Two leading Russians have won the right to sue an American magazine in an English court, in a ruling that lawyers warn will turn Britain into the libel capital of the world.
Five law lords cleared the way yesterday for Boris Berezovsky, Secretary of the Commonwealth of Independent States, and Nikolai Glouchkov, managing director of Aeroflot, to bring proceedings against Forbes magazine in the UK.
Forbes accused both men of having been involved in criminal activity in Russia.
Yesterday Lord Steyn said: "In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the transition of Russia from Communism to a market-orientated economy and society has been accompanied by a dramatic upsurge in organised crime and corruption." He said there had been "great interest" in these consequences of the "transformation of Russian society".
But on 19 December 1997 the court of first instance had ruled that Russia was the appropriate forum. This was overturned by the Court of Appeal in 1998. Lord Justice Hirst said that the action involved a "substantial complaint about English torts" and therefore granted "jurisdiction" to try the action in England. Yesterday the House of Lords rejected Forbes's claim that the case should be heard in the US or Russia. Libel lawyers warned the decision would open the floodgates to everyone who wanted to chance their luck on the "plaintiff friendly" libel lottery in Britain.
Defendants in the UK have the burden of proving the truth of the defamation. Libel payouts, although reduced recently are on a par with those in the US, where the "public figure defence" lets the media say almost anything about people in the public eye.