English Court throws out claim against former King of Spain

Sayn-Wittgenstein-Sayn v Juan Carlos I [2023] EWHC 2478 (KB)

Summary

The former King of Spain, His Majesty Juan Carlos Alfonso Victor María de Borbón y Borbón, succeeded in his recent application to bring to an end the claim against him in the English Courts brought by Corinna zu Sayn-Wittgenstein-Sayn. The claim included £126 million in damages for allegations relating to harassment. The High Court upheld His Majesty’s jurisdiction challenge and held that, even if it had jurisdiction over the case, it would have struck out the claim for failing to disclose a real prospect of success.  

Background

The claim in this matter started in December 2020 in the High Court of England & Wales by Mrs Sayn-Wittgenstein-Sayn (the “Claimant”) against the emeritus King of Spain, Juan Carlos I (the “Defendant”). The Claimant alleged a course of conduct which constituted harassment. Some of the alleged acts had occurred prior to the Defendant’s abdication in 2014 and some were said to have occurred after the Defendant had abdicated.

In the first instance, the Defendant raised immunity grounds under the State Immunity Act 1978 (the “SIA”). In March 2022, Mr Justice Nicklin dismissed the Defendant’s application by stating that the Defendant was not a sovereign or other head of state or part of the Spanish Royal Household and that the acts alleged were not public acts. The Defendant appealed and, on 6 December 2022, the Court of Appeal overturned parts of the lower Court’s decision. In short, the Court of Appeal found that the pre-abdication conduct alleged by the Claimant was immune under the SIA. The Court of Appeal also imposed an obligation on the Claimant to seek permission by way of a formal application in the event she sought to make any amendments to her original claim.

Applications to amend, strike-out and summary judgment

In the aftermath of the Court of Appeal’s decision, the Claimant sought permission from the High Court to amend her claim. The Defendant applied for (a) a declaration that the Court had no jurisdiction in respect of certain allegations made in the claim; and (b) further or alternatively, to strike out the claim and/or for summary judgment in respect of the claim. The Defendant also applied for a retrospective extension of time and/or relief from sanctions, if required, in respect of the jurisdiction application.

The said applications were heard during a 4-day hearing in July 2023 at the High Court before Mrs Justice Collins Rice.

Decision

On 6 October 2023, Mrs Justice Collins Rice handed down judgment (“Judgment”) and declared that the English Courts had no jurisdiction in respect of the claim and that it should be set aside. The Judge went on to state that, even if the English Courts had jurisdiction over the case, she would have struck out the claim for failing to disclose a real prospect of success. 

More specifically, on jurisdiction, the Judge said at [303] of the Judgment:

My principal conclusion is that the High Court of England and Wales lacks jurisdiction to try this claim. That is because it has not been brought against the Defendant in his country of domicile, as is his default entitlement; and the Claimant has not satisfied me she has a good arguable case that her claim falls within an exception to that default rule. That in turn is because she has not sufficiently established that the ‘harmful event’ of which she complains – harassment by the Defendant – happened in England.”

With respect to the harassment claim itself, the Judge said at [283] and [302] of the Judgment, respectively:

“… Inference is something more than suspicion and speculation. A claimant is not entitled to compel a defendant to answer in court to suspicion and speculation. I am unpersuaded that the Claimant’s case advances, even for this interlocutory stage, sufficiently beyond the speculative

The Claimant has not, however, succeeded in converting her narrative history into a claim in harassment which it is fair to ask the Defendant to defend, or a court to try. I do not speculate on whether she might have done so. That is not the question before me. But for the reasons set out in this part of the judgment, I would have refused her application to amend her pleadings. And I would have struck out her claim.

Remarks

Since the proceedings began pre-Brexit, the ‘Brussels Recast Regulation’ (“BRR”)[1] rules on jurisdiction among competing member states applied. In the circumstances, the Court ruled that the case must be brought in the defendant’s country of domicile (i.e. Spain) unless the claimant is able to establish the that the ‘harmful event’ happened in the jurisdiction (i.e. England). The ‘harmful event’ is a course of conduct, substantially the whole of which, must have occurred in England. The Judge was not satisfied that it did.

It is interesting to consider whether the decision on jurisdiction would have been different, on the same facts, if the proceedings began post-Brexit – BRR would no longer apply and the default common law rules would. The claimant would have to establish that (i) there is a good arguable case that the claim falls within one of the jurisdictional gateways in Practice Direction 6B3.1, (ii) the claim has a reasonable prospect of success under CPR 6.37(1)(b), and (iii) England is the proper place to bring the claim under CPR 6.37(3). The answer would likely turn on whether there was an appropriate jurisdictional gateway for the harassment claim and, if so, whether the case might have been stayed notwithstanding that, for forum non conveniens. For all of these purposes the alleged course of conduct as a whole would presumably have to be considered.

The Judgment also sets out a good reminder for claimants who wish to amend their case. Namely, that the amending party must establish a good arguable case for the amended allegations, provide a good explanation for the timing of the changes and clarity, accuracy and consistency in the changes.


[1] EU Regulation 1215/2012

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