London mayor invites sue-happy oligarchs to use UK courts

Russian billionare Roman Abramovich (L) and russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky (Reuters/AFP Photo/Toby Melville/Andrew Cowie)
London Mayor Boris Johnson has urged the super-wealthy to use the city’s courts to sue – a wink and nod directed at recent high-profile cases involving Russian oligarchs – though the UK publicly discourages so-called "libel tourism."

­“If one oligarch feels defamed by another oligarch, it is London’s lawyers who apply the necessary balm to the ego,” Johnson told the Confederation of British Industry’s annual conference in London on Tuesday, Bloomberg reports. The recent $5 billion London court duel between Russian billionaires Roman Abramovich and Boris Berezovsky was one of the largest civil suits in the UK, and plunged the British court into the scandalous realms of business in post-Soviet Russia.

Other litigation between Russian oligarchs that made it to the London's High Court involved Rusal CEO and largest shareholder Oleg Deripaska. He was arguing with rival billionaire Michael Cherney over a $1 billion stake in the world's biggest aluminium producer but later they settled the dispute.

Boris Johnson also claimed London would be grateful to any billionaire’s divorce cases.

I have no shame whatever in saying to the injured spouses of the world’s billionaires: ‘If you want to take him to the cleaners, darling, take him to the cleaners in London!’ Because London cleaners will be grateful for your business.

Johnson argued that such cases, with the associated legal fees, are welcome. The money, he said, would go “into the pockets of chefs and waiters and doormen and janitors and nannies and tutors and actors and aromatherapists – and keep the wheels of the economy turning, and put bread on the tables of some of the poorest and hardest-working families in the city.

The UK Defamation Bill, currently going through the House of Lords in the British Parliament, requires the plaintiff to show that the UK is clearly the most appropriate place to bring a case, rather than simply the one where it will be easiest to win. 

We are trying to dissuade libel tourism on a point of principle,” Prime Minister David Cameron’s spokeswoman, Vickie Sheriff, told reporters on Tuesday.

Starting in 2000 London began attracting Russian oligarchs – among them Boris Berezovsky, Vladimir Gusinsky, Roman Abramovich, Oleg Deripaska, Vladimir Lisin, Viktor Vekselberg, Vagit Alekperov and others. Many of them claim that London is not their permanent place of residence, but they usually own real estate in the UK capital. In September Russian billionaire Vladimir Slutsker lost his $65mn residence in Chelsea to his former spouse Olga Slutsker at the High Court of London.

In 2011 alone Russian legal battles helped push the profits of the top 100 London law firms to more than £5bn for the first time, The Guardian reported in September. The legal fees in just the Berezovsky vs. Abramovich case exceeded 100 million UK pounds. 

"Litigation for Russian clients has been a massive source of revenue for a number of firms – both big firms and boutique firms," Mark McAteer, national editor of Legal Business magazine, told The Guardian.