In his first speech since taking office, the lord chief justice has urged parties in litigation to look outside the capital for legal expertise, saying there is a ‘vast amount’ of litigation that ‘can and should’ properly be litigated outside London.

Calling for greater provision of justice outside London, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd promised the courts will do ‘all they can’ to encourage it. ‘London has no monopoly on skill or experience,’ he said.

Delivering the Birkenhead lecture at Grays Inn, he said shifting the emphasis away from the capital will provide greater access to justice, cutting the costs of litigation and helping regional economies.

Thomas said work had been done to administer justice more locally, with regional administrative courts. The Divisional Court also aims to sit out of London on cases that arise outside the capital, and the Court of Appeal is also trying to do so. But he said the lack of modern IT ‘significantly impairs’ the proper deployment of judges as the courts cannot effectively identify those cases that could be heard outside London.

Stressing the benefits of litigating outside London, he said lower overheads mean work can be priced more competitively if a firm is based in Cardiff, Manchester, Leeds or Birmingham for example. ‘In the age of the internet, of teleconferences, Skype and FaceTime there is no reason why a litigant should not or could not properly instruct a lawyer from outside London to work for them at a cost significantly less than in London but with equal quality experience in most fields,’ he said.

He added: ‘Why go to the highest charging lawyer when you can go to one who is just as good but given the fact they are based in, say, Leeds, they can charge less?’

Increased competition from a ‘truly national market’ would bring down London prices to, he suggested, producing ’a benefit to society as a whole as it will increase the affordability of justice’.

Thomas predicted that many city firms would in future relocate outside London and retain only a small branch office there with conference facilities, suggesting it ‘may become the norm over the next decade or so’.

‘Justice outside London cannot but gain from this. And the spur to greater competition outside London would again serve to lower costs and render justice more affordable,’ he said.

The trend to using London lawyers and courts to do work that could be carried out by lawyers based elsewhere in the country is a ‘serious impediment’ to reducing the costs of domestic litigation. He insisted: ‘There are in fact only a few types of case that truly require the party to employ a firm that is based in London for out of London work and which charges rates that are greater than rates which are charged elsewhere by firms that can do the work equally well and, given modern communications, as conveniently.’ 

If a party does instruct a London firm for out-of-London work, he warned, ‘it should do so in the knowledge that in the event of success, it will be necessary to explain to the court at the costs budgeting stage or on any assessment why it was reasonable to use a London firm for such a dispute’.

He noted a case he had sat on in Cardiff last year involving the Coal Authority and Welsh local government bodies. They both instructed the same national firm, but the Coal Authority had instructed the Sheffield office and sought to recover costs at the rate of £198.12 for a partner, while the local government authorities had instructed the London office and sought to recover costs of £510 an hour for a partner.

Thomas said: ‘We have seen their work and the work is of exactly the same standard; indeed the Sheffield one can be said to be a little better.’ 

 The full speech is available here.