'More judges needed in Commercial Court' plea

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LEADING City figures are calling for more judges to be appointed to the Commercial Court, which handles shipping, insurance and banking cases. They fear that a backlog of cases will damage the business of the Square Mile.

They are lobbying Lord Mackay, the Lord Chancellor, who is responsible for the court system, to increase the number of judges in the Commercial Court, which was set up in 1985 to overcome delays in the High Court.

Sir Francis McWilliams, the Lord Mayor who is increasingly taking on the role of City spokesman, is due to see Lord Mackay this week to express concern about delays and uncertainties.

Peter Tudball, chairman of the Baltic Exchange, which is involved in shipping, has lobbied ministers. Users of the court include Lloyd's members, the Stock Exchange and the commodity markets.

Mr Justice Savill, who is in charge of the Commercial Court list, drew attention to the court's plight when he said: 'The Commercial Court is no longer merely in a state of crisis.

'It is about to reach the point when it would be dishonest to continue to pretend that it is capable of providing the service for which it was instituted.'

The Baltic is concerned that there is a risk of the international shipping industry, which uses British law, moving offshore. London could become less attractive if legal remedies are not available in a hurry.

Sir Francis, formerly an arbitrator, believes that London's status as an international financial centre is in large part based on the international recognition of English law and the Commercial Court brings huge financial benefits to London.

Cases in the Commercial Court are given fixed dates in advance to allow overseas litigants - 75 per cent of all cases involve foreigners - to attend. But they are often put back.

A case postponed last week had been fixed since June 1992. Delays have occurred because the court has scheduled cases on the assumption there would be six judges, but there are only five.

Twenty cases due to be heard in the autumn have been rescheduled, some not until May.

Many of the judges also sit in other courts, which are also under pressure. Last month Lord Mackay received the report of a working party on the way judges are employed and he is due to announce his conclusions shortly.