Friday morning at the High Court and the benches are packed with barristers eager to get on with their applications. Robert Hunter – recently voted one of the five outstanding practitioners in civil fraud – is about to make an application to a judge who is tetchy at the best of times. “I asked for the judge’s indulgence because I was deaf, and the judge said ‘Nonsense, I can hear you perfectly’.
“I didn’t dare look round,” Hunter recalls. “I knew everyone was grinning and if I had started to laugh it would have been terrible.”
That Hunter can laugh at all is remarkable. The head of Allen & Overy’s trust, asset tracing and fraud group leads a life that would drain most people of their last reserves of energy, let alone their sense of humour.
Hunter has been leading this kind of life for most of this decade. Even before he became a partner, he headed Allen & Overy’s team in the leading case in interim orders, Derby v Weldon.
He has since acted in such high-profile cases as Gruppo Torras in which the Kuwaiti Investment Office sought to recover hundreds of millions of dollars. And he is currently working on a breach of trust case for Swedish enterprise, Trustor, where the defendants include Conservative Party luminary Lord Moyne, a member of the Guinness family.
Hunter is one of a handful of lawyers with a thorough knowledge of the immense sums floating off-shore. Colleagues say he works incredibly hard, even by City standards, and that he has tremendous stamina and a persistence which is “terrier-like”.
Ministry of Sound director James Palumbo, who has worked with Hunter on several occasions says: “He is extremely clever. But you’d expect a City lawyer to be that. The difference is that he’s very shrewd.”
You might think that Hunter’s work for the Public Trustee’s Office doesn’t sound like much fun. “The ways people take advantage of the elderly never fail to disgust me,” he says. But then he adds: “And I take enormous satisfaction in recovering the assets.”
Perhaps he has kept his enjoyment of life because, as Ian Geering QC says: “He has a tremendous imagination. You have to find the vulnerable point, and that’s a matter of intuition in fraud like nothing else. That’s why it isn’t much hardship working so hard, because the subject is so interesting.”
People who have worked opposite Hunter say he is “very fair, and very effective”. Freshfields partner Chris Mallon, who was on the Lovell White Durrant team in Derby v Weldon, says: “He showed good judgement in the case.”
To Hunter, the combination of trust work, asset tracing and complainant fraud is “impossible to separate …we found the group formed itself”. The same might be said of his own career following Derby v Weldon. Over the past decade offshore trustees have increasingly needed advice against claims by third parties.
A major factor has been the growth in the globalisation of the money flow. Tracing assets, knowing the banking laws of many jurisdictions and who are the best lawyers there has become a skill in its own right. There is usually some claim that there is a constructive trust, and that is meat and drink to trust lawyers.
Conversely, fraud lawyers were needed by trust lawyers because of the increase in trust litigation. Both use asset tracing. What Hunter likes about the area is that the cases “don’t run on tramlines: you need an imaginative approach. You quickly learn if an opponent knows what he is doing”.
It isn’t the stately dance of claim, defence and counter-claim of conventional litigation. Almost immediately after Hunter’s clients become aware of a fraud, the fraudster is likely to get wind of their knowledge, and take evasive action.
Hunter’s work involves a avalanche of interim injunctions to freeze assets and inspect accounts, often made on the run. When an action starts, Hunter’s office becomes the centre of a web stretching round the world.
When Hunter says he can soon detect if his opponent lawyers know what they are doing, he is referring to the poker-player side of the business. “You could run a claim on conventional lines and recover far less than you should, but still have done nothing that comes close to professional negligence.”
But there are many situations where the other side’s failure to have good representation is due to something other than poor choices of the client. Often the other side will not pay the proper rate for the lawyers it ought to have, or has no lawyer at all, because the putative fraudster doesn’t want Hunter’s clients to know that he has the money to pay the fees.
In England, this means only one thing, that there is something fishy going on. But that is a failure of understanding Hunter thinks we need to address. He says that in the Middle East and parts of the Far East having to reveal exact details of your wealth is particularly offensive. The parties get very angry and disclose the absolute minimum. This leads inevitably to an even tougher injunction.
To a foreigner who has not been through the English legal mill before this may look as if the judge has pre-judged the issue. So they are tempted to lie on oath about the size of their assets. This confirms to the judge that he was right, he slaps more draconian orders on and it becomes a vicious spiral.
“We need to recognise cultural differences,” says Hunter. “We need disclosure orders and defendants must comply with them. But people from other jurisdictions may not enter the process with the same faith in its fairness, and need to be reassured.”
That is a change of attitude. The change in law he would most like to see is something to make the tracing of the proceeds of fraud easier.
Most frauds are simple. It is tracing what has become of the money that is difficult. Fraudsters “cascade” the money, in different sums, at different dates, into different accounts, in different jurisdictions.
“In most cases I spend as much time finding the assets as proving the fraud,” Hunter complains. “I’d like to see a convention whereby a victim of fraud who brings forward strong evidence and puts up security for costs ought to be given a single tracing order to pursue enquiries without breaching Swiss secrecy laws or EU Data Protection, or whatever, in every jurisdiction.”
Hunter, who started to go deaf in his mid-teens, . By the time he was 20 people were noticing. But he says: “It’s not a disadvantage at all times. You can say it’s a huge advantage having to select from a long debate those points you really need to hear. You have to be well-organised intellectually.
“Judges are quite helpful. And I try out kit. I’ve got a system to hear what is said in court, now.” He shrugs. “It works part of the time.”
Hunter cares immensely about his work, but a heavy workload doesn’t prevent him having other passions – one of which is flying. Apart from an ex-Soviet Air Force Yakovlev 52 tandem basic trainer aircraft that he uses for aerobatics, he is building a bi-plane in his cellar.
“Yes, I’ve checked that I can get it out,” he says.
“Everyone asks me that.”
head of trust, asset tracing and fraud group
Allen & Overy