Plans for new London judicial centre spark surprise among litigators as City looks to modernise courts

Senior London litigators have questioned the thinking behind proposals to build a major new court complex in the City, following this week’s announcement of plans for a new judicial centre in the Square Mile.

The court complex, which is expected to house 18 courtrooms, is being developed by the City of London Corporation in partnership with HM Courts and Tribunal Service and the judiciary.

It is intended to take over and modernise work currently handled by courts such as the Mayor’s and City of London Court and The City of London Magistrates’ Court, and will focus on fraud, economic crime and cybercrime, as well as other criminal and civil cases.

The City of London Corporation is commissioning a feasibility study to analyse the cost implications of the plans and identify potential sources of funding, a process which is expected to be completed early next year.

City of London Corporation policy chairman Catherine McGuinness said the new court would “make sure London continues to set the highest legal standards domestically and internationally”, while this was echoed by justice minister Dominic Raab, who described it as “a terrific advert for post-Brexit Britain”.

However, some City litigators are unconvinced by the merits of the proposals.

Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan London litigation partner Ted Greeno, who spent nearly 30 years at Herbert Smith before joining the US firm, said: “I welcome all investment in our legal system, and I think successive governments have failed to invest enough, but I am a little surprised by this.

“I am surprised that the government is considering a flagship investment in a financial criminal court after claiming that they are strapped for cash and need to put up court fees for commercial cases.

“It does not strike me as a priority, even for the purposes of business in London. We have seen heavily increased court fees in the business and property Courts, which were pushed through by the Ministry of Justice despite the expert advice they were getting about the damage it would cause London as a dispute resolution centre. I am not aware of any research showing that a state-of-the-art financial criminal court will generate revenue for the UK in the way that the business and property courts do.”

I am surprised the government is considering a flagship investment in a financial criminal court after claiming they are strapped for cash

Long-serving Stephenson Harwood partner John Fordham, who leads the firm’s commercial litigation practice, added that while he acknowledged the importance of maintaining London’s status as a global dispute resolution centre, he was unsure how the new complex would fit in alongside the 31-court Rolls Building, which opened to much fanfare in 2011.

Fordham said: “Maintaining London as a centre for dispute resolution is a concern, especially with the growth of other centres across the world, and that is made more necessary in a post-Brexit world if things move away from London.

“However, I do not see how these plans fit with the relatively new Rolls Building, which is a centre of excellence for commercial litigation. If the thought is to compete with places like Dubai and Singapore, I am not sure this will be better than what we have got. The Rolls Building works well and is rightly thought of as setting a high standard for commercial disputes.”

Greeno also highlighted that the Rolls Building was built after sustained pressure from the industry over a 10-year period, adding: “To make a big investment in a financial criminal court, I would have expected there to have been some kind of pressure from the profession, but I haven’t been aware of such pressure.”

However, other partners are more enthusiastic about the prospects of new technology being adopted by London’s historic courts.

Clyde & Co litigation partner Chris Burdett said: “A blank sheet of paper like this is a great opportunity to see what technological advancement will really enhance the court. It has been shown, from instant transcripts at trials through to technology in disclosure, that litigation lawyers are good at adopting new technology.

“I think it will also enhance the existing courts to have focused specialist judges and practitioners who can really get under the skin of complex fraud cases. The City needs to address fraud and needs to be seen to address it head on – the proposed court will send a clear message to fraudsters and anyone in the City that is reckless or worse and becomes complicit.”

Hogan Lovells financial crime specialist Claire Lipworth, who joined the firm as partner this January from the Financial Conduct Authority, added: “Our older court buildings are important from a historical perspective, but many of them do not have the space or the facilities to accommodate large and long-running cases.

“The effective and efficient presentation of electronic evidence is key to the smooth running of complex fraud trials, and if the new court centre can deliver this, then it is to be welcomed.”