Leading City law firms are being forced to drop Russian clients after a Tory MP hit out at ‘amoral’ lawyers ‘teaming up with Putin’s henchmen’. Using parliamentary privilege, Bob Seely named John Kelly of Harbottle & Lewis, Nigel Tait of Carter Ruck, Geraldine Proudler from international law firm CMS, and Hugh Tomlinson QC from Matrix.
Yesterday the Law Society’s Gazette reported that the Magic circle firms were dropping Russian clients. Allen & Overy announced it would be ‘reviewing our Russia-related portfolio’. ‘We have been very moved by the stories we have heard from the people in Ukraine, who have been put in such a horrific position by this unlawful invasion,’ a statement said.
Ashurst had taken a policy decision ‘to not at present act for any new or existing Russian clients’; and Freshfields said a number of client arrangements had been ‘terminated, suspended or declined’ in response to the events of the last week.
Bob Seely, a former soldier, told the House of Commons that the named lawyers were complicit in ‘legalised intimidation’ efforts, accusing them of taking money from Russian oligarchs to sue British journalists. ‘How on earth have we allowed this to happen?’, the Isle of Wight MP asked.
Over the weekend the Observer’s Nick Cohen wrote about ‘how a section of legal London profits from Russian billionaires’ and, in particular, how Russian oligarchs used the libel courts to shut down criticism. Cohen cited the legal action against the publishers Harper Collins over a book by Catherine Belton’s Putin’s People, an exposé of Putin’s rise to power. The legal action settled ‘agreeing to make changes to the text most readers wouldn’t notice’, Cohen noted. ‘Yet although it never went to a full hearing, the case, it was revealed to me, cost HarperCollins £1.5m,’ wrote the journalist. This, he claimed, was ‘178 times’ the price of a similar libel trial in France.
Speaking about the Belton case, Seely told parliament: ‘A free press should be intimidating kleptocrats and criminals. Why have we got to this position in our society – a free society, the mother of Parliaments – where we have kleptocrats, criminals and oligarchs intimidating a free media? We have a coalition not of the willing, but of the woeful. Oligarchs, Putin’s henchmen, team up with amoral lawyers.’
The accusations follow government claims that City law firms are frustrating attempts to impose sanctions on oligarchs. Speaking to The Independent, Labour MP Ben Bradshaw revealed details from a parliamentary briefing with foreign secretary Liz Truss. ‘She [Truss] was talking about why we weren’t going faster on sanctioning some of these people,’ he said. ‘She explained that they had to make certain their actions were legally watertight, because of the litigiousness of the London law firms representing these men.’
Responding to the accusations, Carter-Ruck Solicitors confirmed that the firm does not work for ‘any Russian individuals, companies, or entities’ seeking to ‘to challenge, overturn, frustrate or minimise sanctions’, nor does it work with any affiliates of the Putin regime.
Additional reporting by Jon Robins