Capital Legal Punishment Makes City Second Class; AGENDA Alistair Wyvill, Barrister with Birmingham's St Philips Chambers, Says the Government Must Take Seriously the City's Campaign for Its Own High Court
Byline: Alistair Wyvill
Just like any profession, gossip, comment and opinion is the life blood of the law sector.
And what is dominating the conversation in the coffee houses around Birmingham's Bull Street Courts at the moment? Well it's the recent announcement that Birmingham's senior commercial judge, Alistair Norris QC, has been promoted to the High Court in London.
Of course, there is widespread personal congratulation for a well regarded and liked member of Birmingham's judiciary on his promotion, but underpinning the announcement disappointment and exasperation that, once again, Birmingham's justice system is weakened by decisions made in and for London.
The announcement that Judge Norris is heading for the Chancery Division of the High Court in London, complete with the requisite knighthood and chauffeur, comes in close succession to the news that Birmingham has also lost its most senior resident criminal judge, the Recorder of Birmingham, John Saunders QC.
He, too, has gone to the High Court in London although he will occasionally be revisiting his old stomping ground in Birmingham as a visiting judge. But it is another sad loss to the Birmingham legal system.
In recent times, Birmingham lost another of its senior commercial mercantile court judges, Sir Richard Gibbs, again to the capital. Sir Richard had spent all his professional life in Birmingham, becoming a QC and then a local specialist commercial judge.
Just when he and his colleagues had built the reputation of the local court to such a level that it was beginning to attract big High Court work, he was promoted to London. The consequence, some of the momentum was lost.
Can you blame them for taking up promotions to the High Court in London? Of course not.
This is not a problem of individual career development or ambition, this is about the injustice and inadequacies of the current system. The only relic that has survived from the ancient assizes and one that is stacked well and truly against regional centres in favour of London.
But what a relic it is. Currently, High Court judges 'travel' as visitors to the regions over six half terms every year in a way not dissimilar to the days when they travelled the 'circuits' in a carriage. Transportation may have changed with the time - sadly the process takes considerably more time to catch up.
Although its abolition was recommended almost 40 years ago, they still enjoy a long summer holiday from the regions - no full High Court judges are listed to sit in the Midlands for all of August and September.
The turnover is impressive. During these terms, 36 different High Court judges sat in the Midlands in 2005, for example, and for an average of no more than seven weeks each.
The obvious inefficiencies of this system and the demands of London (even though London's share of the national work is reducing) have drained resources further.
Since 1998 and in spite of the increase in the volume and size of local work, the total time spent by full High Court judges in the Midlands has reduced by ten per cent, and is now effectively all taken up with serious crime.
The gulf between London and Birmingham is now massive - a litigant who starts a commercial case in London has a better than 50 per cent chance of coming before a full High Court judge. In Birmingham, that same litigant has a 2 per cent chance of having his or her case heard by a full High Court judge.
But local litigants with commercial cases fare far better than the single mum from Digbeth who wishes to challenge a decision of her local authority in relation to public housing or her child's health or education.
There are no local judges currently in place whatsoever who deal with such cases, the Administrative Court being based exclusively in London, at least at the moment.
Not only will she suffer the usual difficulties that a private individual reliant on public services suffers when attempting to challenge unjust administrative decisions, she will suffer the further ignominy of having to run her case 100 miles from her home and family. …