It ain't over till it's over
8 April 2001
If only a Hollywood director had been called in to choreograph the end of the BCCI case.
Picture it now: it is the end of an eight-year fight to win the right to bring the Bank of England to book over its handling of the BCCI collapse. It is a battle in the name of a Hertfordshire Council, Three Rivers, which is fighting to regain some of the cash it banked in the ill-fated institution. Cue shots of impoverished children trying to work in tumbledown classrooms looking for a way out of the ghetto (yes, I know, Three Rivers is in Hertfordshire, but remember, this is Hollywood).
You have the picture, so let us fast forward to the ending. Against all the odds, the House of Lords has ruled that Deloitte & Touche, the liquidator, can sue the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street for up to £1bn under the tort of misfeasance. Cue shot of one Chris Grierson punching the air on the steps outside as the credits roll.
Unfortunately, this is real life, and Lovells' insolvency litigation partner Chris Grierson heard the news in New York, where he was attending various meetings. When we met, there had not even been a celebratory toast to Grierson, although that week's partnership meeting in Brussels, which he was also unable to attend, had mentioned the success.
"I got my moment of glory third hand," says Grierson philosophically. "I got lots of nice emails and phonecalls though, and while that's very nice, there were lots of other people involved as well, for example my assistant Neil Dooley. The bar team, too, worked tremendously hard - it was very much a team effort. I'm sure we'll have a celebratory drink at some point."
Lord Neill of Bladen QC, head of Serle Court Chambers, was lead counsel on the case and was referred to by Grierson as "a tower of strength". He adds: "Patrick is an amazing character, especially given that he's in his 70s. One thing I like about litigation is that when you're stuck in the trenches you make tremendous friendships."
On the BCCI case Grierson worked with his old friend Chris Morris of Deloitte & Touche, who he first worked with on the Laker v British Airways litigation around 20 years ago. This, says Grierson, is perhaps the case that he looks back on with most pride. "It's quite a challenge when you take on the establishment, and quite a challenge taking on big organisations that think they can protect themselves fairly well - sometimes they can and sometimes they can't."
Grierson arrived for the interview having just flown in from New York and looking slightly jetlagged. Or perhaps the slight greyness about the gills was more the look of a man who has just finished an eight-year case. The trouble is, of course, that it is only just beginning. "I've been involved since 1994," he says. "I was based in the New York office until 1994, where I did BCCI-related work. It's only when you look back afterwards that you realise just how much time has passed. The case is an indictment on our legal system. If we'd had the new [Woolf] rules, then maybe it wouldn't have taken so long."
So was he surprised when the judgment came through? Grierson, of course, plays to win and so no judgment in his favour will come as a surprise. Cautiously, he ventures: "When we came out of the House of Lords hearing we thought we'd got our points over. We were very pleasantly surprised that it had come out so well."
The House of Lords hearing was, volume-wise, a mere drop in the ocean compared with the Court of Appeal one in 1998. While the Law Lords imposed a limit of four days on each of the appeals heard (last January and this one), the Court of Appeal hearings took one month. Grierson's team was composed of five counsel, two to three assistant solicitors, a trainee and a paralegal, all of whom were in court practically full time.
Now that the right to sue has been won, Grierson guesstimates that he is looking at a minimum of another two years to actually get the Bank of England to court, and he is bracing himself for a scrap over disclosure from the bank's internal records.
He expects particular trouble over obtaining a full version of the Bingham report into the BCCI saga, which was never made public.
Even given his jetlag, Grierson does not even hint that the thought of continuing the battle tires him. Neither, however, does he evince any relish about being able to get his teeth into the case after all this time. Which is partly why Hollywood would not be able to film the case - Grierson does not say goddammit once during the interview and neither does he punch the desk with his fist. Rather, he is a likeable, restrained and quietly spoken man.
However, one previous case that he was involved in did make it to the silver screen. Grierson worked on the Barings insolvency litigation, acting for ING, which came into the case quite quickly after it bought the bank that had been brought to its knees.
Unfortunately, Rogue Trader - the film made about the architect of its downfall, Nick Leeson, and the high-risk exchange games that did for Barings - did not reach quite as far as the litigation, so Grierson was not featured. Rather disappointingly, he will not even entertain the idea of playing the "which Hollywood actor should play you?" game.
As if handling the BCCI fight was not enough to have on his plate, Grierson also represented Prince Jefri in the "Chinese Walls" case, which ran for three very hectic months in 1998. In the case, KPMG's ability to act as both Prince Jefri's personal accountants and as investigators into tracing the missing millions from his brother the Sultan of Brunei's finances was questioned. The House of Lords judgment found in favour of Prince Jefri, so setting new standards for Chinese Walls. It is probably fair to say that Prince Jefri has a less than pure reputation in many circles, so did Grierson hesitate about representing him given his slightly "murky" background?
"Murky is the wrong description," states Grierson carefully. "The background facts to the case are somewhat unclear and controversial. We're a big and very reputable firm, and there are certain things that we would not wish to do. But we had no reason not to represent the prince and every reason to represent him."
Given the fast-track nature of the case, it proved a bonanza for the Singapura takeaway on Limeburner Lane as the 14-strong team worked into the night, says Grierson.
With his high profile in some of the biggest insolvency litigation cases of the past few years, it is surprising to learn that Grierson did not set out with the intention of becoming a City lawyer; he wanted to be a country solicitor.
After he had changed his mind, he moved to London in 1976 and became involved in litigation work. "I just enjoy the adversarial nature of litigation. I enjoy the fight - and there's a lot of stage craft involved in it as well," he says.
So why did he not opt for becoming a barrister? "I didn't originally become a barrister because I wanted to have the continuous client contact that you even now only get as a solicitor," he says. "I enjoy orchestrating the job, planning it out and making sure that everything goes smoothly. There is the excitement [for a barrister] of appearing in court, but I'd miss the overall involvement."
Being totally immersed in the case means that Grierson does not have many blank pages in his passport. After the interview he emails me to say that he has over 50 entry stamps for Bermuda and more than 100 for the US, as well as a good handful for British Virgin Islands and Brunei. "For some reason, I seem to get involved in cases that are located in places beginning with the letter B," he jokes. Future clients take note.