Thanks a billion: Iceland salutes its English hero

 The lawyer whose court victory has spared Iceland repaying Britain for its banking bailout tells Audrey Ward why taxpayers should not be enraged

10 February 2013
The Sunday Times

Tim Ward QC knew something strange was going on when an Icelandic newspaper compared his rugged good looks to those of Colin Farrell and Justin Timberlake.

“I think it was done on the basis that we all have beards and glasses,” he says, eyes twinkling.

Even odder was the fact that he was being held in higher esteem than the two celebrities.

What extraordinary feat had sparked this Englishman’s unlikely popularity? Amazingly, it was a legal victory in Luxembourg.

Euphoria ensued two weeks ago, when a European court decided that Icelanders would not have to repay Britain and Holland billions of euros after their governments had bailed out British and Dutch nationals with savings in Icesave, the collapsed online Icelandic bank, during the 2008 financial crisis.

Ossur Skarpheoinsson, the portly foreign affairs minister, engulfed Ward in a bear hug and the country’s 320,000-strong population thronged into the bars to celebrate.

“It’s something that everybody has an opinion on. Even a farmer in the most remote corner in rural Iceland will have a view about the case,” says Ward. He was used to clients back-slapping him but the reaction was exceptional: “I’ve never had anything like it in my career before.”

It wasn’t just the president and government ministers who expressed gratitude. When Ward returned to his hotel after a blizzard of publicity, the manager gave him a bottle of champagne and a thank-you note.

The following day he had a sense of being recognised on the streets and his suspicions were confirmed at Reykjavik airport where the passport controller, having read his name, handed back his passport and said in a slightly teasing manner: “Ah, the famous one I see!” Once he was on board the plane the stewardess produced a copy of the Reykjavik newspaper while remarking to other passengers: “I’m sure he wants to see this.” There, on the front page, was the picture of Ward being swallowed up in Skarpheoinsson’s bear hug.

Back in 2008 it would have seemed unlikely that Icelanders would take an Englishman to their hearts after Britain had invoked anti-terrorism laws to try to seize the UK assets of the parent company of Icesave.

After Ward’s victory, all seemed forgotten and he quietly enjoyed his new-found fame: “It was totally novel for me, obviously, but my face had been everywhere and I was conspicuous, an English barrister in Iceland.”

Britain spent £3.5bn on the bailout and had hoped to recoup £2.35bn under European financial compensation rules but the court came down against it. And thanks to Ward’s legal ninja moves, the British taxpayer can expect to be a further £100m out of pocket as there is no hope of pursuing Iceland for interest on the bailout.

The emails Ward has received in the wake of the case sum up the views of a nation: “Within an hour of the judgment coming out I had about six emails from friends complaining that their taxes were going to go up as a result.”

Nonetheless, he is unrepentant about the role he has played and bats away any suggestions of a possible tax hike because of him: “I am a professional advocate. It was my job to fight as hard as I could for them [the Icelanders] and I hope very much that they got the result they wanted, just as I would in any other case.”

He says there is nothing for British taxpayers to worry about. Ultimately we will get our money back: “The estate of Landsbanki is still being wound up and still paying dividends. It will pay out the full amount to the priority creditors, including the UK government.”

Is Ward planning to relocate to Iceland and milk his hero status? Not for now, although he is heading back in August with his family. He doesn’t think he will meet so many dignitaries but there should be a few other perks: “I’ve been told that if I tell the car rental company that I worked on the Icesave case, I might get a discount.”