On Tuesday the legal editor of the London Times, Frances Gibb, tongue seemingly firmly planted in cheek, wrote the following under the banner No Immunity for Sheikh in Four Billion Pounds Divorce for Model: “Sheikh Walid Jufalli, a billionaire from Saudi Arabia, said he was proud to be a diplomat for the Caribbean island of St. Lucia. True, he may never have attended meetings of the International Maritime Organization as the island’s representative but, m’lud, the post was most certainly not acquired to secure diplomatic immunity. Perhaps it was pure coincidence, then, that such immunity could bolster attempts to keep a share of his four-billion-pounds fortune out of the clutches of the former Pirelli calendar girl he had divorced.”
The Telegraph’s chief foreign correspondent David Blair reported the case this way: “Christina Estrada, the former Pirelli calendar model, won a victory over her Saudi billionaire ex-husband in the High Court on Monday, allowing her to lay claim to a share of his property portfolio in Britain. A judge ruled that Walid Juffali, who divorced Ms Estrada in 2014, had sought to defeat her action by asserting a ‘spurious’ legal immunity based on his appointment as a Caribbean diplomat in London. The judge noted there was ‘no evidence’ that Mr. Juffali had ‘any knowledge or experience of maritime matters, seaborne trade, shipping or indeed any of the specialized areas with which the IMO is concerned.’
“Mr. Justice Hayden ruled that Mr. Juffali’s ‘sole intention’ for securing this position was to defeat Ms Estrada’s ‘claims consequent on the breakdown of his marriage.’ The judge concluded that Mr. Juffali had not ‘in any real sense, taken up his appointment’ and the Saudi’s diplomatic status amounted to an ‘entirely artificial construct.’ He said that avoiding the ‘jurisdiction of this Court’ was the ‘driving force’ behind Mr. Juffali’s becoming Saint Lucia’s representative at the IMO.”
The Guardian’s legal affairs correspondent Owen Bowcott also covered the case. On Tuesday he wrote: “A billionaire’s plea of diplomatic immunity, exploited to avoid his former wife’s claim for maintenance, has been branded as “spurious” and struck down by the high court . . . The businessman said he acquired diplomatic status when he was appointed a permanent representative to the International Maritime Organization by the Caribbean island of Saint Lucia in April 2014. Estrada, 53, said her ex-husband’s diplomatic position was merely ‘a flag of convenience’ and the tycoon had never attended a meeting of the IMO since his appointment. The former supermodel said he was severely ill with cancer in a Swiss hospital and unable to carry out diplomatic activity and his diplomatic status was a ‘contrivance’ to defeat her case.”
The case also featured prominently in the Financial Times, the Midlands Star Express and several other mainstream and online media outlets, all appearing to ridicule “the tiny nation Saint Lucia’s appointment of Walid Juffali . . .” At a time when the EU’s 28 member states, via their ambassadors, and the U.S. State Department have strongly expressed their concern over “gross violations of human rights” by local police officers and “a total breakdown of the justice system” in our country, way to go Saint Lucia, way to go!
On the rare occasions he has addressed his unannounced appointment of the reportedly moribund multi-billionaire as our permanent representative at the IMO, the nation’s prime minister has somewhat conveniently insisted that “the application by Ms Christina Estrada for permission to apply for financial relief from Dr. Walid Juffali after their divorce is a private matter . . . and has no bearing on his duties as permanent representative to the IMO.”
Ironically, Justice Hayden’s ruling is based wholly on the fact that the Estrada-Juffali case is indeed “a private family matter.” One of the core principles of the Vienna Convention that the judge cited during the hearing was this: “Believing that an international convention on diplomatic intercourse, privileges and immunities would contribute to the development of friendly relations among nations, irrespective of their differing constitutional and social systems; realizing that the purpose of such privileges and immunities is not to benefit individuals but to ensure the efficient performance of the functions of diplomatic missions of representing States.”
