A Saudi 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.
Christina Estrada, a one-time Pirelli calendar girl, is seeking a multimillion-pound share of Sheikh Walid Juffali’s estimated £4bn fortune after 13 years of marriage and the birth of a daughter.
But Mr Justice Hayden, sitting in the family division of the high court in London, described the diplomatic immunity defence as “spurious” and refused to dismiss Estrada’s claim.
Juffali’s legal team indicated he would appeal. The businessman said he acquired diplomatic status when he was appointed a permanent representative to the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) 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 unable to carry out diplomatic activity and his diplomatic status was a “contrivance” to defeat her case.
Rejecting Juffali’s application to strike out her financial claim, the judge said: “I am satisfied that what has transpired here is that [he] has sought and obtained a diplomatic appointment with the sole intention of defeating [Estrada’s] claims consequent on the breakdown of their marriage.
Sheikh Walid Juffali’s legal team said he would appeal the decision. Photograph: Valentin Flauraud/epa/Corbis
“Dr Juffali has not, in any real sense, taken up his appointment, nor has he discharged any responsibilities in connection with it. It is an entirely artificial construct.”
Juffali divorced Estrada in Saudi Arabia but asserts in court statements that he made “generous” provision and bought her a property in Beverly Hills, California.
He said he already pays $100,000 US dollars per month, meets all the expenses of their 13-year-old daughter and intends to make further provision for her “at the appropriate time”.
Estrada says her ex-husband obtained the divorce without her knowledge and it is not possible for her to bring any financial claims against him in Saudi Arabia.
According to papers before the court, Estrada’s claim, if successful, could potentially be worth “many millions of pounds”. She has said she is unsure of the legal ownership of the Beverly Hills property.
She obtained leave under Part III of the Matrimonial and Family Proceedings Act 1984, which relates to overseas divorces, to make an application for financial relief in the family courts in London. She lives in London.
Her legal team argued that any immunity he had was limited to his official, diplomatic functions and did not extend to the family court proceedings because he is a permanent resident of the UK with strong and enduring ties to the country, including those with his ex-wife and his daughter, who was born in England.
Her lawyers submitted Juffali had acquired from his mother Bishopsgate House, a 10-bedroom property set in 40 acres adjoining Windsor Great Park, which was the matrimonial home and valued in the region of £100m.
He had also acquired a £41m property in Kensington and Chelsea, south-west London, and a substantial property in Devon. Although the properties are now subject to trust and corporate structures, they were clear indications of his very close ties to England.
Juffali’s legal team argued he had substantial property elsewhere, including in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and that he did not permanently reside in the UK.
They also contended he enjoyed general immunity from being sued in the UK courts, including by his ex-wife, under Article 15 of the International Maritime Organisation (Immunities and Privileges) Order 2015.
The judge rejected both of Juffali’s arguments. The shiekh’s spokesman said the ruling was “deeply offensive” and would be appealed as it set “a dangerous precedent for diplomats everywhere”.
The spoksperson said: “My client will be appealing this decision which, at its core, he believes to be deeply offensive not least in its conclusion that his appointment to the International Maritime Organisation is an artifice.
“He does not believe that the English justice system has performed its duties in an appropriate manner in this case, nor that an English judge has the capacity or right to intrude on matters relating to the diplomatic arrangements and/or appointments of another state.
“If this decision is upheld, it will set a dangerous precedent for diplomats everywhere. He was, and remains, proud to serve as St Lucia’s permanent representative to the International Maritime Organisation.
“In addition, Dr Juffali has been surprised and disappointed by the calculated misinformation campaign that wrongly asserts that he does not and has not provided generous financial support to his family. He has done and continues to do so.”
Frances Hughes, senior partner of law firm Hughes Fowler Carruthers, who represented Estrada, welcomed the finding that the husband’s claim to diplomatic immunity was spurious, describing it as “a notable victory”.
Hughes said: “Mr Justice Hayden has found that Dr Juffali sought diplomatic immunity with the sole intention of defeating my client’s claims. The issue of diplomatic immunity is one with profound international importance, and my client is grateful to the judge for his clear findings in her case.
“Nevertheless, all my client seeks is an appropriate and fair settlement of herself and the parties’ daughter.”