Interview: legal titan Sarosh Zaiwalla

Sarosh Zaiwalla's client list has included names such as the Gandhi family, Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan, the Dalai Lama, Saddam Hussein and Benazir Bhutto, while he has worked for the governments of Dubai, China, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and China. As he looks to expand his firm into the Middle East, he is taking on another hot topic: representing Iran’s biggest bank as it sues the UK government for damages over sanctions
By Shane McGinley
Fri 21 Feb 2014 10:57 AM

Sarosh Zaiwalla has been in the legal business for over 30 years. Famous as the first Asian to set up a law firm in London, if he ever plans to retire his memoirs will certainly become an instant bestseller as his client list reads like a who’s who of international politics.

He fired a young jobbing barrister by the name of Tony Blair for being unprepared to defend a case. Working for the Indian High Commissioner brought him a caseload of work from the likes of the Gandhi family and Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan, while the Dalai Lama personally met him and asked him to try and broker a settlement with the Chinese.

Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein sent his associates to try and persuade him to represent the regime in a legal action against the US before the second Gulf War. In 2007, he flew to Dubai and escorted former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto to London and had dinner with her, where she said she was determined to match him up with a wife.

While his waiting list also currently includes the Kazakh, Mongolian and Chinese governments, Zaiwalla’s current focus is on the Middle East and a real hot topic: Iran. The Indian-born lawyer filed a case at Britain’s Commercial Court, on 14 February, on behalf of Bank Mellat, Iran’s biggest lender.

The filing stems from a previous case which the bank brought against the UK government and in which Zaiwalla successfully argued in the UK Supreme Court that sanctions issued against the lender were unlawful. The bank is now claiming damages.

It is estimated the amount will run into the hundreds of millions of dollars and was initially estimated at around £500m ($825m), but some latest reports have claimed the eventual amount awarded could run as high as $4bn. Zaiwalla says this is the first time a successful Iranian plaintiff against sanctions in Europe has pursued a damages claim: “It is a test case; it is very much a test case... The legal position is this: The Supreme Court has referred the matter back to the High Court to determine the loss.

“There are forensic accountants involved... We would argue that the UK government has to pay the loss which is equivalent to [the amount] required to put Bank Mellat back in a position as it would have been if this listing had not taken place. There is no dispute on liability, it is just the loss. It is straightforward in that liability will not be an issue but the quantity will be an issue.”

Zaiwalla believes the case’s likely positive outcome will lead to a flood of similar hearings.

“The decision that the British government had singled out Bank Mellat without rational and valid legal ground could prove a precedent-setting case that has wider reaching implications for Western sanctions against Iran and could lead to further payouts,” he says. “To my knowledge, there are ten other private Iranian companies bringing lawsuits in Europe and Iranian state entities are also beginning to take legal action.

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“It reveals a great deal about the high quality of the British justice system that a court would make a decision against the British government in favour of a bank from Iran, a country that is perceived to be hostile to the UK. I am not sure if this could happen in any other legal system around the world.”

The issue of Iranian sanctions has become a hot topic. Iran and six world powers struck an interim deal in November under which Tehran agreed to limit parts of its nuclear work in return for the easing of some sanctions.

Under the Geneva deal, Iran’s access to several billion dollars of its oil revenues held abroad will be unblocked. The EU will suspend bans on insuring and transporting Iranian oil, and on trade in petrochemicals and precious metals; the United States will suspend sanctions on Iran’s auto industry and the supply of spare parts for airplanes.

Zaiwalla regularly travels to meet clients in Iran and he believes the easing of sanctions will open the country up to future trade opportunities. Things are moving so fast, he recently had to move a scheduled meeting from Tehran to Dubai because of difficulty in finding a hotel room available in the Iranian capital.

Dubai is, of course, no stranger to Zaiwalla and represents yet another success story for him as he has been called upon to represent the Dubai royal family on numerous occasions.

“With the Dubai royalty we had a case in the 90s when the ruler was involved [and] a Dubai bank...a Dubai court had given a judgment in five days for some AED330m ($89.9m) and the Dubai bank wanted to enforce it.

“We succeeded and it was a hard fought case. Obviously the Dubai ruler was quite impressed and gave us a licence to start a firm. We didn’t start a firm but we had a licence to start a firm without a sponsor — which was quite unique.”

