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From left to right: Sam Townend KC, Mrs Justice O’Farrell, Nick Vineall KC

2023 is the 150th anniversary of the Technology and Construction Court (TCC), and the celebrations include an exhibition and events throughout the year. Sam Townend KC, Vice Chair of the Bar, writes about this special occasion.

One of the strengths of our sometimes beleaguered system is its many specialist courts, judiciary and practitioners, which permit for the development of law and procedure to a highly refined degree, followed or emulated in many jurisdictions abroad. This can be seen in:

  • The Family Division with the Court of Protection
  • Crime with particular Crown Courts and Judges holding specialisms and specialist tickets
  • The multitude of specialist jurisdictions in Civil
  • And throughout England and Wales, the District Registries with specialist courts and judges

TCC 150: the 150th birthday exhibition launch

One of those specialist courts, the Technology and Construction Court, this year celebrates its 150th birthday (dubbed “TCC 150”) and I was delighted to attend in mid-March, along with some 140 other practitioners, the launch of an exhibition of the history of that Court, found on the second floor of the Rolls Building. This exhibition will be open to the public during sitting hours until November 2023.

The ‘Official Referees’, named after the judges who staffed it, as the court was called until 1998, was brought into being by Section 83 of the Supreme Court of Judicature Act 1873 on 2 November 1974.

A question arising in a civil cause or matter could be referred “for inquiry and report to any official or special referee” (section 56), and any “question of or issue of fact or any question of account” in a civil matter could be referred to an official referee for trial if agreed or without consent "in any such cause or matter requiring any prolonged examination of documents or account, or any scientific or local investigation which cannot in the opinion of the court or a judge conveniently be made before a jury or conducted by the court through its ordinary officers” (section 57).

The Court had struggled to secure status and respect - but is achieving parity

The history of the TCC, however, is interestingly one of a considerable struggle to secure comparable status and respect to that held by of the Chancery Division, also brought into being by the Judicature Acts of 1873 and 1875, and the TCC’s younger sibling, the Commercial Court, brought into being by High Court Judges of the Queen’s Bench Division in 1895 with the establishment of a special Commercial List.

It was only in 1938 that claims could be commenced in the Official Referees’ Court and the ORs, as they were called in shorthand, were accorded the title “His/Your Honour”. Cases, however, continued to be listed at the foot of the Daily Cause list, below all of the other cases. 

Dyson J, who later became the Master of the Rolls, was appointed in 1998 as the first High Court Judge in Charge charged with raising the bar, and the Court was relaunched as the Technology and Construction Court in October 1998. At that time it was resolved that what had been Official Referees should be treated as equivalent in standing to High Court Judges, and they were to be referred to as “My Lord/Lady” and “Your Lordship/Ladyship”.

The first female Judge of the TCC, Her Honour Judge Kirkham CBE, was appointed only in 2000 to sit full-time in the Birmingham District Registry (but the Court was the first to reach parity in numbers of women and men -  including now Mrs Justice O’Farrell, Mrs Justice Jefford, Mrs Justice Cockerill and Mrs Justice Joanna Smith).

The condescension of the Lord Chancellor’s Department in listing Official Referees cases below all other cases was at last remedied, and TCC cases from then on were listed immediately following the Commercial Court and Chancery Division cases in the Daily Cause list.

The TCC's success is being emulated around the world

From 2004 it was resolved that larger cases in the London TCC would be heard exclusively by High Court Judges. Since 2012, following the retirement of the final senior Circuit Judge, all cases in the London TCC have been heard by High Court Judges.

Having heard many of the leading cases at first instance in the modern ‘revolution’ in tort and developments in contract law, including Murphy v Brentwood, Linden Gardens v Lenesta Sludge, the Court also pioneered developments in procedure such as witness statements standing in chief, expert joint statements, and a raft of measures supportive of ADR including for the expedited enforcement of adjudication decisions.

Its more recent success has resulted in a spate of construction lists being established in courts ranging from Dubai (in the DIFC), Singapore (in the SICC), Hong Kong, Australia and Germany (in construction chambers).

Inside the TCC 150 exhibition

The exhibition includes a detailed, warts-and-all timeline of the 150 years, and a collection of interesting exhibits - including my particular favourite, a gold-embossed degree certificate of Lula the dog (belonging to leading counsel Mark Howard KC). Lula obtained her degree from the same online ‘educational’ establishment as the one an expert, once cross-examined by Howard, had claimed to have attended in order to obtain his technical qualifications! 

Congratulations are due to Mr Justice Waksman and the organising committee for putting the exhibition together. My thanks to Rachael Ansell KC, immediate past-Chair of TECBAR, from whose notes used in the exhibition I have borrowed extensively for this blog.

There is so much to challenge the proper operation of justice system, deprived as it is of adequate resourcing, so it is important to celebrate the good that we have. Happy Anniversary TCC!

More events and launches to celebrate the 150 years are planned over the course of 2023

A collection of essays on the History of the Technology and Construction Court on its 150th Anniversary, edited by Sir Peter Coulson and David Sawtell, is being published in April 2023 and can be ordered from Bloomsbury Publishing.

In London on Thursday 27 April, the Society of Construction Law is hosting a seminar on ‘The evolution of technology litigation’.

On circuit there are events in Bristol on Thursday 18 May, in Birmingham on Thursday 6 July, and in Manchester on Thursday 5 October.

On Thursday 2 November, a one-day conference on ‘The future of construction law and dispute resolution’ will be followed by a gala dinner.

Find out more about the celebrations and book your place.