June 28, 2022

London Lawfare: how legal professionals assisted Russia’s tremendous-rich

For Russian oligarchs trying to find to silence opponents, the English legal system has been likened to “the greatest, toughest bat you can decide on up and swing”.

For prime London lawyers and their firms, situations brought by Russian billionaires, frequently dealing with challenges these kinds of as alleged libel or details defense, have translated into excess fat profits.

But the equation has changed in the wake of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

The imposition of sanctions on dozens of rich Russians by the British isles has produced it considerably additional difficult for them to pursue authorized actions in British courts or to use Uk regulation companies, which now have to have a exclusive govt licence to represent these types of purchasers.

In latest months, there has also been a federal government shift away from welcoming court docket action by oligarchs to denouncing “Lawfare” — the abuse of lawful proceedings to grind down opponents.

Due to the fact the war started off, the get the job done carried out by companies these as CMS, Harbottle & Lewis and Carter-Ruck for Russian billionaires has arrive less than growing scrutiny by legislators, both equally in the US and the Uk. And the corporations them selves are turning out to be extra circumspect about getting on new consumers, in some cases closing down business enterprise with Russia.

Invoice Browder, a foremost trader in Russia turned Kremlin critic, has been fierce and regular in his feedback on previous legal steps in London that he suggests amounted to undue strain by the Russian condition — a watch the United kingdom authorities alone now endorses.

Activist Invoice Browder suggests actions in London amounted to undue pressure by Moscow © Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty Images

“For the oligarchs and the tremendous-abundant who can afford to pay for these sky-superior prices, the danger of authorized action has turn out to be a new kind of Lawfare,” British key minister Boris Johnson declared in March. “We have to put a prevent to its chilling influence.”

Johnson’s text marked a spectacular contrast with responses he designed in 2012, when he wooed Russia’s tremendous-abundant, saying: “If one oligarch feels defamed by an additional oligarch — it is London’s legal professionals who implement the required balm to the moi.” 

Silencing Kremlin critics

Over the previous decade, London has drawn in wealthy Russians and Kremlin allies to launch lawful action from critics of Vladimir Putin — notably Browder, once the biggest overseas investor in Russia. In 2013, he was sued for libel by Pavel Karpov, a previous Russian policeman, represented by the law company Olswang, now part of CMS.

Browder had fallen foul of Moscow after his auditor, Sergei Magnitsky, uncovered a huge tax fraud by Russian officers — only to be arrested and die in a Russian jail in 2009.

Karpov claimed that Browder’s website instructed he was complicit in the “torture and death” of Magnitsky, but Mr Justice Peregrine Simon threw out the lawsuit in 2013 just after ruling that Karpov did not have a standing in Britain to protect.

Browder depicted the authorized action as component of a broader force by the Kremlin to discredit him and human rights legislation passed in Magnitsky’s identify in the US and ultimately a lot of other jurisdictions. “I have no doubt this was a Russian intelligence operation to assault me and the Magnitsky act,” he said.

In 2017, Browder confronted a 2nd civil lawsuit in London, with CMS performing for Nogotkov Kirill Olegovich, a Russian liquidator who sued him in excess of the insolvency of a Russian enterprise when involved with him.

Browder’s lawyers claimed that this was “part of a concerted retaliatory campaign by the Russian state”. Sir Geoffrey Vos threw out the situation expressing it was “inexcusable” that the liquidator experienced unsuccessful to “alert the court docket to . . . the political background”.

Another Kremlin critic, former British spy Christopher Steele, was sued in the Superior Court in 2020 by Russian billionaire Mikhail Fridman and his associates Petr Aven and German Khan.

Previous British spy Christopher Steele was sued in the Significant Court © Victoria Jones/PA

The situation centred about allegations about the adult males in a 2016 file that comprehensive Donald Trump’s purported ties to Russia and was created by Steele’s firm, Orbis Enterprise Intelligence.

