Court is now in session

Portland’s Idil Oyman explores London’s role as a jurisdiction of choice

The UK courts are back in the spotlight. Debate is swirling about the use of super-injunctions, the need for new privacy laws to deal with Twitter and Max Mosley’s failed bid to require news outlets to contact subjects of their stories before publication.

For years, the press and commentariat have debated the issue of ‘libel tourism’. Many lament that the UK is often seen as the best jurisdiction for foreign organisations or individuals to sue for libel. Demands for reform prompted the Government to issue a draft bill for an overhaul. All this is significant for the communications profession and the legal system alike.

However, the numbers of foreign litigants coming to the UK will likely continue to grow. London will remain a leading jurisdiction to hear international disputes, on libel and other issues.

The Law Society of England and Wales’s marketing brochure lures foreign claimants to this jurisdiction by offering judges experienced in hearing international disputes and considering foreign laws, proportionate procedures and access to “world class” legal advisors.

Whether they have seen the brochure or not, there is no doubt that London is increasingly the jurisdiction of choice for international disputes of all sorts. This means that reputations are also tried here and the outcomes echoed across the world.

All this brings tremendous opportunities for the legal and communications professions. Business is booming.

The latest data from 2009 show an impressive caseload before the UK courts. There were roughly 4,900 claims in the Chancery Division, which deals with disputes involving property in all its forms, and nearly 5,700 proceedings in the Queen’s Bench division, which deals mainly in contract and civil disputes as well as specialist matters.

In 2009-10, the top 100 largest law firms reported combined revenues of £13.73 billion.

While there are no official statistics, some estimate that more than half of the commercial disputes in the British courts come from Russia and CIS countries alone.

Highly visible legal proceedings involving Russian individuals and organisations have received significant column space in UK newspapers, often questioning whether this is an appropriate use of the UK courts.

One well-known Russian litigant, Boris Berezovsky, is quoted saying “the English courts are practically flawless.”

Even before this endorsement, the UK legal sector has generally welcomed the influx.

According to one legal expert, Russian businesses increasingly use British law for major business transactions. When a dispute arises, the UK becomes the natural jurisdiction to resolve it.

Law firms have boosted their Russia/CIS teams and now one group of barristers has established a chamber dedicated entirely to CIS disputes.

But it is not just Russians in court. London has long been a natural forum to resolve shipping and banking disputes.

With all this legal activity taking place in London, home to one of the most active and diverse media sectors, it should be no surprise that communication around litigation has become increasingly sophisticated and strategic. Claimants and defendants are using the media to shape public views of their disputes long before they face a judge or jury.

Portland’s lessons learned

Foreign organisations and individuals involved in litigation in the UK may at first be surprised by the level of public attention and scrutiny they receive from UK and global media. It makes sense then that legal counsel often involves suggesting a PR firm to provide communications support.

In many cases, the emergence of litigation accompanies a crisis. An organisation’s reputation can be quickly affected by press coverage. Media stories can ricochet and affect stock prices, spark regulatory interest and otherwise threaten the organisation’s interests. The stakes are high.

Like many communications challenges, the key is to ensure effective and consistent messages are deployed to protect a client’s reputation. An effective legal team will include practitioners who are accustomed to operating in a crisis environment where clear thinking and implementation are critical.

Collectively, our lessons learned in politics, crises and legal communications are boiled down to these guiding principles:
1. Facts trump spin…know the story
2. Speed kills…but not as quickly as indecision
3. Silence can be golden…but not always worth as much as the lawyers think
4. Know your audience…the media and the courts have different needs
5. Demand a seat at the table…communications is best if part of the legal strategy

All of that is to say that each crisis and case requires a careful analysis of the facts and smart strategy so the client can receive a fair hearing, in court and in the press. Every programme is approached with our integrity intact and our client’s best interest in mind. Much like in law, these are complementary pursuits.

Idil Oyman is an Associate Director and heads up Portland’s litigation practice.