The Court of Session has had special provisions for dealing with commercial actions for many years. In broad terms their purpose is to enable specialist judges to handle commercial cases quickly and flexibly.
The definition of "commercial action" is broad and so a wide range of cases may be dealt with under those arrangements. Broadly speaking, they include any transaction or dispute of a commercial or business nature. Examples are banking and insurance transactions, contracts for the sale or supply of goods or services (national or international) and commercial leases. The court also deals with disputes about building contracts, partnership agreements and business property. Company petitions, raised under the Acts found in Division I of Volume 4 of the Parliament House Book, are also dealt with by the commercial judges.
Commercial Clerks of Court
Nicola Marchant (Clerk to Lady Wolffe)
0131 240 6790;
Fax 0131 240 6711
Ms Lorraine McNamara (Clerk to Lord Tyre)
Tel 0131 240 6790;
Fax 0131 240 6711
Isla Forbes (Clerk to Lord Doherty)
0131 240 6790
Fax 0131 240 6711
The preliminary stages
Shortly after a commercial action begins it is allocated to one of the three judges. In general, that judge will be responsible for overseeing the progress of the case and for deciding it at first instance. If a change has to be made, the case will be transferred to another commercial judge. Very soon after its allocation to the particular judge, the action will be brought before him for a preliminary hearing. The purpose of that hearing is to take stock of the dispute and to choose what appears to be the best means of resolving it. Sometimes, as a result of pre-litigation discussion or otherwise, the features of the dispute are already well defined and, with only a little preliminary treatment, the case can be sent for adjudication. Where the dispute is on a point of law, such as the interpretation of a contract, the court may be able to decide it without hearing evidence. When there is a dispute on the facts, the court may quickly order a hearing of evidence. More commonly, it will be necessary to hold a number of preliminary or similar hearings before the issues are sufficiently focused to allow the case to be sent for debate or the hearing of evidence.
At all those preliminary stages the judge will take an active part in the discussions. His intervention may help parties to narrow the gap between them and lead to an early settlement. In other cases some important issue or issues may be singled out from the rest and dealt with separately in the hope that, by resolving that point, the court will help to resolve the whole dispute. The court may ask a technical expert to decide, or express a view on, some technical aspect of a case. For example, the court might send a question of valuation in a building contract dispute to a quantity surveyor for that purpose. Conversely, parties in an arbitration conducted by a non-legal arbiter may ask a commercial judge to decide a legal point which has arisen.
The preliminary stages are essentially informal and have the character more of a chaired discussion than of a formal court hearing. Consistent with that, neither the judge nor the parties' representatives wear formal court dress at those hearings. This informality has since been extended to all hearings with the exception of those where parole evidence is to be led.
Pleading the case
While written pleadings (summons and defences) remain the primary method by which parties set out their cases, the commercial judges encourage the use of alternative techniques. The keynote is flexibility. Where a case, or part of it, has been formulated in a pre-litigation document (such as a claim document in a building dispute) the judge may be content to use it, with only a minimal amount of written pleadings. Likewise, expert reports are commonly referred to without any requirement to translate them into "lawyers' language". Computer-generated spreadsheets have been used successfully to set out complicated matters of detail, as in disputes between landlords and tenants over the state of repair of a building.
The decision stages
The commercial judges insist on frank and early disclosure of relevant (but only relevant) documents. This helps to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the respective positions and facilitates settlements. Where the case proceeds to a full hearing, that hearing is more formal. Detailed legal arguments will be presented or evidence heard from witnesses. The emphasis, however, remains on efficient and expeditious disposal. Parties are encouraged to agree matters which are non-contentious and to deal with contentious matters without undue elaboration.
The use of information technology is an important feature of the arrangements for commercial actions. The judges' court diaries are available on a computer in the court room. Accordingly, when it is necessary to fix a further hearing, the date and time of the hearing can be fixed there and then. The computer is also used in framing court orders and in other ways to improve the speed and quality of information available. Most documents required during the course of an action can be e-mailed to the Commercial Clerk using the e-mail address email@example.com. Interlocutors, once signed, are e-mailed to the solicitors for the parties.
The Consultative Committee on Commercial Actions
The court encourages a free flow of information and views between the court and the business community about the practical operation of the commercial court. A users' committee allows discussion of the issues. Its members include the commercial judges, representatives of the legal profession and representatives from commerce and industry. Communications should be addressed to;
Kate Neal Commercial Action Registration Form
Secretary to Consultative Committee on Commercial Actions,
Court of Session,