We have all seen a movie or TV show where a shady character proved to be untouchable because they held themselves out to be a foreign diplomat. Any time the foreign diplomat found themselves in trouble, they relied on their diplomatic status to protect themselves from the host country’s laws and they usually get away with it. In reality, however, diplomatic immunity does not work in the same manner. In short, diplomatic immunity is a form of legal remedy that ensures that foreign diplomats are able to carry out their duties in a host country without being subject to lawsuits or prosecution under the host country’s laws.
Recently, the UK courts had a case brought forth involving a foreign diplomat who attempted to rely on his diplomatic status to dismiss a claim for financial compensation made by his ex-spouse. In this case, Christina Estrada made a claim in the Family Court against her ex-husband, Sheikh Walid Juffali, in an effort to seek a share of his wealth, estimated at some £4bn. The couple had been married for 13 years and had one daughter. Let’s recap the arguments made by both parties and see what the judge had to say about it.
To begin, Ms Estrada alleged that the couple divorced under Saudi Arabia laws and that Juffali had obtained a divorce without her knowledge so it was not possible for her to bring a claim against him in Saudi Arabia. Thus, Estrada had to obtain leave under Part III of the Matrimonial and Family Proceedings Act 1984 (which deals with overseas divorce) in order to advance her claim for financial relief in the Family Court in London. Next, Estrada explained that Juffali had sought out positions which would give him diplomatic status in an effort to set aside any claims she made against him. In particular, Estrada claimed that Juffali’s defence of diplomatic immunity was frivolous because while Jufalli had been givendiplomatic status to be a representative of the International Maritime Organisation, he had actually never carried out any duties or functions related to the role. To explain, Estrada stated that Juffali had been ill with cancer and never attended a meeting of the Organisation. Therefore, Estrada argued that Juffali was a resident of the UK, and his diplomatic immunity should be limited to his official diplomatic functions and therefore not be extended to Family Court proceedings
In his defence, Juffali maintained that his ex-spouse and child received a generous settlement and that he had agreed to provide additional support for his child in the future. Next, Juffali took the position that he was not a UK resident because he did not permanently reside in the UK on the basis that he had several properties globally. Juffali advanced that his diplomatic status meant that he could not be sued in the UK courts by any one for any reason, including by his ex-wife, due to Article 15 of the International Maritime Organization (Immunities and Privileges) Order 2015. As a result, his ex-spouse’s claim should be dismissed by the court.
The Court’s findings
According to Justice Hayden, he rejected Juffali’s defence and application to strike out his ex-spouse’s financial claim. Further, the court revealed that it believed that Juffali had indeed sought to obtain diplomatic status with the sole intention of defeating his ex-spouse’s claim. This was proven by the fact that Juffali’s appointment was in title only and he never actually carried out any responsibilities and therefore the status could not be extended to him. Mr Juffali’s representatives publicly stated that the decision was ‘offensive’ and ‘set a dangerous precedent for diplomats everywhere’ and will be moving to appeal it. It will be an interesting case to follow to see whether the appeal would be granted. Another intriguing question this case raises is had Juffali not been ill and been able to perform his duties, would the court have decided to recognise his diplomatic status? This point will no doubt be raised as part of Mr Juffali’s appeal.