The modern Technology and Construction Court stands at the centre of construction dispute resolution for five reasons:
Currently, there is no delay in obtaining a trial date. Indeed, litigation is as fast as arbitration and, for the parties, significantly less expensive too. This service is supplemented by wide-ranging use of the new civil procedure rules and the case-management techniques they provide for.
Clearly, the construction court plays a central role in the administration and development of construction law and dispute resolution. Moreover, the consumer – namely any participant, whether party, arbitrator, adjudicator or mediator – is entitled to, and should press for, a modern, streamlined court offering a full range of high speed services at relatively low cost.
The consumer is entitled to, and should press for, a modern streamlined court offering relatively cheap services
At present, however, the court building and the support services it provides leave much to be desired. The same is true for the commercial, admiralty and patents courts, which provide a world-renowned service for domestic and international disputes.
The Lord Chancellor recognised the potential for development of these courts and their poor support facilities when he appointed consultants 18 months ago, to advise whether there was a compelling business case for the establishment of a new unified commercial court, comprising all four current specialists courts. The consultants' report was sent to the Lord Chancellor in February, and it unhesitatingly recommended that the case for such a court was overwhelming.
There were two particular findings of the consultants that will come as no surprise to the construction industry, and that led to this overall recommendation. To start with, the industry needs a reduction in the total cost of litigation and an improvement in the user-friendliness and accessibility of the system as a whole. Also, the market considers the high quality of the judiciary and the consistency of decision-making to be a great strength, but believes the present system suffers from the poor facilities at St Dunstan's House in London, where the construction court is presently housed.
In March, the Lord Chancellor, who is a great supporter of the construction court, announced that he would advance plans to house these four courts in a building close to or within the Royal Courts of Justice, and equip them with modern IT and video-conferencing systems.
The first stage of this plan will be the imminent publication of a consultation paper, which is seeking responses by mid-February next year.
The paper will ask for opinions on the proposed location, namely the refurbished wing of the Royal Courts of Justice (currently housing the Family Division, which would be relocated). Another proposal on which views are sought is the way the current specialist courts could share accommodation and resources, and work together. The most obvious way of achieving such harmony is for the separate courts, most obviously the Technology and Construction Court and the Commercial Court, to retain separate lists of cases and judges but to share the suite of courts, facilities and support staff.
It is important that the views of all in the industry are made known to the Lord Chancellor. I would urge all concerned to obtain a copy of the consultation paper from the Lord Chancellor's department and respond to it promptly.
The Lord Chancellor is also seeking to promote London as a centre for international commercial dispute resolution. He has set up an advisory committee, chaired by a construction court judge, Judge Toulmin. The committee will advise him on how best to promote London's unique legal services, including those offered to international construction disputes. Any views on how the use of such services – including litigation, arbitration, adjudication and mediation – can be encouraged should be communicated by writing to Judge Toulmin at the Technology and Construction Court at St Dunstan's House, Fetter Lane, London EC4A 1HD.
Judge Anthony Thornton is a judge of the Technology and Construction Court.