Akhmedova v Akhmedov & Ors.  EWHC 545
When a judgement opens with the following line from Leo Tolstoy’s novel ‘Anna Karenina’: “All happy families are alike, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”, it is fair to assume that the particular dispute is particularly bitter. In Akhmedova v Akhmedov & Ors, Mrs Justice Knowles remarked that while the family before her had access to wealth of which most can only dream, it was one of the unhappiest families to have ever appeared in her courtroom. The judgment tells of a wife fighting to enforce a Financial Order made by a London Court and a Russian oligarch who “would rather have seen the money burnt than for the Wife to receive a penny of it.” Whilst the English family law system provided a kinder outcome for Ms Akhmedova than Tolstoy did for his heroine it was not easy or straightforward with her embarking on a five-year fight that spanned multiple jurisdictions.
The highest settlement awarded by an English Court
In 2013, Ms Akhmedova petitioned an English Court for a financial settlement. Her husband, a Russian oligarch provided a schedule of assets to the Court which totalled £1,092,334,626. In December 2016, Mr Akhmedov was ordered to pay over £450 million to his wife, an amount which represented over 41.5% of his assets. The Order also set aside transactions that had shifted assets into trusts as these allocations were found by the court to have been designed to deprive Ms Akhmedova of the resources. Shortly after, a worldwide freezing order against Mr Akhmedov was applied and he was told to pay a lump sum of £350 million and certain property to his ex-wife.
Mr Akhmedov failed to comply with the Order, thus setting the stage for a multi-jurisdictional battle aimed at piercing various corporate veils to see behind offshore intermediaries that he and his associates used to ensure his wife was never paid her settlement.
Particular focus fell on a superyacht named ‘Luna’. Officially owned by a Liechtenstein company, an English Court later determined that it was beneficially owned by Mr Akhmedov. In February 2018, Ms Akhmedova obtained a freezing injunction in the Dubai International Financial Centre against Mr Akhmedov and a related company named Straight, to stop them from disposing of or dealing with Luna.
Ms Akhmedova sought relief under section 423 of the Insolvency Act 1986 and/or under section 37 of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973. Specifically, she asked the Court to set aside the transfers her husband had made
to the other Respondents and a Court Order stating that assets must be returned to her or alternatively, the other Respondents must pay her compensation to reflect the value of the assets transferred to them. After examining both forms of relief, the Court found that Mr Akhmedov, along with his son, had deliberately arranged matters to ensure Ms Akhmedova could never access any of the funds she was awarded. This was done by moving assets into trusts and corporate entities beyond the reach of the Financial Order laid down by the English Court in 2016.
Mrs Justice Knowles also admonished the parties’ son for repeatedly lying to the Court and called him his “father’s lieutenant”. She went on to say:
“I find that he is a dishonest individual who will do anything to assist his father, no doubt because he is utterly dependent on his father for financial support.”
Ms Akhmedova was granted relief with various Respondents being ordered to pay sums to the value of the assets they had received.
Whilst it might seem that this should be the end of the story, not long after this judgement it was reported that Ms Akhmedova accepted a settlement from the husband of £150m. Many would question why but after 5 years chasing the settlement around different jurisdictions the adage “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” comes to mind. Whilst £150m is still a huge sum of money, Ms Akhemdova also had to pay Burford Capital, her financial backers funding the litigation a hefty success fee.
This case illustrates the practical and flexible approach of the English Court system and its ability to freeze assets worldwide to ensure the enforcement of a Financial Order. The decision also shows that the English Family Courts will not hesitate in piercing corporate veils when it is clear that one party to a divorce has deliberately moved assets into offshore trusts and companies to deprive their ex-spouse of a fair financial settlement. However, it also demonstrates that despite the plethora of powers available, enforcement is still laced with difficulty when particularly obstructive individuals and jurisdictions are involved.
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