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Fund management: Unilever's bitter tug of war

Unilever is breaking new ground by taking its former fund manager, Mercury, to court in a bid to recover alleged lost earnings. The fund management world is closely watching events as the outcome of the case could have a profound effect on the way that the business operates in the future.

No-one really believed it would ever get this far. But in the High Court in London at 10.30am on October 15, the court usher declared: "Silence in court, all rise" and Mr Justice Colman took his seat to preside over the battle between a fund manager and a very aggrieved client.

The received wisdom was that Merrill Lynch Investment Managers would not want its business with Unilever discussed in public - and it was obvious from the first day, with reporters having to sit on the floor because there were not enough chairs to go around, that this would be very public indeed. A court case set to last between six and eight weeks was bound to prompt unwelcome headlines during that time. Surely the two would settle?

However the distance between what Unilever was asking for and what Merrill Lynch was prepared to hand over was just too wide to be bridged.

In disputes between financial institutions it is not uncommon for the parties to play hardball right up to the last minute before finally reaching a deal on the steps of the court house. This time however, Merrill has not budged and so Unilever has gone ahead with its claim for £130 million in damages.

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