British lawyers bask in Bermuda heat as feuding family spends £368,000 a week on legal battle

Click to follow

A case of mind-numbing complexity concerning the squabblings of an aristocratic Swiss family is proving to be a source of unimaginable riches for a select band of English lawyers.

A case of mind-numbing complexity concerning the squabblings of an aristocratic Swiss family is proving to be a source of unimaginable riches for a select band of English lawyers.

By the time the case, which is being played out in a specially built Bermuda court, has finished, the lawyers are expected to have earned an estimated £60m - and lived for up to five years on one of the world's most exclusive paradises.

This week one of the fifteen UK lawyers who has swapped his London home for a Bermudan mansion, said the case would go down in legal history as one of the most expensive ever fought - legal sources on the island estimate that the cost of the case is now running at £368,000 a week.

The case centres on a dispute between the Swiss industrialist Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, known as Heini, and his eldest son Georg - Heini Jnr. The baron, 78, claims Heini Jnr, has defaulted on payments to him from the family trust estimated to be worth $2.7bn (£1.7bn). But lawyers for Heini Jnr, 49, claim the baron is being spurred on by his fifth wife, Carmen Cervera, 56, known as Tita, a former Miss Spain, who believes that Georg is not even her husband's son.

The family trust is constituted in Bermuda, so the legal battle between the two Thyssens is taking place in this balmy British dependency. The case will decide not only the future of the multinational Thyssen-Bornemisza Group, which was founded by the baron's grandfather and owns banks, mining, shipping and manufacturing companies but also the collection of Old Masters sold by the baron to the Spanish government in 1993 for £200m.

The feuding parties have called on four of Britain's highest earning barristers to represent them. Michael Crystal QC, Robert Ham QC and Alan Boyle QC are all members of the "million-a-year club" while the fourth, Nicholas Patten QC is another barrister knocking on the door for membership. They are each being supported by a host of junior barristers and solicitors from two of the City's leading law firms, Clifford Chance and Norton Rose.

The legal expenses are quite extraordinary, with "uplifts" of around 10 per cent on the standard legal fees, which is paying for the inconvenience of monopolising the talents of some of London's finest silks for such a long period of time. The parties are also picking up the relocation costs of moving London-based lawyers and their families to Bermuda. Such is the personal wealth involved that the escalating legal costs are unlikely to help bring about an early settlement. In fact it appears the reverse is true. The baron, his son and the trustees, have all agreed to pay for a new court-room to hear the case.

When it was first set down in October the trial was expected to finish by the early part of this year. But when the case resumes on 17 January, Michael Crystal, the flamboyant barrister representing the baron, will only be halfway through presenting his case. The other side is not expected to offer any evidence until the summer.

And meanwhile the English lawyers have settled into life on the island. The climate - temperatures can reach 92F (34C)with humidity readings of 90 per cent - has meant the lawyers have ditched their brogues and Savile Row suits for more comfortable dress. Those who sweated through their first days in court have invested in specially made lightweight gowns. A four-day week, nine golf courses and a secluded beach never more than a few minutes away, has no doubt helped lighten the burden of their case still further.

Mr Crystal and Mr Ham have attracted the most attention on the island, notably for their extravagant parties. They share a £10,000-a month mansion just outside Hamilton, the island's capital, where their neighbours include David Bowie, Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta Jones.

At a party just before Christmas, hosted by the two QCs, they booked a jazz band and disco and in a spirit of conviviality invited the lawyers representing the other side. But at the 11th hour a chamber's memo went round banning the lawyers representing Heini Jnr and the trustees from fraternising with the opposition. It meant Mr Boyle and Mr Patten missed out on a poolside party which began serving £30 bottles of champagne at 2pm and was still popping them into the early hours of the morning.

A number of the English lawyers have moved their wives and children out with them. David Alexander - the barrister son of Lord Alexander of Weedon - who is acting for the baron, has even placed his two children in local schools. But those who have brought their wives have had to pay a penalty. Bermudan anti-pollution law restricts each household to just one car. Lawyers whizzing to and from the court on mopeds have now become a familiar sight on the island.

In his opening statement, Michael Crystal said "Georg has behaved to the baron in a manner that is neither ethical nor favourable" and that he had betrayed the family motto "virtue transcends riches". The truth in this case is that a bitter feud within an aristocratic European family will richly line the English lawyers' pockets.

And if their exile is a lengthy one, there may be some added benefits. If it lasts more than five years they will be able to claim tax-exile status.