08 July 2020
Mikhail Fridman, Petr Aven and German Khan vindicated in decisive victory against Christopher Steele in High Court
The Honourable Mr Justice Warby1 has today ruled in favour of claimants Mikhail Fridman, Petr Aven and German Khan (the “Claimants”) in a case brought by them against Orbis Business Intelligence Limited (“Orbis”), the company co-founded by Christopher Steele, for breaches of the Data Protection Act 1998 (the “DPA”) following publication of the so-called “Steele Dossier” in January, 20172.
The Claimants’ complaint arose out of the contents of one report (“Memorandum 112”) contained within a collection of memoranda and reports prepared by Orbis at or around the time of the 2016 US Presidential Election and which came to be known as the “Steele Dossier”. Those reports, including Memorandum 112, were published online by BuzzFeed News in January 2017 and became central to one of the most notorious political and diplomatic scandals in recent US history.
Memorandum 112 contained unfounded, untrue and unverified statements about the Claimants, including allegations that they had a corrupt relationship with President Putin; that they and President Putin did mutual significant favours for each other; that they gave informal foreign policy advice to President Putin; and that they had bribed President Putin when he was Deputy Mayor of St. Petersburg in the 1990s. Mr Justice Warby has found all of these statements to be inaccurate or misleading as a matter of fact.
The Claimants commenced proceedings in London against Orbis in May 2018 to seek findings that the allegations were false and request modest damages by way of vindication3.
In a carefully considered judgment handed down today, Mr Justice Warby has (1) found that all of the allegations were inaccurate or misleading as a matter of fact; (2) found that Orbis failed to take reasonable steps to verify the allegation that two of the Claimants, Mr Fridman and Mr Aven, used an intermediary to deliver illicit cash to Mr Putin in the 1990s; (3) awarded damages to Mr Fridman and Mr Aven by way of vindication.
In his judgment, Mr Justice Warby outlined the Claimants’ case and primary objective to have a court declare the contents of Memorandum 112 to be inaccurate, and that is what he has unequivocally and clearly done today, in spite of a number of technical DPA-related defences presented by Orbis.
Most notably, Mr Justice Warby found that:
- Orbis “adduced no evidence from any witness or document which is capable of establishing the truth of any of [the challenged] statements.” (para 157).
- Messrs Fridman, Aven and Khan had discharged their “burden of proof” with respect to the inaccuracy or falsity of the challenged statements. (para 160).
- Mr Justice Warby also rejected the claims of Orbis, and accepted the Claimants’ unchallenged evidence that:
- the Claimants do not do favours for or receive favours from Mr Putin. (paras 161-164);
- Mr Fridman and Mr Aven do not provide informal foreign policy advice to Mr Putin (para 165);
- Mr Fridman did not meet with Mr Putin in September 2016 (para 166);
- the Claimants did not bribe Mr Putin when he was Deputy Mayor of St Petersburg (paras 167 – 168); and
- Mr Fridman and Mr Aven do not do Mr Putin’s political bidding (paras 169 - 174).
- Mr Justice Warby concluded that the challenged statements in the Steele Dossier “are inaccurate or misleading as a matter of fact.” (para 204, sub-para (5)).
In his judgment, Mr Justice Warby attached particular seriousness to the allegation of bribery and criminality contained within Memorandum 112 (stating “this is an allegation of serial criminal wrongdoing over a prolonged period”) and was especially critical of Orbis’s failure to take reasonable steps to verify the accuracy of these statements (paras 177-187), stating that “the steps taken to verify [this] proposition fell short of what would have been reasonable … [and] the allegation clearly called for closer attention, a more enquiring approach, and more energetic checking”.
Commenting on the judgment, Mikhail Fridman said
“We are delighted with the outcome of this case and that Mr Justice Warby has determined what we have always known to be the case – that the contents of Memorandum 112 are inaccurate and misleading. Ever since these odious allegations were first made public in January, 2017 my partners and I have been resolute and unwavering in our determination to prove that they are untrue, and through this case, we have finally succeeded in doing so.”
“Mr Justice Warby’s clear and decisive judgment reaffirms the confidence that we have always had in the fairness and integrity of the English legal system. We are immensely grateful to our first rate legal team, led by Hugh Tomlinson QC and Geraldine Proudler4, who have worked tirelessly and with great professionalism to bring about this result”.
Geraldine Proudler said:
“Mr Justice Warby’s judgment represents a complete vindication of Messrs Fridman, Aven and Khan in respect of seriously untrue allegations, and a significant defeat for Orbis and Mr Steele. This suit was never about money, it has always been about principle and truth, and Mr Justice Warby has specifically determined that the challenged allegations in the so-called Steele Dossier regarding Messrs Fridman, Aven and Khan are “inaccurate or misleading as a matter of fact.” (para 204 (5))
Mr Fridman and Mr Aven will be donating the damages they are to be paid by Orbis, together with a personal donation, to a non-political not for profit charitable foundation.
Director of Communications LetterOne, UK
President BGR Public Relations, US
Notes to editors
1 Judge in Charge of the Media and Communications List in the Queen’s Bench Division of the English High Court
2 Aven, Fridman & Khan -v- Orbis Business Intelligence Limited, Case No: QB-2018-006349
3 The Claimants’ case against Orbis was that Orbis acted in breach of its duties under the DPA in that Memorandum 112 contained personal data relating to the Claimants, some of it sensitive personal data, which was inaccurate, and which had been processed by Orbis in ways that were unfair, unlawful or otherwise non-compliant with Orbis’s obligations under the DPA.
4 Partner, CMS Cameron McKenna Nabarro Olswang LLP