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Lawyers prepare to battle over $7.3B in Nortel assets in cross-border trial

A man walks past a company sign at a Nortel Networks office tower in Toronto on Feb. 25, 2009. A complex trial to determine how billions of dollars in Nortel Networks Corp.'s remaining assets are to be divided begins Monday in a pricey cross-border hearing that's considered the first of its kind. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

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A man walks past a company sign at a Nortel Networks office tower in Toronto on Feb. 25, 2009. A complex trial to determine how billions of dollars in Nortel Networks Corp.'s remaining assets are to be divided begins Monday in a pricey cross-border hearing that's considered the first of its kind. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

TORONTO - A complex trial to determine how billions of dollars in Nortel Networks Corp.'s remaining assets are to be divided begins Monday in a pricey cross-border hearing that's considered the first of its kind.

Lawyers for former employees, pensioners and creditors will descend on two courtrooms — one in Toronto and the other in Delaware — to argue over who gets a share of $7.3 billion from the sale of the former technology giant's patents and other assets from its international operations.

What's unique is the sheer magnitude of the proceeding, which is considered one of the biggest bankruptcy trials in Canadian history, and the escalating costs associated with it.

The cost of the Nortel case has climbed to US$1.185 billion since early 2009, according to an estimate from Diane Urquhart, an independent adviser assisting former Nortel employees.

Expenses range from legal fees to cutting-edge technology that links both courtrooms that are expected to be filled mostly with lawyers. An overflow room has been set up for everyone else, including the media and public.

A document from the Canadian creditors filed with the courts provides a glimpse of just how massive the case has become over the past year since the trial was approved to proceed.

About 16,000 documents will be presented as exhibits, whittled down from an initial three million, and 110 depositions of witnesses have been taken, the filing said.

More than 50 people are listed as witnesses for the trial, though it's unlikely that all of them will be called on to testify over the next seven weeks.

Less clear is how Nortel lawyers will present their case to Delaware bankruptcy Judge Kevin Gross and Ontario Superior Court Justice Frank Newbould. Most pretrial arguments and evidence have been sealed in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Wilmington, Del., over concerns from Nortel's corporate lawyers that proprietary agreements with the company's former business partners may be exposed.

However, once the trial begins many of those documents are expected to be made public.

Last Thursday, the judges decided that concerns over confidentiality were overstated and agreed that at least some of those documents should be unsealed, said Mark Zigler of Koskie Minsky LLP, a lawyer who represents some former Nortel employees and was present at the hearing.

"We're working through the weekend to try and get them out," Zigler said.

"Some things have to be redacted, according to certain parties. There's just so many thousands of documents."

The main trial, which is scheduled to continue until the end of June, is proving to be an expensive and technologically complicated endeavour.

Lawyers from both Canada and the United States will communicate through encrypted live streaming video and audio created by California-based Live Deposition.

"We have the technology in place and we have our fingers crossed," said Alan Mark, a lawyer for Goodmans LLP, the court-appointed Canadian monitor for Nortel's liquidation.

"Procedurally it's certainly precedent setting having a trial proceed jointly."

Both countries will adhere to rules for their own jurisdictions.

At its height in 1999 to 2000, Nortel was worth nearly $300 billion, employed more than 90,000 people globally and was regarded as one Canada's most valuable companies.

In 2009, the company filed for bankruptcy in North America and Europe, shedding thousands of jobs.

Last year, three former top executives at the firm were acquitted of fraud charges nearly a decade after being accused of falsifying financial records at the beleaguered company. The Crown had alleged that the three had been involved in a book-cooking scheme to trigger $12.8 million in bonuses and stock payments for themselves.

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