Photo by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism
The gleaming buildings that tower over London’s Square Mile are largely considered the preserve of the bankers who transformed the City into the world’s financial centre. The lawyers who share those spaces play a smaller role in the public imagination and yet their promotion of the English courts as the guarantors of international business is equally significant.
Many represent upstanding interests. But others have grown wealthy serving an international super-elite – oligarchs, dictators and their hangers-on – whose grudges are now routinely fought in British courts.
Successive UK governments have promoted London as the go-to place for resolving commercial disputes. They have advertised its reputation for fairness and capitalised on the legacy of empire that made London the centre of trade and English the global language of business, particularly in the world’s offshore jurisdictions. In doing so, they have made the UK’s legal services industry one of the largest in the world and opened the city’s courts to cases that can include no British parties.
The global super-rich who use the capital’s commercial courts tend to come from one region in particular. Ever since the breakup of the Soviet Union allowed a class of ultra-wealthy oligarchs to rise to political power, many have made London their home. While some maintained their ties to the Kremlin, others sought refuge from what they claim are aggressive and unjust moves to seize their wealth.
The city’s biggest law firms have welcomed both sides as a lucrative source of business. As well as the oligarchs themselves, clients include the state-owned banks, energy companies or debt collectors from authoritarian regimes that accuse exiled oligarchs of fraud or tax evasion. In four out of the past six years, there have been more litigants from Russia and Kazakhstan than anywhere else outside the UK.
The high number of cases involving foreign parties is not in itself problematic: it is a reflection of the English courts’ reputation for fairness and integrity, which is in stark contrast to the corruption that blights the former Soviet Union. But the disputes are generally rooted in the region’s post-Soviet struggle over power and money – and the dirty tactics common to undemocratic societies trickle into the English courts. In ignoring the political backdrop and adjudicating cases simply on their legal merits, the courts can lend a stamp of authority and legitimise the questionable methods often used to bring in evidence.
A key to this is the fact that illegally obtained evidence can sometimes be admitted in civil cases. Judges prefer to see whatever evidence will help them establish the truth of the matter. This has proved something of a clarion call for London’s private investigators. Hired by solicitors or their clients but operating without regulation, they are tasked with finding information to support their case or, better yet, harm the credibility of their opponent. Kompromat, as compromising information collected to discredit someone is colloquially referred to in Russian, has long been used by corrupt regimes to keep politicians and businesspeople in line and centralise power. It is now creeping into evidence used in Britain’s legal system.
In its report on Russian interference in the UK last year, the Commons Intelligence and Security Committee pointedly drew attention to the role lawyers and private investigators play in furthering Russia’s “nefarious” interests, as well as helping Russian tycoons to dig up dirt on their enemies and fight their lawsuits. The authors labelled lawyers “a key group of professional enablers”.
“The UK wants to be a leading centre for legal services ... and that is always going to be a disincentive to have too much scrutiny or oversight,” Susan Hawley, head of the charity Spotlight on Corruption, told the Bureau. “Checks need to be bolstered so that important rules around allowing any information that might provide relevant evidence isn’t abused by people who might use very questionable behaviour in the course of litigation.”
“The lawyer of the world”
The Royal Courts of Justice on the Strand has all the gothic grandeur one would expect from the building that symbolises a centuries-old judicial system. But a short walk around the corner, in a courthouse tucked away on a quiet street, is where London’s commercial law industry makes most of its money.
The unremarkable facade of the Rolls Building belies the stories told inside its 31 courtrooms – tales of the wild capitalism that followed the fall of the Soviet Union – and the fact that this is where bitter accusations of fraud and money-laundering have been levelled at some of the world’s richest people.
Through the airport-style security, a central spiral staircase snakes its way up the vast multi-storey glass atrium. The £300m development and its three “super courts” – which are reserved for the very largest high-value disputes – were designed to make London a modern, global legal centre and a rival to New York, Hong Kong, Dubai and Singapore.
After the building was completed almost a decade ago, one of the first notable cases to be heard within its walls involved Roman Abramovich, the reclusive billionaire and owner of Chelsea Football Club, who had been accused of making threats to his former business associate Boris Berezovsky and forcing him to sell his shares in a Russian oil company. Legal fees for the case, which concluded in 2012, were estimated at up to £100m. The judge ruled in favour of Abramovich.
Other cases that year involved the metals magnate and Kremlin associate Oleg Deripaska and the exiled Kazakh oligarch Mukhtar Ablyazov, and helped to lift the annual profits made by London’s top 100 law firms over the £5bn mark. That figure has since risen to £8.3bn, and last year London’s commercial courts enjoyed a record caseload despite the pandemic. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism