Last week’s reported judgment of the case of Stein v Chodiev & Ors  EWHC 1201 (Comm) in the English Commercial Court prompts several thoughts.
- IP Draughts’ recent and slightly flippant comments on this blog about the English courts being happy to hear disputes involving Russian oligarchs were too limited in scope: the English courts are happy to hear disputes involving Kazakhstan oligarchs as well. The first three defendants in the above case, popularly known as the Trio, are famous as the billionaire founders of ENRC Plc, or Eurasian Natural Resources Corporation, which was listed on the London Stock Exchange on 12 December 2007, but which (in the neutral words of the judge in this case) has very recently been re-privatised. For a more controversial discussion of the de-listing, see this news item in the Guardian from last Summer.
- Leading counsel on each side of this dispute were from the same set of barristers’ chambers, Essex Court Chambers. The terms “Chinese walls” doesn’t seem quite apt when the parties are from Kazakhstan and the USA. Let us hope the clerks didn’t make any mistakes in delivering papers to the wrong counsel. If the head clerk, David Grief, is on a traditional percentage of fees, he must have been quite pleased with these briefs!
- The case concerned the payment of commission of several million dollars in relation to fund-raising activities. Leading counsel for the Applicant (plaintiff to you and me), Daniel Oudkerk QC, comes from the employment bar, which is less surprising that it might at first appear. Commission cases, and their close relative, bonus cases, often require a mixture of commercial law and employment law expertise. Until recently, IP Draughts’ firm was involved in a commission case in which we hired the excellent Stuart Ritchie, who became a QC during the time we were instructing him. Stuart’s chambers specialise in disputes that are at the interface of commercial and employment law. Choosing the right barrister for a case is one of the more important skills that a solicitor can have.
- Drafting commission terms is a highly-skilled task, which requires the drafter to think through scenarios and make sure the wording is clear and gives effect to the parties’ intentions. Sometimes, the parties have not thought enough about those intentions and need to be prompted with “what if” questions. For instance, what happens if the deal is done after the commission agreement is terminated, but the party was involved in securing the deal? What happens if the target was known to the principal before he was introduced by the other party? What happens if the deal is not structured in the way the parties anticipate when the commission terms are agreed? And so on.
- Sometimes, and as the defendants argued unsuccessfully was the arrangement in this case, payments are to be made at the discretion of the employer or principal. Court cases can turn on whether the discretion has been exercised in a reasonable way.
- When dealing with the super-rich and super-powerful, it is very easy for the person seeking the commission to become a kind of courtier at the principal’s court. In other words, rather than rely on well-written contracts, the courtier accepts the assurances of the principal and hopes that, by keeping the principals’ goodwill, he will get the payments he was hoping for. After all, the amounts at stake are mere “chickenfeed” to the principal. Perhaps it is just the cases that IP Draughts sees, but in his experience this is a very high-risk strategy. It gives the courtier no definite protection (unless the court can be persuaded – see below) from the principal who no longer sees the value in the courtier, perhaps because his mind has been changed by the comments of others at court. IP Draughts has no knowledge of whether this happened in the present case, but notes that the commission terms were kept unwritten at the request of the defendants in this case, for reasons that were never really explained.
- Despite the relative lack of written evidence of the contract terms in the present case, the court found for the applicant. It seems he impressed the judge in the witness box, unlike the Trio. It is surprising to IP Draughts how many witnesses in English commercial cases fail to get the basic technique right – be consistent, don’t overstate, admit weaknesses, be reasonable, demonstrate trustworthiness. Perhaps different techniques of persuasion are needed in other countries’ courts, but IP Draughts doubts it.