Justice Hayden: “It is undoubtedly true that a right of access to court is recognized as a fundamental principle of law, outside the twin principle in international law forbidding ‘a denial of justice.’ ’’ The judge cited yet again the Vienna Convention: “The principle whereby a civil claim must be capable of being submitted to a judge ranks as one of the universally recognized fundamental principles of law; the same is true of the principle of international law which forbids the denial of justice.”
As for the case at hand: “I should record here that while the government of Saint Lucia has been invited by Ms Estrada’s solicitors and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to consider waiving immunity in this case, they have declined to do so. Article 31 lays down no procedural provision as to when or how diplomatic immunity should be pleaded or established in international courts. These matters are left to the law of each state party. The cumulative impact of this case law is, in my judgment, to identify a balance that has evolved, designed to protect the functionality or effectiveness of a mission and to recognize the need to minimize abuse of diplomatic immunity.”
We come now to the meat of the matter, at any rate as it relates to Saint Lucia. Observed Justice Hayden: “On the 3 December 2015 the Saint Lucia government, in a press release, announced that Walid Juffali had pledged significant resources toward the expansion of the local health sector which will impact positively on the health needs of Saint Lucians, particularly in the area of diabetic research. While this may establish a basis for Juffali as a trade or investment envoy it does not establish a basis for an ambassadorial appointment.
“As a specialized agency of the United Nations, the IMO is the global standard-setting authority for the safety, security and environmental performance of international shipping. Its main role is to create a regulatory framework for the shipping industry that is fair and effective, universally adopted and universally implemented. There is no evidence that Juffali has any knowledge or experience of maritime matters, seaborne trade, shipping or indeed of any of the specialized areas with which the IMO is concerned.
“It is clear that since his appointment Juffali has not undertaken any duties of any kind in the pursuit of functions of office. Ms Estrada has provided persuasive evidence that Mr. Juffali’s health is such that he is not in a position at present to fulfill any of his ambassadorial duties; it may well be that this point is not contentious. The appointment coincided with the emergent relationship between Juffali and his third wife.
“I am satisfied that what has transpired here is that Mr. Juffali has sought and obtained a diplomatic appointment with the sole intention of defeating Ms Estrada’s claims consequent on the breakdown of their marriage. Mr. Juffali has not in any real sense taken up his appointment, nor has he discharged ay responsibilities in connection with it. It is an entirely artificial construct. I draw back from describing it as a sham, mindful of the forensic precision required to support such a conclusion.
“Respect for the principles of international comity, recognition that diplomatic immunity fosters goodwill amongst nations and facilitates efficient functioning of diplomatic missions is plainly important. But all this is predicated on the privileges afforded to the post itself—and not to the individual . . . I am not prepared to accede to Mr. Juffali’s request to strike out Ms Estrada’s claim on his spurious assertion of diplomatic immunity, as I find it to be.”
The judge also threw out Juffali’s claim that he was beyond the arm of the court in this matter because he was not resident in the UK. For several undisputed reasons Justice Keehan disagreed.
On Wednesday the prime minister registered his disappointment with the judge’s verdict. In a press release, he repeated his earlier position that what confronted his government was “a private family matter between Dr. Juffali and his former wife and had no bearing with his duties as Permanent Representative to the International Maritime Organization.” Which seemed to be the point underscored by Justice Hayden.
The prime minister remained of the view “that to have waived Dr. Juffali’s diplomatic immunity for the purposes of resolving disputes arising out of divorce proceedings would have created a precedent that could compromise current and future Saint Lucian diplomats in the United Kingdom and elsewhere.” He promised to “comment in more detail” following the outcome of an application to appeal by Juffali’s lawyers next week.
On Thursday the London Times opined: “The courts should not be the principal check and balance on the scope of diplomatic immunity; that is up to the Foreign & Commonwealth Office. The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Immunity Relations of 1961 enshrined the principle of ensuring that diplomats are given safe passage and not be susceptible to legal proceedings in their host country. However, no one would have foreseen the abuse of the concept in recent times, with some diplomats behaving as though it rendered them above the law.”