Global Dispute of the Year, U.K. Litigation: Berezovsky v. Abramovich
Honorees: Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, Brick Court Chambers
It was billed as a Clash of Titans. Two of Russia’s richest men: Boris Berezosky, one of the first “oligarchs” to emerge out of the post-Communist Russia, up against “metals czar” Roman Abramovich, famed for his precocious wealth, connections, and ownership of Chelsea Football Club
Churchill once called the Kremlin as “a riddle wrapped in an enigma,” and in the High Court, presiding judge Justice Elizabeth Gloster came close to describing this case in much the same terms.
The issues at stake were labyrinthine in their detail, but in substance straightforward. Had plaintiff Berezovsky been duped out of interests in two massive businesses (the oil company Sibneft and aluminum company RusAl), by his onetime friend and business partner Abramovich? In particular, he said, Abramovich had forced him to sell a 21.5 percent interest in Sibneft for very much less than it was worth—and sought $6 billion in damages in return.
The answers lay in a series of unrecorded oral agreements about the division of spoils, some made decades ago, between power-hungry men with shifting loyalties and less than perfect memories.
The case, said, the judge, “fell to be decided almost exclusively on the facts, very few issues of law [were involved].” Ultimately, she said, it was the court’s task to decide who to believe: Berezovsky, “an unimpressive, and inherently unreliable, witness, who regarded truth as a transitory, flexible concept [and] would have said anything to support his case,” or Abramovich, who, she said, “gave careful and thoughtful answers, which were focused on the specific issues about which he was being questioned.”
If the case was less about law than it was about truth, that’s not to say that there wasn’t extensive lawyering involved. Indeed, the case raised issues of E.U., U.K., and Russian law, pertaining to valuation and choice of law and constructive trust.
Skadden, the firm that represented Roman Abramovich with barristers’ set Brick Court Chambers, says that winning the case was as much about marshaling the facts as winning the argument on legal principle.
In her judgment, the judge thanked Skadden for facilitating what she called the first paperless trial in the High Court. Indeed, to gain the winning edge, Skadden called on IT experts and collaborated on the development of an electronic trial platform called Magnus 2, permitting the parties and the court to access all the documentary evidence and relevant law on demand, and allowing for witness evidence to be streamed from outside into the courtroom.
Abramovich won hands down, but the story has a sorry epilogue. Boris Berezovsky was found dead at his home outside London on March 23rd, apparently by his own hand. This was a twist as sad as any to be found in Tolstoy or Turgenev. But not one that detracts from Skadden’s well-earned victory.