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04 September 2012

Back in the New SSR (Slightly Smaller Russia), pursued in print by my old friends Boris Berezovsky and Roman Abramovich

Lady Gloster (right) showing the Queen round the court building
 in which the Berezovsky-Abramovich case was heard last year.
(Photo: Paris-Match)
After three weeks in Scotland and three in Spain (of which more later), I am back in a rainy but always intriguing Moscow with some good news for Russians struggling to write English to an acceptable standard. You should never forget that most of the English-speaking world cannot write English perfectly either. You are not alone!
     A good example comes from one of the most respectable, and usually well-written, newspapers in Britain, the Financial Times. The main news last weekend was the judgement in the Berezovsky-Abramovich case. I have followed this story closely ever since I spent a fascinating two days in the Commercial Court in London last October listening to Abramovich giving evidence. I described this experience in an article in Passport magazine in January (see pages 27-9). One of the main points I made concerned the amount of money to be made by the London legal community doing the work that the Russian courts do not seem to be trusted to do for some of the wealthier citizens of this country, and that all this is happening at a time when the Legal Aid budget for ordinary English litigants is being squeezed.
     It was therefore nice to see the Financial Times making the same point in an article last Friday, entitled “Exporting Integrity”. It was less nice to see how badly written the piece was. There are many language lessons to be learned so I am reproducing the article below, and beneath it drawing attention to some of the more obvious mistakes and examples of sloppy logic and inelegant style. The shame of it is that the FT was making a very good point: why should billionaires take advantage of state support for the court system? (I have italicised the words I draw attention to below.)

Exporting integrity     
In England, as a 19th-century judge once observed, justice is open to all – like the Ritz hotel. It is an analogy that might strike a chord with some of the world’s richest men, who have taken to availing themselves of the English courts rather as visiting plutocrats might a luxury hotel. Boris Berezovsky’s High Court feud with Roman Abramovich, which ended this week, set new records for litigants’ largesse. The two Russian oligarchs ran up costs of £100m, making this the most expensive lawsuit ever brought in Britain.
     Some argue that these cases should not be heard in England in the first place. Often they have only a tenuous connection to the UK, involving events that took place in third countries. Mr Berezovsky’s case, for instance, involved a tortuous dispute about the proceeds of assets acquired in the notorious Russian “loans for shares” deals in the 1990s.
     But at a time when demand for Britain’s other big service industry – the City – is waning, we should welcome the chance to adjudicate such vendettas, this is not just for their value to historians of post-Soviet turmoil or as pure public theatre. London’s status as the favoured destination for the litigious super-rich is a big money-spinner. Estimates suggest that more than 60 per cent of the case load of the High Court’s commercial division now comes from Russia and eastern Europe. And while it is true that a large chunk of the earnings that this generates goes to a few lucky lawyers, they do at least pay tax.
     There is a caveat, however. At a time when fiscal austerity is squeezing legal aid, foreign litigants must be seen to pay their way and not drain resources from an already overstretched court system. Providing Mr Berezovsky with a Ritz-style service should not condemn the average Englishman or woman to the legal equivalent of a flop house.
     At present, court fees in high-value commercial cases do not cover the cost of the service – especially in the High Court and Court of Appeal, where hearings are generally longer and judges more senior. The government should press ahead with plans to raise fees for those making the biggest financial claims – which would include much of the international commercial litigation in London. The legal industry complains that higher fees could drive business to other jurisdictions, but for the Berezovskys and their like, they are a fraction of the total bill.
     Just as the UK expects foreign students to pay full whack for access to its universities and hospitals, so it should demand a fair price for access to a professional and transparent legal system that many countries view with envy. Justice must be blind. It should not, however, be blind to the value of the service it offers.

Taking the italicised points in order:

