The Rolls Building, the newly-opened court centre of the Royals Courts of Justice on Fetter Lane, is currently being put through its paces as it plays host to what promises to be one of the most bitterly-fought legal battles of the year. Boris Berezovsky, represented by Laurence Rabinowitz, is seeking more than £3 billion in damages for alleged breach of trust and breach of contract from his former business partner Roman Abramovich, represented by Jonathan Sumption QC. This week I had the chance to witness a small portion of this mammoth piece of litigation, as Berezovsky took to the witness stand to be cross-examined by Mr Sumption.
Court 26 was unable to contain the hosts of lawyers, journalists, and members of the public who had arrived to participate or observe. Arriving half an hour before the trial was set to recommence, I was directed to one of two adjacent rooms which had been furnished with a live video link to the court room itself. Disappointed not to get a seat in court room itself, I waited in the corridor outside the court a little while longer. All around me, bodyguards, journalists and lawyers loitered listlessly; I caught sight of Mr Berezovsky, deep in conversation, as he waited for his cross-examination to continue. Eventually, the trial started, and I found a seat in one of the video-linked rooms. Even these rooms were busy, with rows of chairs arranged to allow as many people as possible to see the two large monitors. One monitor displayed video footage of the courtroom, showing both a wide view of the court and a close-up of the witness stand. The other showed a live transcript being made of the proceedings.
The atmosphere in the room was strange; on the one hand it felt like we were in court, and I had to fight the impulse to stand up when Mrs Justice Gloster entered the court. On the other hand, the other people in the room and I were able to discuss the events of the trial as they took place, lessening the usual gravity of proceedings, and some people were responding to Berezovsky’s cross-examination with the chuckles and intakes of breath normally reserved for less serious circumstances. The overall effect, underlined by the large monitors, was to emphasise how much what was taking place had become a public spectator sport. The set-up meant one gained a new perspective on the trial, while missing certain elements altogether. It was certainly unusual to have such a close view of Berezovsky as he responded to Mr Sumption’s questions. On the other hand, Mrs Justice Gloster was a disembodied voice permanently out of sight of the cameras. The dual view provided by the cameras emphasised the clash of personality between Mr Berezovsky and Mr Sumption as they locked horns over the myriad of business dealings that form the background of this litigation.
Rumours abound of Jonathan Sumption QC’s future appointment to the Supreme Court; though nothing has been officially confirmed it is widely believed that he has postponed his appointment in order to represent Mr Abramovich in this litigation. For those interested in seeing truly top-class litigation, witnessing a top Silk conducting what is probably his last trial, or merely intrigued by the fascinating spectacle of the two billionaire oligarchs going head-to-head, this trial is one to watch. Just be sure to get there early or you’ll be forced to watch by video-link. The trial continues.
Hugh Cumber is currently studying his GDL at The City Law School.