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It's all change as barristers celebrate marriage a la mode

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legal matters

We barristers are, in the main, a conservative lot, and find change more of a challenge than most. At the dawn of this decade the construction bar had to adapt to one the most dramatic developments for some time. In 1991 a special seven-man court sat in the House of Lords and decided that local authorities, and, perhaps more importantly, builders, did not owe any duties to the end user, to ensure that the building was built free of defects, unless they had a contract with them. The tide of tort, which had been loosed 15 years earlier by the House of Lords in Anns v Merton and had reached its high-water mark in 1983 with Junior Books v Veitch, had been on its way out throughout the late 1980s. Murphy v Brentwood made sure it stayed that way. With the withdrawal of these 'tortious' floodwaters, went the previously fertile ground for establishing liability, and with it, work for the lawyers (together, thankfully, with some well-worn similes). Little did the bar know at the time, but it hadn't seen anything yet.

The following 10 years brought with them more changes for the construction bar than it had experienced over the preceding 100. The Housing Grants Act introduced adjudication. The Arbitration Act re-invented arbitration as an adaptable, and therefore, attractive process of dispute resolution. The Official Referee's Courts were relaunched as the Technology and Construction Courts and Lord Woolf caused us all to throw our White Books in the bin and grapple with his new civil procedure rules.

Changes affecting other areas of legal practice slowly filtered through to construction litigation. There were conditional fees (not so much 'no win, no fee' as 'a bigger fee if you win'), the increase in legal- expenses insurance and with it the increased bargaining power of insurance companies, mirroring the gradual demise of legal aid. Responding to these dramatic changes to their hitherto undisturbed world, barristers sought the advice of consultants from the world of business, marketing and public relations. They were anxious to ensure that the benefits of specialist advice from an independent bar would continue to be available to clients as a cost-effective, efficient service. They were introduced to all sorts of strange notions - market share, market edge, business strategies, forecasts, etc.

One theme remained constant in the advice the bar received. It can only service the needs of modern commercial clients if it maintains 'strength in depth'. At the time, most of us did not know that this meant that our cosy sets of chambers, made up of small numbers of barristers with wildly different specialisms and of varied ability, were about to undergo a revolution.

Go-getting chambers identified their markets and recruited specialist practitioners to meet the demands of their clients. Other sets looked around and wondered where the high earners, who had contributed so generously to chambers' expenses, had gone. Spectacularly, one well-known set simply collapsed, leaving teams of barristers hurrying to find tenancies elsewhere in an unseemly rush to avoid being the last one left to pick up the bill. Movement of barristers around the Temple, relatively rare 10 years ago, became so prevalent that chambers stopped producing brochures or any literature with lists of members names, so soon was it out of date.

It was only a matter of time, therefore, before two such sets would decide to join forces in order to achieve strength in depth, lock stock and barrel, as it were. So, these are exciting times here at One Paper Buildings now that the merger with 2 Crown Office Row has been announced. Two heads of chambers, two buildings, one centre of operations and 73 barristers - all beavering away at their insurance-based, commercial and construction practices. It will be the largest civil set of chambers in the Temple, a veritable 'superset'. Administratively, there is masses to be done to ensure that the new merged set is operational by Easter 2000. And no, we will not be calling ourselves 'One Paper Crown'.

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