Lawyers head for the sun thanks to trials in Bermuda

Who's Suing Whom
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The Independent Online
TWO SEPARATE trials in Bermuda have virtually emptied London of its leading commercial barristers. "Half of Chancery has just flown off to the Caribbean," said one lawyer last week.

The most glamorous case involves the Thyssen dynasty, a German family whose global industrial empire is worth over pounds 2bn. The other revolves around one of Lloyd's of London's biggest ever corporate collapses.

Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, 77, gave control of the family businesses to his eldest son, Georg Heinrich, in 1983 on the understanding that Georg Heinrich would continue to pay the Baron and the other members of the family millions of pounds in living expenses. The Baron now claims his son has failed to do so and wants control of the empire back.

Also in doubt is the future of nearly 800 paintings that the Baron sold to the Spanish state for pounds 180m five years ago. One of the biggest art collectors in the world, the Baron was keen to see at least half his collection find a permanent home. There are fears, however, that the court case may raise questions about the deal.

The current case involves over 100 companies spread around the globe which are owned by a "cat's cradle" of trusts registered in Bermuda. The case is being heard at the Supreme Court on the island, and is expected to last at least six months, racking up over pounds 1m in legal expenses. Michael Crystal, one of the UK's top commercial barristers, who regularly earns well over pounds 1m a year, is appearing in the case.

IN THE SAME Supreme Court, Mr Crystal will be bumping into at least eight of his colleagues from the London Bar, who are appearing in an entirely separate case, involving Bermuda Fire and Marine.

The liquidators of this Bermuda-registered insurance company, Ernst & Young, are suing a number of individuals and companies in an attempt to recover more assets for creditors. When the Bermuda Supreme Court put Bermuda Fire and Marine into liquidation in 1994, the company owed creditors over $100m (pounds 61m).

The company was one of the last "dominoes" in a series of collapses triggered by that of five London companies, collectively known as "QWELM". The companies were connected with London United Investments, which was in turn linked to Weavers, an underwriting agency at Lloyd's. All went bust in 1993.

Gabriel Moss is representing the liquidators, while Robin Potts QC and Martin Moore are representing individual defendants. Elizabeth Gloster and Richard Millett are representing the corporate defendants, while Michael Croxford, Geoffrey Vos and Robert Miles are also involved in the case. David Alexander, son of Lord Alexander, the former chairman of NatWest Bank, is also taking part in the epic trial.

A pounds 600M CLAIM against the Bank of England brought by the liquidators of BCCI, the corrupt bank that went bust eight years ago, may end up going to the European Court of Justice (ECJ).

Even though the liquidators were granted leave by the House of Lords last week to have their claim heard by the Lords next January, there is at least an even chance that it will then be referred on to the ECJ, lawyers fear. The European process alone would take at least 18 months, pushing any final judgment on the claim into 2002.

Sources close to the liquidators said: "The Bank of England appears to be trying to drag out the matter and play the long game."

The BCCI liquidators are acting on behalf of 6,000 UK depositors. They are suing the Bank for the "tort of misfeasance in public office", a claim requiring a higher standard of evidence than negligence. They say the Bank, as supervisor of BCCI, was aware of what was going on and failed to act on that knowledge.

It is a ground-breaking case, because no central bank in Europe has ever been successfully sued for breach of its regulatory duties.

BCCI's losses stood at $13bn when it was closed by banking regulators, including the Bank of England, in 1991. The liquidator's legal action started in the High Court in 1995 and moved to the Court of Appeal last year.

A pounds 100M legal action over the Robert Maxwell pensions scandal has provided Lord Woolf's reforms with their first chance to cut down delays for an important trial. The case, brought by the administrators of the American side of the Maxwell business empire against the business's auditors, has been brought forward two years from 2002 to 2 October 2000.

The pounds 400m pensions scandal continues to have legal ramifications nine years after the media tycoon fell off his boat.

At a case management conference held under rules introduced by the Woolf reforms, the administrators of Maxwell Communications Corporation (MCC), and the auditors Coopers & Lybrand (now part of PricewaterhouseCoopers) agreed to bring forward the trial to next year.