The success of the case led to more high-profile introductions: “He [the Dubai ruler] was very impressed and invited me to have lunch with Nelson Mandela in the 1990s and in the early 2000s he invited me to dinner with the Australian prime minister when we were the only ones invited. I know him, he knows me only as Sarosh Zaiwalla... I can’t say I can have a chat with him,” Zaiwalla says modestly.

One of the famous local cases he was involved in was in February 1982 when he handled a large international arbitration in New Orleans for the Global Shipping Company of Dubai, who had a multi-million-dollar international arbitration dispute with ADC of New Orleans, who were the contractors for Chicago Beach Village Project in Dubai. The Chicago Beach Village Project, of course, went on to become the Jumeirah Beach Hotel, back in the early days when the Jumeirah Group was at a very early stage. This case also involved the aforementioned young Mr Blair, long before he went a-knocking on the door of 10 Downing Street.

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With successes such as the Al Rustamani family’s international case at the Gibraltar High Court and a AED300m construction dispute before Dubai International Arbitration Centre, it is a wonder it took Zaiwalla so long to put down roots in Dubai, but this is what he is currently in the process of doing.

“We have decided to expand this year in Dubai and other markets. It is a new market but we have to be very cost conscious as when you open an office it increases your overheads and one of our selling points is we charge less than other firms.

“Our principal reason is because Dubai is a centre for us to handle cases from India, Pakistan, South Africa and China. It is a commercial capital of Asia now and is competing with Singapore,” he says.

As part of the expansion into the emirates and wider Middle East, Zaiwalla’s firm has partnered with United Advocates Group, one the UAE’s fastest-growing law firms.

With such a vast array of knowledge of winning cases in multiple jurisdictions for many household names, Zaiwalla is certainly an expert on the legal system and when it comes to giving his verdict on the Dubai legal system he is more than candid.

“I think it needs to be improved... The local courts, the Sharia court, require enormous improvement in my experience. They don’t have the same standards one expects from the best in judges.

“The common perception is that in Dubai it depends on who you know. A powerful defendant wins against someone from overseas. If it is a sheikh as a defendant there is that perception... In England it doesn’t matter if it is the prime minister or the government who is the defendant. The Supreme Court with nine judges has the courage to tell the government you are wrong. The government couldn’t do anything at all.”

His comments come just weeks after Gabriela Knaul, the UN special rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, visited the UAE for nine days and gave her verdict on the judicial system.

Knaul, making the first information-gathering visit to the UAE by an independent expert designated by the UN Human Rights Council, made no mention of any specific cases but she said in a press conference that it was her opinion that the UAE judicial system is “under the de facto control of the executive branch of the government”.

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In a statement in response, the UAE justice ministry said the independence of the judiciary was guaranteed by the constitution and the country was committed to strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights.

Part of Zaiwalla’s success is not just his fantastic legal brain but also his unwavering belief in the legal system and that everyone should be allowed access to justice. One of his firm’s unique selling points is the fact it charges less than some of his rivals, who he sees as bloated and overpriced.

“Legal services do cost a lot. When I started 32 years ago England was different from what it is now. You saw barristers in a small room, now you see barristers in posh offices.”

With the Middle East now in his sights, Zaiwalla remembers how the first step setting up his firm over 30 years ago was the first brave move and its proven success is what keeps him positive. He is glad that he has now paved the way for more Asians to move into the profession and follow his example.

“The environment has changed quite a lot. When I started as an Asian solicitor it was very difficult. If I got a job it would have been very difficult for me to go up the ladder so I was told to start on my own firm.

“It was a new concept in those days and many thought — especially my Asian friends — that I was mad, but somebody has to make a start. You have to start a long mile with a single step... Success comes to those to dare to act,” he says.

Zaiwalla has certainly dared to act, and after his long list of successes proves it, but has he ever turned any high-profile clients down?

“I have turned down quite a few people. If I find the client is not speaking the truth then I would turn him down. I have a strong principle: I don’t deal with any cases concerning armaments or drugs... If I find they have acted inhumanly then I wouldn’t act for them.”

And who are those he turned down? He’s not saying, but the mind can only imagine. I guess we’ll just have to wait for those memoirs.

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