The ex-wife of a Saudi billionaire has won the right to make a claim on his fortune after the court of appeal ruled that the man’s diplomatic immunity was irrelevant to the case. Sheikh Walid Juffali is being sued by Christina Estrada, a former Pirelli calendar girl, for a share of his £4bn fortune after the couple, who had been married for 13 years, split up.
The bench, headed by the master of the rolls, Lord Dyson, had been forced to consider whether the high court was right to dismiss as “spurious” the Saudi businessman’s claim to have been protected from litigation because of his role as permanent representative to the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) for the Caribbean island of St Lucia.
Philip Hammond, the foreign secretary, took the highly unusual step of criticising the high court judge’s decision to strip diplomatic immunity from the sheikh in the divorce proceedings. The Foreign Office (FCO) warned that if the decision stood, British diplomats could be hauled before the courts of any country in which they are serving and their position “scrutinised, and their status unjustifiably curtailed”.
Hammond bluntly said the court’s ruling “should not be upheld or endorsed”. In an unusual step, the FCO submitted an opinion from Tim Eicke QC backing the Saudi billionaire. It said the judge had “erred” in attempting to “look behind” the Saudi billionaire’s accreditation as a diplomat.
Hammond argued that only the “executive [acting through the FCO] as part of the royal prerogative of conducting foreign relations” can decide to “accept [or not] a diplomat”.
Lord Dyson, heading a three-person bench, accepted the foreign secretary’s argument and said the high court judge, Justice Anthony Hayden, was “wrong to hold that [Juffali] is not entitled in principle to immunity from [the] claim”. The court of appeal reversed the decision to strip the Saudi businessman of immunity, but instead said immunity was not relevant in this case. The judges found that as Juffali was permanently resident in the UK – after 35 years and three marriages – and “the claim does not relate to any official acts performed in the exercise of his [diplomatic] functions”, he could not claim immunity from divorce proceedings.
The high court ruling had described the sheikh’s role as a diplomat as “an entirely artificial construct”, adding that he had “no pre-existing connection to St Lucia” and that there was no evidence that he had “any knowledge or experience of maritime matters”.
It was said Juffali, who chairs one of Saudi Arabia’s largest companies, only sought to become a diplomat to defeat “[his wife’s] claims consequent on the breakdown of their marriage”.
The intervention by Hammond is significant because a growing number of litigants are claiming diplomatic and state immunity in English courts, with lawyers saying London is attracting a global super-rich partly drawn to the capital as a good place to fight legal disputes.
About 22,000 people are entitled to diplomatic immunity in Britain, including diplomats and their families. Last month, the high court ruled that one of the world’s richest men – Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber al-Thani, the former prime minister of Qatar – could not be sued in London over claims that agents acting on his behalf falsely imprisoned and tortured a British citizen, because he is protected by diplomatic immunity.
In that case, Hammond’s deputy, James Duddridge, said: “It is ultimately for the court to decide whether a foreign diplomat in the UK enjoys immunity in any particular case.”
Geoffrey Robertson QC, a former UN judge, told the Guardian that UK courts should have the power to rule on diplomatic immunity to stop “sham” appointments being made by foreign embassies and end abuse of the law by rich and powerful individuals. He added that abuses of diplomatic immunity had grown in parallel with the rise of human rights law. “Take for example the idea that everyone should have access to a court. So we are seeing cases where a rape victim can’t have access to the court because the alleged rapist is a diplomat. So this immunity destroys our rights to access to justice which comes from the Magna Carta.”
What diplomatic immunity does, said the QC, is put diplomats “above the law”. He said: “One of the most marked cases is that diplomats are not allowed to engage in business, and we know Middle Eastern embassies where they do little else. The government has turned a blind eye to this because the Foreign Office favours certain governments for trading reasons and doesn’t ask questions. Until now, the courts have said, ‘Well, the UK government accepts these people as diplomats and diplomats they are.’ That might be changing.”
In comments released after the Guardian reported the story, a spokesman for Juffali said: “Our client is saddened and disappointed by today’s decision to dismiss his appeal.
“Whilst he is grateful that the court has vindicated his appointment as the permanent representative to the International Maritime Organisation and rectified Mr Justice Hayden’s error, he is dismayed that the court has concluded that he is permanently resident in this jurisdiction in circumstances where he does not have indefinite leave to remain in this jurisdiction, and spends only a limited number of days in the UK each year.”
“[Juffali] remains committed to maintaining his diplomatic duties and is appreciative that the office of the prime minister for St Lucia has testified first-hand that he has conducted his diplomatic duties in an exemplary manner.”
A Foreign Office spokesman said: “On occasion the Foreign and Commonwealth Office intervenes in cases to clarify matters of international law, in order to assist courts in the UK. In the case of Estrada v Juffali, we clarified the principles for the appointment of permanent representatives to the International Maritime Organisation and the scope of the immunities that apply under international law.”
– The Guardian