Politics 17/10/2021

Juan Carlos I invokes his immunity against Corinna's lawsuit in British courts

The Spanish government could be forced to rule on the former king's immunity in London

2 min
The emeritus King Joan Carles I with his mistress Corinna Larsen, in an archive image.

Lawyers from the international law firm Clifford Chance have filed a response to the lawsuit filed by Corinna zu Sayn-Wittgenstein's lawyers for harassment, illegal monitoring by agents of the National Intelligence Centre (CNI) in the United Kingdom and defamation. The response states that Juan Carlos I is immune from this lawsuit because of his status as former King of Spain and former Head of State. 

Lawyers James Lewis, Jonathan Caplan and Adam Chichester-Clark filed the civil claim on behalf of their London-based client on 29 December 2020, with proceedings commencing last March. Juan Carlos I, who lives in Abu Dhabi, hired the law firm Clifford Chance at the suggestion of his lawyer in Madrid, Javier Sánchez-Junco. Legal sources in Madrid indicate that Clifford Chance's lawyers have travelled to Abu Dhabi to meet with the ex king to draft the response to the civil lawsuit. These sources say that the first response, as expected, rejects the claim on the basis of the legal doctrine of sovereign immunity or crown immunity, according to which a sovereign or state cannot commit any wrongdoing and is immune from civil or criminal prosecution in its own nation. The same doctrine is also invoked to dismiss foreign courts and is called state immunity. 

This doctrine translates into the Latin maxim, Rex non potest peccare or, the king cannot commit a crime. The response, according to legal sources, is to invoke immunity from enforcement. The British newspaper Daily Mail reports in its Sunday 17 October edition that Juan Carlos I rejects Corinna's civil suit on the grounds of sovereign immunity. According to the proceedings in the British High Court, the judge in charge will summon the two parties - Corinna's and Juan Carlos I's lawyers - to agree on the course of the civil action: summoning witnesses and producing documentary evidence. It is estimated that these proceedings could take up to eighteen months to complete. 

But first the court will have to rule on the legal argument of sovereign immunity. An important implication is that sovereign or state immunity may lead to the Spanish government having to present arguments in favour of it or, on the contrary, waive it in writing in the proceedings. The sovereign immunity argument has a negative precedent for Juan Carlos I in the 1999 ruling of the judicial committee of the House of Lords, sitting as the supreme court, which denied former head of state immunity to former Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, who lost the legal battle in a criminal extradition trial. 

The judges ruled by majority that the functions of a head of state - which Pinochet acquired after the 11 Sept. 1973 coup d'état - do not include the crime of torture. And they refused to protect the former dictator from Spain's extradition request. James Lewis, one of Corinna's three lawyers signing the civil suit, participated in 1998 and 1999 in the team of lawyers that defended on behalf of the British Crown Prosecution Service -which represented Spain in the battle for Pinochet's extradition- the non-existence of protection for the former dictator in the doctrine of sovereign immunity.