Once again, CMS had a central job in the proceedings. The 3 men, who were being encouraged by Geraldine Proudler of CMS and barrister Hugh Tomlinson QC, won the situation just after the Higher Court identified that the file contained inaccurate individual details.

Silencing journalists

Russia’s billionaires have also sought to use Britain’s libel, privacy and knowledge safety laws to stop journalists from shedding light-weight on their actions. Critics say their promises often amount to what are termed “strategic lawsuits versus public participation” or SLAPPs — tries to intimidate critics via highly-priced litigation.

A flurry of lawsuits followed very last year’s publication of Putin’s Individuals, an investigation by former Economic Moments journalist Catherine Belton of the Russian president’s routine and increase to energy.

Fridman and Aven turned to CMS, which launched a libel and info safety claim towards the book’s publisher HarperCollins. Roman Abramovich, the billionaire who would also be strike with sanctions this calendar year, lodged a libel lawsuit of his very own towards the publisher and Belton, employing Tomlinson and Harbottle & Lewis.

Catherine Belton, author of ‘Putin’s People’ © Parliamentlive.television set

Russian point out oil enterprise Rosneft, represented by law business Carter-Ruck, introduced a individual libel lawsuit against Belton and HarperCollins. Belton explained to a parliamentary committee in March that there experienced been a “lengthy stand-off” with Carter-Ruck about mentions of Gennady Timchenko, a Putin ally now positioned below sanctions, that delayed the book’s publication by six months.

All the promises have now been settled or withdrawn.

Jessica Ni Mhainin, at the Index on Censorship, which campaigns for liberty of speech, claims circumstances like Belton’s are “the suggestion of the iceberg”, with many lawsuits not producing it to court docket.

Mhainin stated the menace of unlimited litigation and big authorized expenses can be used by the tremendous-loaded to push campaigners, teachers or journalists, who can confront fiscal wreck if they defend a libel case.

Settling scores

Billionaire oligarchs have also applied London’s top regulation companies to settle scores with each and every other in the capital’s Large Court docket.

In 2011, the late Boris Berezovsky, represented by Addleshaw Goddard — which suggests it has in no way acted for any other Russian oligarch — unsuccessfully sued Roman Abramovich, represented by regulation business Skadden Arps, in a $6.5bn Higher Courtroom trial that shone an unflattering highlight on Russia’s “wild east” capitalism in the 1990s.

Boris Berezovsky unsuccessfully sued Roman Abramovich © Warrick Page/Getty Illustrations or photos

Berezovsky alleged that Abramovich had intimidated him into providing shares in oil and fuel companies at underneath their true value. Abramovich denied the claims and testified that he paid $2.3bn to Berezovsky as political protection money.

Oleg Deripaska, the Russian metals tycoon placed less than sanctions by the Uk in March, has also been active in London’s Higher Courtroom. In 2018, Rusal, then managed by Deripaska, was embroiled in a court fight with billionaire Vladimir Potanin, who is not below sanctions by the United kingdom or US, as section of a struggle for regulate of Norilsk Nickel, a nickel and palladium producer.

Rusal sought to block Abramovich from marketing his stake in Norilsk to Potanin’s organization.

New get?

Some legislators have singled out attorneys and corporations they say have assisted Kremlin allies. British isles Conservative MP Bob Seely employed parliamentary privilege in March to name expert media legislation firms Harbottle & Lewis, Carter-Ruck and CMS, as very well as Tomlinson, the popular barrister.

Final month, US senator Steve Cohen urged the Biden administration to area US vacation bans on senior British attorneys he claimed have been “foreign enablers of Russian oligarchs”. Amid other individuals, Cohen named Tomlinson, Nigel Tait of Carter Ruck, John Kelly of Harbottle & Lewis and Proudler, head of CMS’s Standing and Media Litigation follow.

Because the Ukraine war began, Proudler has resigned from the Scott Believe in, which adjudicates editorial grievances at The Guardian newspaper, the board of The Guardian Foundation, the media group’s charitable arm, and as chair of the board of governors of Middlesex university.

