UK

Russian billionaire asks Supreme Court to stop ex-wife’s divorce case

Russian businessman Vladimir Potanin wants Supreme Court justices to block his ex-wife’s bid to make a money claim in London (Yui Mok/PA)
Russian businessman Vladimir Potanin wants Supreme Court justices to block his ex-wife’s bid to make a money claim in London (Yui Mok/PA) Russian businessman Vladimir Potanin wants Supreme Court justices to block his ex-wife’s bid to make a money claim in London (Yui Mok/PA)

A sanctioned Russian businessman has taken a money fight with his ex-wife to the UK’s Supreme Court in a bid to avoid what could become the highest-value divorce case in English legal history.

Vladimir Potanin, estimated to be worth around 20 billion US dollars (£16.5 billion), wants to overturn a Court of Appeal decision allowing Natalia Potanina to bring a multibillion-pound claim against him in London.

Lawyers for the billionaire launched a bid to stop Mrs Potanina’s claim going ahead at a hearing in the capital on Tuesday, arguing that Mr Potanin faces “prolonged litigation” in the English courts which are “renowned for their generosity” in cases of this kind.

Mrs Potanina’s legal team say the Court of Appeal took the correct approach and that she has “earned her share” of the family’s wealth after years of marriage.

Supreme Court
Supreme Court Vladimir Potanin’s bid to halt his ex-wife’s money claim was heard by a panel of Supreme Court justices (Victoria Jones/PA)

Appeal judges were previously told that Mrs Potanina is seeking around £5 billion from her ex-husband following the breakdown of their marriage.

The Supreme Court was told that she wants half of the value of his shares in mining firm Norilsk Nickel, half the dividends on the shares since 2014, and half the value of a Russian property known as The Autumn House.

Mrs Potanina’s lawyers said in 2019 that the size of her claim over the company’s shares could be as much as 9 billion US dollars (£7.4 billion), her ex-husband’s legal team said.

Mr Potanin blocked his ex-wife’s attempt to bring a case against him in England in November 2019, with a High Court judge ruling that her claim was an example of “divorce tourism”.

But in a May 2021 ruling, the Court of Appeal cleared the way for Mrs Potanina to take her case forward.

In June last year, Mr Potanin – then described as Russia’s second richest man and owner of conglomerate Interros – was hit with UK sanctions following the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The billionaire was accused of continuing to “amass wealth” as he supported Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime by buying Rosbank and shares in Tinkoff Bankonith since the start of the conflict.

Mr Potanin and Mrs Potanina, both in their early 60s, wed in Russia in 1983, where they lived throughout their married life, and have three adult children.

The billionaire’s lawyers told a panel of five Supreme Court justices that the former couple were “not wealthy” in the early days of the marriage, but “the collapse of the Soviet Union created financial opportunities enabling the husband to accumulate vast wealth there”.

Mr Potanin claims the pair separated in 2007, with a Russian court granting a divorce in 2014.

But Mrs Potanina argues that they did not separate until 2013 when their marriage “ended suddenly”.

Lord Faulks KC, for Mr Potanin, told Tuesday’s proceedings that the couple’s legal battle has involved “the most extensive litigation imaginable overseas”, with 43 hearings in Russia as well bids by Mrs Potanina to bring cases in the US and Cyprus.

Proceedings in Russia led to an award of 84 million US dollars (£69 million) being made to Mrs Potanina, Mr Faulks said.

In written arguments, he said this was disputed by her lawyers, who claim it was a 41.5 million US dollars (£34 million) award.

Lord Faulks told the hearing that Mr Potanin, who has since remarried and lives in Russia, was only able to be legally represented after receiving permission from the Treasury’s Office of Financial Sanctions Implementation (Ofsi).

In written arguments, Lord Faulks said the law “encourages forum-shopping in ‘big money cases’ such as this”.

But he said Mrs Potanina has “a very limited connection with England and Wales” and that the law does not allow for a “top-up” of a foreign award.

He said appeal judges had “overreached” in their “inappropriate and justified” ruling, adding that Mrs Potanina had to show she suffered “adverse consequences” as a result of the Russian litigation.

“No ordinary man in the street would say that an award of over 80 million dollars could give rise to adverse consequences,” Lord Faulks said.

Charles Howard KC, for Mrs Potanina, said in written arguments that her ex-husband’s case is “without merit” and that she is a “fully-entitled wife” after being the main carer to their children, working for his businesses, and project-managing “the construction/renovation of the family homes, business premises and yachts”.

The barrister said she has “done all she can to obtain justice”, adding that there is no evidence she is a “divorce tourist”.

Mrs Potanina has “very real connections” to England, having lived here since 2016 and “severed her connection with Russia”, Mr Howard added.

He said Mr Potanin has become “spectacularly wealthy and one of the world’s richest individuals”, but his ex-wife has been “wholly deprived of anything like a fair share of the family’s wealth”.

Mr Howard said Mrs Potanina is “entitled to a fair share of those assets built up during the marriage”, during which they “enjoyed a billionaire lifestyle”, and added that “the sums in this case are going to be at the most extreme end of the spectrum”.

The barrister said the “costs and delay in this case have been eye-watering, with no substantive progress”, and that, as of January 2022, Mr Potanin had spent more than £8.4 million, while his ex-wife had spent £1.4 million.

The hearing before Lords Stephens, Briggs, Lloyd-Jones and Leggatt and Lady Rose is due to conclude on Wednesday, with a ruling expected at a later date.