It’s been an exciting time to chair the Commercial Bar Association (COMBAR), a specialist bar association (SBA) representing the cream of English and Welsh barristers advising the international business community. With 1,600 individual barristers and 38 leading chambers, COMBAR is a hallmark of excellence, with members advising and appearing as advocates and arbitrators in high-value, complex commercial disputes in the UK and abroad, acting as expert witnesses on English law, and advising governments and trans-national corporations on legal reform as well as a wide range of commercial transactions.
When I began as a member of COMBAR’s executive committee back in 2012, little did I realise just how varied and interesting the work would be. The last two years as chair have been demanding but stimulating. The more usual range of duties has included representing COMBAR members on the Bar Council’s general management committee, which has involved seeking to address a wide range of issues facing not only commercial barristers but the Bar as a whole (access to justice, funding of legal services, equality and diversity (E&D) issues etc.), chairing meetings of COMBAR’s governing executive committee, liaising with our various sub-committees, in particular on E&D issues, and representing COMBAR at a wide range of legal events. As part of its normal year-to-year activity for which the chair, executive, and E&D Committee are responsible, COMBAR has an extensive and varied continuing education programme. It also provides substantial support (financially and through administrative and barrister time) for a number of initiatives, including financial awards together with practical work experience in COMBAR sets to promote access to the commercial Bar by young people from disadvantaged backgrounds; supporting the work of Advocate (formerly the Bar Pro Bono Unit) both by direct financial contribution and indirectly through the many cases which COMBAR members undertake on a pro bono basis; supporting the CLIPS pro bono scheme operating in the Chancery Division of the Business and Property Courts and helping to set up a new pro bono scheme soon due to operate in the London Circuit Commercial Court; providing financial support to schemes set up to enable young commercial lawyers from Africa to come to London to gain experience of work at the commercial bar. There are many other important areas of COMBAR activity both domestically and internationally that are too numerous to mention.
Challenges and opportunities
In an increasingly connected and fast-paced global business world, London continues to maintain its unrivalled position as a centre for international commercial dispute resolution. The numbers tell their own story. More arbitrations take place in London than in any other City in the world; the total number of commercial and civil disputes resolved through arbitration, mediation, and adjudication in the UK in 2017 was nearly 33,000 (compared with nearly 26,000 in 2016 and 23,000 in 2015); companies are significantly more likely to choose English law over any other governing laws for arbitration.
The Commercial Court remains predominantly an international court, with 70% of its business in 2017/18 comprising international cases. Although Brexit may present challenges, a recent survey indicated not only that London remains the most preferred arbitral seat, significantly ahead of Paris, Hong Kong, Singapore, Geneva, New York, and Stockholm, but also that most respondents considered that its pre-eminence in international arbitration would continue irrespective of the result of the Brexit negotiations.
COMBAR members, and David Joseph QC in particular, should be commended for playing a leading role in representing the Bar on key committees providing guidance and technical advice to the government on Brexit-related legal issues. As an SBA we are proud of the amount of high-quality pro bono work our members have contributed to this important task and for continuing the outstanding and influential ‘Brexit papers’.
We must maintain the high standards of advocacy, advice, and overall client service that have been the hallmarks of the commercial Bar throughout the 30 years’ of COMBAR’s existence, while being flexible and innovative to meet our domestic and international clients’ changing needs. Through this continuing quality of service we should strive to play our part in helping maintain London’s premier position as a dispute resolution centre and English law as the law of choice for the resolution of commercial disputes around the world.
We must also continue and build upon the work to promote E&D. There are still too few entrants to the profession from BAME or disadvantaged backgrounds and there is a continuing challenge over retaining talented female barristers for the duration of their career. I have initiated a process under which I hope significantly more funding will be made available by COMBAR over the coming years to assist in undertaking this important work.
As chair I have been instrumental in helping the Commercial Court to launch two extremely successful Judicial Assistant Pilot Schemes. Under these pilots, the Commercial Court judges have been provided with judicial assistants (JAs) recruited from the ranks of the junior commercial Bar. Not only do JAs help lighten the administrative burden facing our incredibly busy judges, but they also gain enormously from the experience.
During the two years for which the schemes have been running, securing funding has been a major challenge, overcome initially by individual sets providing funds in support and then by the COMBAR membership as a whole. COMBAR’s commitment to the idea that judges need JAs, and that it is important to ensure they get them sooner rather than later, has borne fruit. As a direct result of these two pilots, the Ministry of Justice has agreed to fund a JA scheme to support judges in the Business and Property Courts and in the Family Division from October. COMBAR can rightly be proud of its contribution to this important development.
Advice to my successors?
My two-year stint as chair has been varied and challenging, requiring the support of a talented and committed executive and our amazingly hardworking and knowledgeable administrators, Veronica Kendall and Alison Tighe. I would advise my successors to try to approach as much of the work as possible as a team effort, while never forgetting the responsibility vested in them.
Maintaining and growing our already significant membership is important, as is ensuring that we offer them what they are looking for in terms of continuing education and other aspects of professional support and representation at the wider Bar level. We need to do more to encourage more women to sign up as members – and, with a current membership split of 70 men to 30 women, there is clearly more to do.
Our new chair is Sonia Tolaney QC of One Essex Court, who formally took over on 6 June 2019. I’m confident that Sonia will relish the challenge of this busy role and will take COMBAR forwards from strength to strength. n