Tom Peck: A case that highlights the true quality of British justice


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It might be six months before we know who has emerged victorious from the so-called Battle of the Oligarchs, but the biggest private litigation in English legal history has already produced a lengthy list of winners.

With total costs estimated at around £100m, a lot of British lawyers have a lot of  spasibos  to say, and there are many more giant pay days to come. Boris Berezovsky has already begun a second, $3bn (£1.9bn) case against the family of his deceased former business partner, Badri Patarkatsishvili. In April the richest oligarch of them all, Oleg Deripaska, will begin his defence against his former business associate Michael Cherney, who is suing him for $2bn (£1.3bn) worth of aluminium assets.

The biggest beneficiary, and by some margin, in the Berezovsky Abramovich stand off has been the Chelsea owner's barrister, Jonathan, now Lord, Sumption, who was elevated to the Supreme Court last week. His fee for the case has been reported as anywhere between £3m and £10m – a matter he has refused to comment on.

The most common question I have been asked, in the four months in which I have been covering the trial, is why is it being heard in England in the first place? Only a few tenuous threads bind this uniquely Russian story to the UK. But it is a matter about which Lord Sumption is understandably intensely relaxed.

"We should be proud that large numbers of disputes that have nothing to do with England are governed by English law because the parties have decided that it should be," he said in an interview with The Times last week.

"That says something about the quality of the service that the courts and legal profession provide in England. I see absolutely no reason why, if you have got something that important, you should not export it."

The humble British taxpayer is also a winner, don't forget, in this exporting of justice, but it comes at a price.

The eyes of the world have been focused on London's Commercial Court throughout this trial, as details of questionable deals, and allegations of   briefcases stuffed with millions of dollars, have been laid bare. We have heard at some length about the fetid 1995 deal  - the Big Bang from which exploded the two men's astronomical wealth in the years since - in which Boris Berezovsky persuaded then President Yeltsin to sell off a great chunk of his country's oil wealth for next to nothing, in return for support from Mr Berezovsky's television network in the upcoming election.

"Would it be fair to describe that as a corrupt bargain?" Lord Sumption asked Mr Berezovsky in cross examination.

"Definitely not," Mr Berezovsky replied. But it is rather hard to ignore that several million pounds of the profit from that bargain is now in the Sumption coffers, and an even larger amount in UK PLC's.

When the Uzbekh born Israeli businessman Mikhail Cherney begins his $2bn case against Oleg Deripaska in April this year, at the same court house in the city of London, he will do so via video link. An arrest warrant issued by Interpol over money laundering allegations prevents him travelling to the UK. He cannot enter the country, yet he is granted full access to the judiciary.

And will any of the money from these colossal lawsuits be invested in finding out what happened to the scores of men shot dead in the snow in Russia's frozen east, the losers in the notorious aluminium wars that formed the backdrop to Russian life in the immediately post Soviet era?  Of course not. Our concern is for the material profits, and that is our message to the world. That if you've got the goods then the English courts, like a rogue scrap metal dealer paying out for church roof tiles no questions asked, are open for business.

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