  •      “High Court feud”: a feud is a long-running dispute which is not resolved by a single event like a court judgement. The whole point of the word is to suggest that there is an irrational quality to it, and the whole point of proper court proceedings is that they draw a dispute to a conclusion on purely rational grounds. It should have been “High Court dispute”, or possibly “battle”.
  •      “litigants’ largesse”: the litigants in this case spent a lot on lawyers, but it was not “largesse”. That word implies generosity, like tipping the shoe-shine boy $100. I am sure that neither Berezovsky nor Abramovich added to their costs by tipping their barristers or solicitors. The correct word should have been “extravagance”, which expresses the idea of liberal expenditure without the connotation of careless celebration which “largesse” carries.
  •      “costs of £100m”: how does the FT know? It should have written: “costs which have been estimated at £100m”.
  •      “events that took place in third countries”: what “third” country was involved? There was only Russia and England. It should have been “other” countries.
  •      “‘loans for shares’ deals”: the deals came as a result of the loans for shares scheme. This point is, I accept, arguable. But I think it would have been more accurate to have written: “deals resulting from the loans for shares scheme”, especially as the point at issue in Berezovsky’s case was not any deal with the government so much as his deal with Abramovich after the two of them had taken advantage of the staggeringly inept scheme (from a public finance point of view) by which the Yeltsin government tried to raise money in the mid-1990s.
  •      “adjudicate such vendettas”: courts in Britain do not deal with “vendettas” which, like feuds (see above) are conflicts which survive all attempts at resolution. Courts adjudicate “claims”, which is a completely different, and strictly limited, matter. Doubtless Berezovsky and Abramovich will continue their feud, and Berezovsky will pursue his vendetta, long after this case has been resolved.
  •      “pure public theatre”: why “pure” public theatre? Why is a court more “purely” theatrical than, for example, a theatre? And how can a court case have, as the first part of the sentence says, “value” when entry to the court is free, as is all public reporting of it?
  •      “Estimates suggest”: “estimates” cannot “suggest”. “Experts” can suggest, or estimate. The FT would have been better to have written: “It has been estimated that more than 60%…”
  •      “caveat”: though caveat is a verb, as in “caveat emptor” (buyer beware!), it is commonly used as a noun these days, as in “There are several caveats”, meaning there are several warnings about problems likely to arise. The point about oligarchs getting full-service courts at less than full cost is a criticism, not a warning. The word “caveat” is wrongly used here.
  •      “large chunk”: this is an inappropriate colloquialism in an article of this nature. It would have been better to have written “most of the earnings…”
  •      Taking the second colloquialism next, out of sequence: the same is true, lower down, of “flop house”, which in any case is not the opposite of “the Ritz hotel”, as the context suggests the writer thought it to be. “Holiday Inn” might have been better counterpoint since “flop house”, as Russian readers might not realise, is an old-fashioned slang term for a brothel. If English magistrates run brothel-like operations, what does that imply about Lady Gloster’s court? Nothing very flattering, I fear, which would be totally unfair to an excellent judge. I doubt the FT, especially in its leader columns, which is where this article appeared, would want to be associated with such an impolite innuendo.
  •      And finally on colloquialisms: “full whack” in the last paragraph: why not “the full cost”? Is this sort of thing an attempt to imitate American journalism, which is often even in respectable publications, more colloquial than its English equivalent? If so, it is not very successful because American colloquialisms tend to be amusing as well as “democratic”.
  •      “they are a fraction”: “higher fees”, which the writer proposes for the future are not “a fraction of the total bill” for “the Berezovskys and their like” since a proposal cannot be described in the present tense. Proposals are, by their nature, future events, not current ones. This should have been written: “higher fees… would still be a fraction of the total bill.”
  •      “it should demand a fair price”: what is a “fair” price for court services, or indeed anything? What the writer was trying to say, in his or her not very articulate way, was that the UK should charge all litigants the “full cost” of access to English courts, especially in complex commercial cases. 
  •      Finally, what on earth is a “transparent legal system” in the context of “blind” justice? It would seem the writer wanted to say this: the international “view” of “blind” justice is that it is “transparent”. But on what possible view can blindness be transparent? We all know that panes of glass cannot see, but what has that got to do with court fees for foreign oligarchs? If I had been the sub-editor on duty last Friday evening at Canary Wharf, and in possession of a stout ruler or cane, I would have given the writer of this disgracefully illiterate piece a full whacking, of the sort he might have enjoyed in the local flop house.
     Before leaving the subject of this fascinating case, I suggest that any readers interested should read Lady Gloster’s Executive Summary of her judgement, which is posted (transparently?) on the Court website. You will notice that Berezovsky claims he pays tax in Russia (and therefore presumably does not pay it in Britain). Oh yeah? Pull the other one, Boris!
     You will also read, at paragraph 34, just what her Ladyship thought of the diminutive plaintiff. In a long career of reading legal judgement, I have never come across so coruscating a description of a litigant as this. And, unlike the FT, Lady Gloster writes as elegantly as she looks. My only regret is that I shall never be a fly on the wall when she gets Berezovsky alone in her room, equipped with a stout ruler or cane, and gives wee Boris a full-service flop-house whacking, as I am sure she thinks he deserves. That’d be something to tell the grandchildren!


  1. "I have followed this story closely ever since I spent a fascinating two days..."

    pardon me mentioning that, but shouldn't you write "I have followed this story closely ever since I spent fascinating two days ..."? - i.e. without using the article?
    Would you please comment on the subject. I am agog to be treated as an arrogant kid and yield a piece of fruit of an astonishing English-language knowledge from you.


  2. Dear Boris Anonymous,

    Thank you for that. No, we generally say "a fascinating two days", I suppose because it is like "a period of time", in other words "fascinating two days" is one thing. Maybe there is another reason. I am honestly not sure. But English is a language with few rules but many conventions, or customary usages (but always with the freedom to alter them and invent new ones).

    Sorry not to be able to be of more help, but thank you for raising the matter anyway.

    Best wishes,

    Ian Blogfather

  3. thank you, my good sir.