Lawyers for Lloyd's of London go to the high court this week for a case which they hope will finally disprove allegations that the company let Names be fleeced over massive asbestos losses.

An illustrious line of former Lloyd's Establishment figures are expected to be among up to 50 witnesses called to give evidence.

Some are past Lloyd's chairmen and former senior members of its controlling council.

The hearing, which could last up to six months, is being held in the London Commercial court.

Lawyers, however, suggest the presiding judge, Mr Justice Creswell, may deliver his judgement earlier in July.

The action is being brought by Sir William Jaffray, a former Lloyd's Name who joined the market shortly before it sustained heavy losses in the late 1980s.

He has been joined by 220 other parties who at one time or another have been members of Lloyd's.

They are the last of around 1,700 Names who were reluctant to pay their share of outstanding premiums for Equitas, the reconstruction and renewal vehicle for pre-1992 syndicate losses. The outstanding sum is said to total £51 million.

Lloyd's has actively pursued a controversial debt recovery programme against these "non-accepters" and has persuaded most to settle their losses.

The key allegations likely to be made by Simon Goldblatt QC, counsel for Jaffray, and Patrick Talbot QC, representing legally-aided Names, are as follows;
- That former chairmen and senior members of the Council of Lloyd's, the market's controlling organisation, were party to a conspiracy to defraud Names.
- That Lloyd's deliberately concealed the true extent of the market's asbestos liabilities from Names.
- The Jaffray Names also allege Lloyd's went on a recruitment drive to sign up more Names in an effort to staunch the flow of these losses.
- Furthermore, they are likely to claim Lloyd's failed to give an accurate picture of these losses in its marketing brochures for new Names.

An important detail of the case will be a letter written in March 1982 by the then Lloyd's deputy chairman, Murray Lawrence. Sent to underwriters and managing agents, it responded to Lloyd's auditors' concerns over syndicates' reserves for potential asbestos claims. But crucially, it was left to managing agents to pass this information on to Names.

Jaffray and his fellow Names have an uphill struggle before them. No litigant is believed to have succeeded in proving a case of fraud against Lloyd's.

Cases of negligence have, however, been proved against syndicates, such as in the Gooda Walker and Feltrim cases.

Importantly though, the courts have said Lloyd's the institution does not owe a legal duty of care to Names, only a responsibility to regulate the market properly.

One lawyer spelt out Lloyd's position in this respect: "The market maintains information on its liabilities but not how these may affect Names individually."

A curious aspect of the Jaffray case is that it focuses on the role of former top brass at Lloyd's. It could be argued that they would have been less aware of a critical auditor's report that had been sent to a syndicate's managing agents who participated directly in the market.

Similarly, although Lloyd's admits more Names did join in the 1980s, it stresses its role is not to act as a recruiting sergeant for the market.

A spokesman for the company said: "Lloyd's will robustly defend this action which it believes is not substantiated by the facts and is fairly confident of winning."