London becomes litigation capital of the world

Michael Jackson isn't the only one trying to settle a foreign legal dispute in a British courtroom
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The expected melee surrounding Michael Jackson's appearance in London tomorrow is unlikely to match the carefully choreographed precision of his usual performances. But few doubt that his turn at the Royal Courts of Justice will be dramatic.

That the UK capital has become the arena for a legal row between a US pop star and Middle Eastern royalty is no surprise to regulars at the High Court. The prince is just the latest in a string of high-profile foreign litigants coming to London to secure high-priced British legal expertise to resolve their disputes.

While the paparazzi's flash photography may temporarily illuminate the High Court's sedate exterior, the real fireworks may erupt inside Court 23, where Jackson is a star witness in a case pitching the "king of pop" against genuine royalty.

Originally expected to give evidence from his home in California via a videolink, Jacko will now come face to face with an old friend, Sheikh Abdullah bin Hamad Al Khalifa, second son of the King of Bahrain. Their dispute is over an alleged £4.7m deal that the sheikh thought he had set up to promote the star's comeback.

Jackson allegedly reneged on the sheikh's plans for a stage show, an autobiography and a new album. With the quarrel unresolved, all parties have gravitated to London.

While much of British industry suffers in the global economic difficulties, the Bar is booming. London is the place to be for legal "tourists".

Timothy Dutton QC, chairman of the Bar Council, describes law as one of the UK's "great exports". "The Bar Council estimates the export value of international legal services is in excess of £2bn and that barristers contribute over £200m to what is an important export of highly skilled legal services. This matters to the economy and enhances the reputation of the City," he said yesterday, adding that the presence of large numbers of expert solicitors and barristers made London a "natural place" to seek advice.

Generous libel settlements and the ability to recover costs is one area where legal tourism has attracted many combatants to London. The Russian business tycoon Boris Berezovsky used the British courts in 2003 to sue Forbes magazine, a title run from New York; and the Polish film director Roman Polanski won a 2005 libel action against Vanity Fair while giving video evidence from Paris.

Leading silk Terence Mowschenson QC said yesterday: "In the High Court, most of the cases we deal with are one foreign party against another. I think London is pretty hard to beat. There are some good lawyers in New York but, generally, London is hard to beat for expertise and quality."

He said US courts had a narrower interpretation of libel, making it harder to sue newspapers, adding that results were more unpredictable, as juries were often appointed to judge litigation cases. "The judges in London are used to making fast decisions and they have an integrity that is justifiably recognised around the world."