Juan Carlos in an archive image. / AFP

An ordinary man

The dispute about Juan Carlos' status has been nuanced and closely-fought

Mark Nayler
MARK NAYLER

Juan Carlos has been dropped as a person of interest by Spanish and Swiss financial investigators, but a London court isn't letting him off so easily.

In a case brought against the emeritus king by his former lover, Corinna zu Sayn-Wittgenstein (also known as Corinna Larsen) , the judge has ruled that the defendant no longer enjoys full sovereign immunity.

That might seem like stating the obvious given that the ex-king abdicated in 2014 and renounced his public duties in 2019, but the dispute about his status in the Royal Courts of Justice has been nuanced and closely-fought.

London has long been the forum of choice for legal battles between the world's wealthy and powerful, although most such cases are of a commercial rather than personal nature (one thinks of Berezovsky vs Abramovitch in 2012). The calibre of barristers and judges is of an exceptionally high standard in the UK's capital, as I saw during several internships at top criminal firms in my early thirties.

This means that the most powerful versions of defence and prosecution cases are put before the bench, and that the resulting judgement is fair and logical, as it has been in these Juan Carlos harassment proceedings.

Sayn-Wittgenstein's legal team stated that the former king will now be "answerable... for his actions as a private individual" not as a public figure, referring to the distinction that dominated legal debate at the end of last year. Juan Carlos's barrister argued that his client is still "an essential part of the Constitutional fabric of Spain" and that the harassment allegations against him concern "quintessentially public" acts - a case that would have been much easier to make pre-2019 and certainly pre-2014.

"This defendant," said Sayn-Wittgenstein's lawyer, "cannot hide behind position, power, or privilege."

The harassment case will now proceed against this hallowed figurehead of the Spanish state as it would against any other defendant. Perhaps it was always going to require a foreign tribunal to take an objective stance on Juan Carlos, a faded monarch still revered at home for his achievements of forty years ago.

Had the Swiss and Spanish investigations found evidence of wrongdoing, London would have been the appropriate setting for Juan Carlos's fraud trial(s). The UK's top judges and barristers are sought out for their lack of susceptibility to corruption and their intellectual rigour, characteristics which would have guaranteed zero preferential treatment for the ex-king in any financial dispute.

The fraud investigations have been shelved, but in the ongoing harassment proceedings against him, Juan Carlos will be treated as perhaps he never will be in his home country - as an ordinary man.