English judge calls on Spain to confirm whether emeritus king Juan Carlos is still part of royal family

The court overseeing Corinna Larsen’s harassment case against the former monarch must decide if the father of Felipe VI is protected by sovereign immunity

A video still of Corinna Larsen, appearing before the Spanish courts via videoconference in January.
A video still of Corinna Larsen, appearing before the Spanish courts via videoconference in January.EFE

The rivalry between the two legal titans who were arguing their cases this Monday in the Royal Courts of Justice in London pointed to the gravity of the subject under discussion. Sir Daniel Bethlehem QC, a former legal adviser to the United Kingdom and Israeli governments, was representing Spain’s former king, Juan Carlos I. James Lewis QC, a former chief justice of the Falkland Islands and a key figure in the legal case against Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, was there to represent the emeritus king’s former lover, Corinna Larsen.

Judge Matthew Nicklin was overseeing a preliminary hearing that will conclude today, Tuesday, and which will have to decide whether the former Spanish monarch still enjoys immunity against prosecution. This is a fundamental question that must be resolved before the lawsuit filed by Larsen against Juan Carlos I for alleged harassment, illegal monitoring and libel can prosper in the British courts.

At the end of December 2020, Larsen detailed the harassment that she claims to have suffered as part of her lawsuit, attributing the events to Juan Carlos I directly or to figures acting in his name. These included the former director of Spain’s CNI secret service, Félix Sanz Roldán. Larsen argued that the behavior was designed to persuade her to return a €65 million gift that Juan Carlos had transferred to her “irrevocably” in 2012, or to restart their relationship. In the extensive lawsuit, the businesswoman related the alleged threats, electronic surveillance and monitoring that she claims she and her team of consultants were subjected to, as well as the series of allegations that was aimed at her. The consequences of all of this, according to the legal filings, were anxiety and distress that have required medical treatment, led to the deterioration of her relationships with her children and other relatives, and the loss of many of her wealthy clients.

Who is Corinna Larsen?

The relationship between Corinna Larsen and Spain’s then-king came into the public spotlight as a result of the 2012 accident that Juan Carlos suffered in Botswana, where they were both on a hunting safari. The incident damaged the monarch’s reputation and was partially behind his surprise decision to abdicate in 2014.

Larsen, a Monaco-based businesswoman who continues to use her German ex-husband’s aristocratic title, zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, made headlines in 2018 when recordings emerged in which she claimed she had been used as a front to conceal some of Juan Carlos’ wealth.

Juan Carlos I was investigated by the Spanish Supreme Court public prosecutor in connection with alleged kickback payments stemming from the construction of an AVE high-speed rail link from Medina to Mecca, and for other alleged offenses including bribery, perverting the course of justice, influence peddling and tax evasion. But in October prosecutors announced they were planning to shelve these probes.

Sir Daniel Bethlehem is a barrister from the international law firm Clifford Chance, which is representing Juan Carlos I. In the United Kingdom, a barrister mostly specializes in courtroom advocacy and litigation. A solicitor, meanwhile, is an all-rounder who investigates the facts and deals with the client. In many cases, a barrister will not know their defendant.

In this case, Bethlehem is relying on the UK’s State Immunity Act, which was passed in 1978, to construct three arguments. Firstly, any of Larsen’s accusations against the emeritus king that took place before June 2014, when he abdicated the throne, cannot be brought before the courts given that he enjoyed immunity from prosecution as head of state. And according to Bethlehem’s arguments, once he renounced the crown, this protection remained, because under the Spanish Constitution, Juan Carlos I retains his condition as “sovereign” and “member of his household,” and as such enjoys immunity.

This was where Mr Justice Nicklin was able to put the barrister in a predicament. He had studied the ins and outs of the case, and interrupted him on a number of occasions during his statement to remind him the Juan Carlos I renounced all of his public duties and functions in May 2019, later leaving Spain to live in Abu Dhabi in August 2020 given the financial and other scandals that were surrounding him. “I would feel much more comfortable if the Spanish state could confirm that Juan Carlos continues to be a member of the royal family,” the judge stated, adding that he did not want to get involved in the field of Spanish Constitutional law in which he did not feel comfortable.

The judge even suggested a route to obtain this confirmation: for British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss to use the appropriate diplomatic channels to secure this information. “I fear that, in general, the majority of governments are somewhat reluctant to enter into judicial affairs such as this one, due to the torrent of conclusions that can follow,” Bethlehem said in response to the judge. The barrister insisted over and over that Spanish law, starting with the Constitution, should be used as pure facts. This legislation, he added, established the special relevance of the figure of Juan Carlos I in the legal framework of contemporary Spanish democracy.

I would feel much more comfortable if the Spanish state could confirm that Juan Carlos continues to be a member of the royal family
Judge Matthew Nicklin

For an observer of the court hearing on Monday, the one thing that was clear to see was that the plaintiff had a determination that is not often seen when pursuing a case. In a courtroom built from fine woods, but that at the same time contained frayed curtains and damp walls, and was bitterly cold – that English mix of pomp and austerity – Corinna Larsen was undaunted by the nearly six hours of dense and complex legal arguments. Larsen, who was accompanied by a friend, an entourage of public relations professionals and the legal team from the firm of Kobre & Kim, carefully analyzed the documents in question as they were referred to by the lawyers.

She was clearly enthused when it was the turn of James Lewis to present his arguments. Thanks to his oratory skills, combined with a dose of common sense, he managed to question much of what had been presented. No one in their right mind could consider Juan Carlos I to still be “sovereign,” he stated, let alone head of state – he renounced all of that when he abdicated. No one believes that he relies on his son, King Felipe VI, from a financial point of view, and that is the true sense of the 1981 law cited by the opposing barrister when it is applied to “relatives of the head of state.” What’s more, Lewis continued, no one can reasonably argue that the acts of harassment and persecution that he is accused of by Larsen were carried out under the cover of his public functions – i.e., with the protection of immunity. That’s to say, the barrister continued, even if the CNI director or its agents were obeying orders from the monarch, their actions were not protected from the law.

“Abusing or harassing a woman with whom the accused had a personal relationship is a private matter,” Lewis argued. “It’s almost ridiculous to contend that it was the Spanish state that committed these acts.” As such, the barrister continued, there is no immunity at play here.

The preliminary hearing was due to continue today, Tuesday. Mr Justice Nicklinn will have to rule, as soon as possible, whether the judicial battle that Larsen has unleashed against the emeritus king in English territory has any chance of prospering.

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