Russian oligarchs prepare for London defamation hearing with legal teams set to cash in

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Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich - Clive Mason/Getty Images
Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich - Clive Mason/Getty Images

Four Russian oligarchs including Roman Abramovich will make an application to court this week in what will undoubtedly become the defamation case to watch when it comes to trial.

They are bringing a case against Catherine Belton and the published of her best-selling investigative book, “Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took on the West”.

Teams of solicitors, QCs and junior barristers will collectively earn millions of pounds in fees in what may prove to be the most lucrative libel case in British legal history.

Ms Belton is being sued personally by Abramovich, the owner of Chelsea Football Club, and Shalva Chigirinsky, an oil and property tycoon, as well as by Rosneft, Russia’s state-owned oil and gas company.

HarperCollins, the book’s publisher, is also being sued by all three, along with two other Russian billionaires, Mikhail Fridman and Petr Aven. Aven, however, is suing for alleged data protection breaches rather than libel.

The lawsuits were filed in a flurry of activity over a three-week period between March and April this year, just under a year after the book was first published in hardback. The High Court ordered them to be heard at the same time.

Pay day for the lawyers

Mrs Justice Tipples, sitting in the High Court, will on Wednesday hear legal arguments to determine allegedly defamatory allegations made by Ms Belton in her book.

How the judge interprets passages in the book will play a large part in determining the success of the various claims brought by the Russian billionaires.

The case represents a bumper pay day for London’s highly paid defamation lawyers, who can charge as much as £750 an hour for advice.

'Claimant friendly' laws

The litigation will be eagerly watched by campaigners who believe the London courts – and England’s ‘claimant friendly’ libel laws – are being too often used to try to gag investigative journalists, acting in the public interest.

Jessica Ní Mhainín, head of policy at the Index on Censorship, a group that campaigns for free expression, said: "We are extremely concerned that UK defamation laws, which are notoriously claimant friendly, are having a chilling effect on investigative journalism around the world. We cannot allow this to continue.”

Bill Browder, a businessman and the driving force behind new sanctions laws in the US and UK against Russian individuals, said: “This threatens to be the biggest legal pile on I’ve ever seen and it risks deterring future journalists from writing about Putin’s wealth. English libel laws need to be amended to prevent these cases being brought in the future.”

Harbottle & Lewis, a law firm that has acted for members of the Royal family in recent media law cases, has been hired by Abramovich. In a statement issued in March, the law firm said it was issuing proceedings relating “to a number of false and defamatory claims made about our client”.

The law firm said the book “falsely alleges that our client has acted corruptly, and makes false claims about our client’s purchase, and the activities, of Chelsea Football Club”.

Abramovich statement

In a rare statement Abramovich, who is worth an estimated £10.7 billion, insisted he was reluctantly bringing the legal case because of a failure to find an “amicable resolution”.

He said: “Unfortunately, these engagements were not successful, and the publisher has not corrected the false statements in the book.”

Nine days after Abramovich filed his claim, Rosneft, with a market capitalisation according to Forbes of £56.5 billion, lodged its case in the High Court.

The oil conglomerate, based in Moscow, is the largest company in Russia. A day later on April 1, Fridman, worth £11.2 billion after making his fortune in banking, sued HarperCollins for libel, and nine days after that Aven, a business partner of Fridman with an estimated £3.8 billion fortune, lodged a claim for breach of data protection laws.

The last of the claims was filed by Shalva Chigirinsky, an oil tycoon, who has hired the law firm Taylor Wessing. Fridman and Aven are both using the same law firm CMS Cameron Mckenna Nabarro Olswang, while Rosneft is represented by libel law specialists Carter Ruck.

All the claims were issued independently of each other and the Russian claimants are insistent that there has been no coordinated strategic plan to derail Ms Belton’s book.

Ms Belton’s legal costs are covered by HarperCollins, which was bought by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp in 1989. HarperCollins has described Ms Belton’s book as an “authoritative, important and conscientiously sourced work”.

In a statement, the firm has said: “We will robustly defend this acclaimed and groundbreaking book and the right to report on matters of considerable public interest.”

Court documents show that Abramovich’s libel suit disputes a claim that Putin ordered his 2003 acquisition of Chelsea for political purposes. The book’s on the record source for the claim is Sergei Pugachev, an exiled Russian billionaire who was once a member of Putin’s inner circle before falling out and forced to flee the country.

In a case in 2017, a High Court judge described Pugachev as an unreliable witness.

In a statement issued to the Financial Times in May, a spokesperson for Mr Fridman has said: “We can confirm that neither Mr Aven nor Mr Fridman had any prior knowledge of the other lawsuits you have referred to. They have had no contact with, and did not coordinate a legal strategy with, the other plaintiffs or their lawyers.”

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