Those in Britain with an appetite for intricate court cases have already enjoyed a vintage year, with the lawsuit brought by the exiled Russian oligarch, Boris Berezovsky, against Roman Abramovich, owner of Chelsea Football Club (and much else). Even as the judgment in that case is awaited, though, we now have the metals billionaire, Michael Cherney, suing the aluminium magnate, Oleg Deripaska, in London's same brand-new commercial court. The case was opened and adjourned yesterday to allow the judge to review the documents; battle recommences in the autumn.
These labyrinthine cases have much in common. They both have their origins in the chaotic carve-up of Russia's natural resources in the "wild east" years after the Soviet Union's collapse. They concern complex business arrangements for which there is scant documentation. They pit the word of one oligarch who keeps (relatively) good relations with the Kremlin against that of another who definitely does not, and in both huge sums are at stake.
But they also pose questions. Wherever the disputed deals were hatched, they relate to businesses and resources based in Russia. They have helped push the proportion of Russian and East European business disputes heard at the High Court above 60 per cent, tying up London court space and legal teams and – perhaps – pushing up the cost of litigation for others. Doubt may also surround the court's capacity to enforce its judgment.
Obviously, it is preferable for oligarchs to seek redress through the courts than settle scores by extra-judicial means. And it should be a source of some satisfaction that the English courts are so much in demand by wealthy foreigners – though it is worth asking, too, how far this reflects their faith in the quality of English justice and how far the quest for publicity and cachet. A bigger question, though, is whether advances in the Russian court system may be retarded because the super-rich have a London option, even when their dispute has no clear link to this country. Their qualms about corrupt and politicised Russian justice are understandable. But if the richest can use their money to buy justice elsewhere, the pressure will be that much weaker for better courts in Russia.
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