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The winds of change: Commercial litigation developments in Northern Ireland

There are few things that are certain in life, however one thing that is inevitable, is change. Change can bring uncertainty and sometimes difficulty, but it also brings innovation, creativity, and incentive for improvement. Significant and wide-reaching changes will be introduced to commercial litigation this spring, which should improve dispute resolution in Northern Ireland, writes Matthew Howse, Partner, Dispute Resolution and Litigation, Eversheds Sutherland.

While the years since the “credit crunch” have seen plenty of high profile and cutting-edge commercial litigation cases in Northern Ireland, Lord Justice Gillen’s Report on Civil Justice published in September 2017, highlighted recommendations for important changes.

One of those recommendations, the new Commercial Court Hub, will come into effect in April 2019. The Practice Direction, the tool that sets out the detailed working of the Hub, will commence operation on 29 April 2019.

Once operational, the Hub will work across areas such as commercial, chancery and judicial review.  While familiar to those of us with experience in England and Wales, or Dublin, the proposed changes are profound for commercial litigation practice in Northern Ireland and could have ramifications for firms here, who should make themselves aware of what it might mean for their business.

The Hub looks to improve commercial litigation by introducing more efficient case management, more efficient preparation of court bundles and discovery and by increasing access to commercial litigation by sitting in venues across Northern Ireland.

Efficient case management

Under the current review system, it is not uncommon for multiple reviews to take place, leading to extra cost and time spent. One of the key changes proposed is the introduction of more formal case management hearings and a three-stage approach, which will be used to make case management much more efficient, thus driving down costs.

Efficient preparation of discovery and court bundles

There is, of course, an overriding objective to deal with cases both justly and expeditiously. To achieve this, a new approach will be introduced to discovery and the collation of court bundles which will cut costs and time wasted.

A commercial hub for all of Northern Ireland

The gravitational pull of Belfast has often meant that commercial litigation has been less accessible for people living and working outside the Great Belfast Area, however the Practice Direction envisages the Hub sitting in suitable venues across Northern Ireland.

Once the Commercial Court Hub is up and running it should streamline commercial actions, and drive down costs in commercial proceedings, something that will undoubtedly be welcomed by businesses across Northern Ireland.

It is in the nature of business that disputes will arise, and at Eversheds Sutherland we work on the principle that dispute resolution should always be pragmatic and relationship-orientated. We work closely with clients to present creative and modern solutions to dispute resolution but there are always going to be times when litigation is necessary, and when it must happen, it is right that it should be as efficient as possible.

Lengthy and costly dispute resolution has a negative impact not only on the businesses directly involved but also on the wider economy. It has the effect of driving down business confidence and making a jurisdiction less attractive to investment. Engaging in commercial litigation is never something that should be entered into lightly but these changes, to make it less complicated, less time-consuming and less costly will modernise the process and should be welcomed by businesses across Northern Ireland.