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Last Updated: Tuesday, 13 January, 2004, 18:07 GMT
BCCI's big day in court

By Steve Schifferes
BBC News Online business reporter at the High Court

For the first time in its history, the Bank of England was in the dock, as BCCI creditors began their historic lawsuit to try to recover 1bn in damages for the UK Government's alleged failure properly to regulate the rogue bank.

In the centre of Courtroom 73 - the same court that had heard the Hutton Inquiry - stood a huge pile of document files, the heart of the case which BCCI's creditors are launching against the Bank of England.

There were hundreds of lever-arch files containing thousands of internal Bank documents that it has taken a decade-long legal fight to release.

It was standing-room only as the press and the public crowded in the back of the large courtroom, in front of four large video screens which will be displaying the key documents in the case.

But the public was nearly outnumbered by the teams of barristers and solicitors , with six barristers (including three QCs) and at least as many high-powered solicitors deployed by each side in front of their own video screens.

BCCI founder Agha Hasan Abedi
If any official had wanted to be bribed, BCCI's founder, the late Agha Hasan Abedi was 'your man'
The case could cost up to 100m to fight, with the legal arguments going on for at least a year with possible appeals and disputes over the size of any settlement afterwards.

The verdict will be decided by a single judge, Mr Justice Tomlinson.

And while the plaintiffs, acting for liquidators Deloitte, are relying solely on the mass of documents, the Bank of England will be calling three former governors - including Sir Edward George - and other key officials later in the trial.

Bad faith

The main lawyer for the complainants, the white-bearded Gordon Pollock QC, opened his case by referring to the Bank of England as a "once revered institution" - he emphasised the word once.

He said he intended to show that Bank of England officials had been spineless, weak and selfish, and that they had acted in bad faith (repeatedly using the Latin Male Fide) by putting the interests of the Bank ahead of those of the depositors in BCCI.

The first rule of a bureaucracy is that its prime motivation is self-preservation
Gordon Pollock QC
And he said that the Bank of England had "positively misled" the Bingham Inquiry which looked into the BCCI scandal and reported in July 1992.

But he emphasised repeatedly that he did not argue that Bank officials were corrupt - although if any official had wanted to be bribed - BCCI's founder, the late Agha Hasan Abedi was, as he put it, "your man".

Mr Abedi could get you girls, boys, seats at the opera, or money in suitcases if you wanted, Mr Pollock said.

He said that Mr Abedi was regarded as the Mad Monk Rasputin whose management philosophy "was a mixture of the mysticism and the psychopathic".

'A nightmare of their own making'

Mr Pollock's case is that Bank officials knew that BCCI was a dodgy bank, yet repeatedly refused to investigate it or close it down despite knowing that it was "an unsupervised monster on the loose".

He also criticised the Bank for agreeing to license BCCI in 1980 and dismissed the Bank of England's contention that BCCI was being supervised by the authorities in Luxembourg - where it was registered - as absolutely absurd, referring to the country as a "chocolate box Ruritania".

Never before have public servants been accused of deceiving so many people over such a long period of time
Bank of England
He argued that once it had bent the rules the Bank was on a slippery slope, and it desperately sought to avoid regulatory responsibility because "the first rule of a bureaucracy is that its prime motivation is self-preservation".

On the first day of the trial, he quoted from Bank documents showing that the head of banking supervision was anxious to avoid taking over regulatory responsibility for BCCI because it would be "massively inconvenient".

He also quoted from a junior official who warned that BCCI "should have been strangled at birth" and later left the supervision division in frustration at its inaction.

Bank's defence

The plaintiffs face an uphill battle in proving that the Bank of the England was guilty not just of negligence - from which it is protected by law - but "misfeasance", a legal term meaning acting in bad faith.

In its brief, the Bank of England said that "no client has ever before brought an action in which it is alleged that a major public institution had acted dishonestly on a continuing and daily basis over the course of more than a decade".

It argues that the claim that officials deceived the public is completely unfounded.

"Never before have public servants been accused of deceiving so many people over such a long period of time."

Bank officials, including the current governor, Mervyn King, are expected to press for a vigorous defence of its former officials.

And it is not just reputation at stake.

The government would be liable not just to the 1bn payout for BCCI, but a loss would open the door for a string of lawsuits whenever financial regulation failed.

The case, as Gordon Pollock said , will be "fought in a brutal manner".

Bank of England accused over BCCI
13 Jan 04  |  Business
Britain's biggest banking scandal
13 Jan 04  |  Business

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