Bob Seely MP talking in the Residence of Commons © Parliamentlive.television set

Numerous in the authorized profession argue that they have been unfairly criticised, pointing out that lawyers are intensely controlled and that the courts have safeguards towards unmeritorious lawsuits.

“We cannot have a predicament in which lawyers are unwilling to give tips to individuals, whether or not or not they have accomplished nearly anything wrong,” mentioned Jonathan Fisher QC, barrister at Red Lion Chambers.

CMS states it has identified that its media litigation system was compliant with all expert rules as well as its broader obligations at the time, including: “We strongly reject the modern allegations of impropriety that have been made from CMS and in certain Geraldine Proudler.”

Tomlinson has stated he experienced normally acted thoroughly in accordance with the rules and “never acted as Mr Cohen suggests”, when Harbottle & Lewis has reported it acted in accordance with its authorized obligations.

Carter-Ruck reported it has acted for extremely several Russian customers about the decades, and does not act for any entity joined to Putin’s routine. It mentioned it was false to recommend that, by defending clients’ countervailing rights, it established out improperly to censor the media or intimidate journalists.

Yet, the backdrop is changing. CMS, for case in point, no for a longer time accepts guidelines from Russia-dependent entities.

“This was a development that was already occurring even before the Russian invasion simply because of variations in society,” stated Tony Williams, a former managing partner of Clifford Possibility, who extra that significant firms’ earnings have been a great deal additional reliant on spots these as real estate and M&A than on Russian litigation.

“Law companies were being presently working with the ESG [environmental, social and governance] agenda and the issue of track record administration as they assume much more about the form of purchasers and the type of work that they do.”

In the meantime, Dominic Raab, Britain’s deputy prime minister and justice secretary, has released a consultation on reform of the country’s libel regulation, generally criticised as remaining so plaintiff-helpful that it inhibits free of charge speech. It closed on May well 19.

The Solicitors Regulation Authority, which governs the profession’s conduct, has already up-to-date steering to legislation corporations, warning in March from pursuing litigation for incorrect purposes and creating allegations without the need of advantage — which it says “might occur mainly because of a conflict with the solicitor’s have fascination in making price income”.

Trevor Clark, lecturer in the lawful job at Leeds college, emphasises that while legal professionals must act in the interests of their clients, they “also have a duty under their expert code to act with integrity and not get benefit of third parties”. 

A person case in point he provides is if there is “an inequality of resources” — these types of as conditions which pit oligarchs versus men and women for whom legal motion could suggest spoil.

Geraldine Proudler

Associate and head of track record and media litigation at CMS. Previous director of The Guardian Foundation, which supports media beneath danger, and a previous trustee of English PEN, the human rights organisation. Chambers and Associates 2022 legal rankings guidebook describe her as a “senior statesperson” and as supplying “very sound advice”. 

Nigel Tait

Running companion at Carter-Ruck, prospects the firm’s defamation and media law office. According to his organization profile, he has “prevented the publication of numerous article content about purchasers, frequently by signifies of a cell phone get in touch with or letter”. These involve pop stars and media personalities as properly as firms. The Chambers and Associates guideline describes him as a “star individual” who is “very concentrated on getting the very best outcome for clients”.

John Kelly

Media and information attorney at Harbottle & Lewis, formerly companion at Schillings and at Kelly & Co, a law organization in South Australia. His consumers have provided former US initial woman Melania Trump, as properly as famous people. He also acts in the discipline of sport regulation. The Chambers and Companions 2022 information describes him as having a “strategic robustness that gets results”.

Hugh Tomlinson, QC

Barrister at Matrix Chambers and a expert in media and data legislation. He has appeared in numerous large-profile circumstances which include representing victims in the Information of the Earth cell phone hacking litigation. A board chair of Hacked Off, the group which campaigns for a cost-free and accountable press, he is explained as a “star individual” and owning an “encyclopedic information of the law” in the Chambers and Companions guide.