cases, there will be a maximum of three key stages, an Early Directions Hearing, a Case Management Conference and a Pre-Trial Review. Once a case is listed for hearing, the date will be fixed, unless agreed otherwise in consultation with the Judge.

Early Directions Hearings will take place within 3 weeks of the date of the service of the writ of summons or originating process, unless the court agrees otherwise. This therefore requires solicitors to notify the Court once proceedings have been served. The Early Directions Hearing will allow the judge to give directions for the management of the case. Urgent Early Directions Hearings, which are more likely to occur in procurement and adjudication scenarios, will only be granted following a request by the parties. Emphasis is placed on a collaborative approach to discovery with the aim to minimise the need for full discovery and maximise electronic discovery. Cost sanctions may be employed where parties fail to achieve savings in terms of time and costs.

A date for the Case Management Conference will be set at the Early Directions Hearing and will be used to ensure the matter is ready for trial. Counsel, senior counsel, solicitor and client are to attend which is a change from the current practice. Before the Case Management Conference, the Plaintiff must electronically serve a bundle. Failure to do so may lead to sanctions including the adjournment of the Case Management Conference. Amongst other things, the Court will consider ADR, discovery, expert evidence, preliminary issue hearings, cost estimates, fix a date for the Pre-Trial Review and fix the trial date. Unless request by the parties and granted by the Court, no further Reviews will take place until the Pre-Trial Review.

The Pre-Trial Review will be to ensure that the matter is ready for trial. In advance of the Review, the Plaintiff must serve a number of confirmations. In some cases, the Court may dispense of the need for a Pre-Trial Review, however, where one occurs it will deal with any outstanding matters for trial. Core bundles must be available 4 weeks before trial and trial bundles 2 weeks before trial. The court will endeavour to hand down all judgements within 6 weeks.

Whilst the Hub is still in the very early stages and it will take practitioners a bit of time to get to grips with the new practices of the Commercial Court, it looks set to make commercial litigation more streamline both in terms of costs and time.

This article has been produced for general information purposes and further advice should be sought from a professional advisor.

Article by Lisa Boyd, Director, Head of Procurement Law, Cleaver Fulton Rankin Solicitors.