Jarndyce case-managed

August 31, 2002

London. Trinity term well underway and a nominee of the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln‘s Inn Hall. Wonderful June weather. Sunshine everywhere. Sunshine up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; sunshine down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and, generally, dirty) city. Sunshine on the Essex marshes, sunshine on the Kentish heights. The sunshine is brightest near the former site of that leaden-headed old obstruction, appropriate ornament for the threshold of a leaden-headed old corporation, Temple Bar. And hard by that site, at the appropriate trial centre, sits the designated civil judge.

On such an afternoon, if ever, the Lord High Chancellor ought to be sitting here – as is not the case – with a foggy glory round his head, softly fenced in with crimson cloth and curtains, addressed by a large advocate with great whiskers, a little voice, and an interminable brief, and outwardly directing his contemplation to the lantern in the roof, where he can see nothing but fog. On such an afternoon some score of members of the High Court of Chancery bar ought to be – as here they are not – mistily engaged in one of the ten thousand stages of an endless cause, tripping one another up on slippery precedents, groping knee-deep in technicalities, running their goat-hair and horsehair warded heads against walls of words and making a pretence of equity with serious faces, as players might. On such an afternoon the various solicitors in the cause, some two or three of whom have inherited it from their fathers, who made a fortune by it, ought to be – as are they not – ranged in a line, in a long matted well (but you might look in vain for truth at the bottom of it) between the registrar’s red table and the silk gowns, with bills, cross-bills, answers, rejoinders, injunctions, affidavits, issues, references to masters, masters’ reports, mountains of costly nonsense, piled before them. But they are not!

We are in the era of case management and the litigation process is a delight. The case is planned and streamlined and so are the costs. The man from Shropshire is in his fields. And there is the small inheritance dispute amongst the heirs to the Jarndyce properties following the intestacy of old Mr Jarndyce. The various representative of the interested parties have identified the salient issues and exchanged structured databases in compliance with the spirit of pre-action protocol behaviour. The databases are populated by electronically cataloguing the various electronic files directly into the litigation database. The disclosed documents are renumbered in their native file formats.

The pervasive sunshine is reflected in the co-operation each affords the other: the commencement of the cause is a scene of notable rejoicing as the ground is laid for informed track allocation and costs estimation (by all the estimable gentleman and ladies involved). Alternative methods of dispute resolution will eventually hold the day.

So, wait! Do we have a story? Is the lifting of the fog of litigation and the planned resolution of a notable Chancery cause also to resolve the tormented meanderings of the human heart? Well, the future Lady Dedlock is conscious that her affair with Captain Hawdon has little future and is making arrangements for the unfortunate female infant who is the result. But there will be no lengthy proceedings to reach out and hold her and so many others in its clammy embrace. The rejected Hawdon will find sub-contracting work as a paralegal for Mr Snagsby but his indexing and coding techniques will not be brought to the attention of Lady Dedlock and Mr Tulkinghorn will have nothing to investigate and no hold over her.

What happens to the solicitors in the case? Most emiment amongst them, Mr Tulkinghorn is, and remains, an omniscient, scheming villain with his fingers in every pie and the secrets of the great hidden within his heart and his filing cabinets. Mr Kenge of the firm Kenge & Carboy is a less exalted practitioner but one whose flights of orotund discourse bestow on him the soubriquet “Conversation”:

“We are a great country, Mr Jarndyce, we are a very great country. This is a great system, Mr Jarndyce, and would you wish a great country to have a little system? Now, really, really!”.

Mr Guppy and Mr Weevle, who have their own part in the unravelling of the Dedlock mystery are trainees to be proud of. Ah, but Mr Vholes! Mr Vholes is appointed to represent the interests of Mr Richard Carstone when Mr Carstone perceives that they might diverge somewhat from those of his guardian, the good Mr John Jarndyce. Mr Vholes is well able to identify the full extent of that conflict and expand the gulf to his own benefit.

Mr Vholes is a Dickensian solicitor who represents the best attributes of the profession and could still be held up to us as a shining beacon in our more client-driven times. He represents client care in all its glory.

‘Whenever you want me, you will find me here. Summon me anywhere, and I will come. During the long vacation, sir, I shall devote my leisure to studying your interests more and more closely and to making arrangements for moving heaven and earth (including, of course, the Chancellor) after Michaelmas term; and when I ultimately congratulate you, sir,” says Mr. Vholes with the severity of a determined man, “when I ultimately congratulate you, sir, with all my heart, on your accession to fortune – which, but that I never give hopes, I might say something further about – you will owe me nothing beyond whatever little balance may be then outstanding of the costs as between solicitor and client not included in the taxed costs allowed out of the estate. I pretend to no claim upon you, Mr. C., but for the zealous and active discharge – not the languid and routine discharge, sir: that much credit I stipulate for – of my professional duty. My duty prosperously ended, all between us is ended.”

Vholes finally adds, by way of rider to this declaration of his principles, that as Mr. Carstone is about to rejoin his regiment, perhaps Mr. C. will favour him with an order on his agent for twenty pounds on account.

The client, with his dejection insensibly relieved and his vague hopes rekindled, takes pen and ink and writes the draft, not without perplexed consideration and calculation of the date it may bear, implying scant effects in the agent’s hands. All the while, Vholes, buttoned up in body and mind, looks at him attentively. All the while, Vholes’s official cat watches the mouse’s hole.

Lastly, the client, shaking hands, beseeches Mr. Vholes, for heaven’s sake and earth’s sake, to do his utmost to “pull him through” the Court of Chancery. Mr. Vholes, who never gives hopes, lays his palm upon the client’s shoulder and answers with a smile, “Always here, sir. Personally, or by letter, you will always find me here, sir, with my shoulder to the wheel.” Thus they part, and Vholes, left alone, employs himself in carrying sundry little matters out of the diary application into the draft bill book application on his neat little handheld pocket PC running PDA pausing only to download some product reviews .’

In other words, Mr Vholes exemplifies the following:

· Providing complete dedication to advancing the interests of his clients (for a fair remuneration);

· Identifying the areas of conflict which entitles a client to the advantages of his dedicated legal services;

· Communicating transparent information about prospective costs including the inevitable shortfall between costs recoverable from the opposition on the standard basis and the amount due between solicitor and client;

· Treating the law as a business rather than a profession: the praiseworthy demand for funds on account to ease cashflow and save use of capital and the immediate filling in and posting of timesheets as exemplified in the transfer of the sundry little matters from the diary to the bill book.

He may or may not run the full gamut of litigation support software but once you accept the precept that there can never be too much openness between solicitor and client, Mr Vholes is a role model to the profession rather than the dried-up, feline money-grubber misleadingly portrayed by most critics (and indeed the original author). It is Mr Vholes who appreciates the significance of the last Jarndyce will, albeit he defers to Mr Kenge in the exposition of its contents and, given the present scenario, it is he who joins with Mr Kenge in producing it at the mediation which eventually resolves the Jarndyce dispute to the satisfaction of all concerned, including the lawyers.

With Jarndyce out of the way, there will be many more cases to manage in and out of Chancery. A great system indeed and one which can only be enhanced by its interaction with the cutting edge of IT applications.

Richard Harrison is a partner at Laytons