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

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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