The Pri(n)ce of Silence

Given London’s credentials as a highly cosmopolitan city, it is well known that our court system attracts family disputes involving international parties, providing they can prove some nexus to the UK.  Pauline Chai continues to fight her husband, Laura Ashley chairman Mr Peng, to have her divorce heard here, on the basis of her residency in Hertfordshire. Anastasia Goncharova had a minor victory recently in her High Court battle to have her alleged father’s DNA tested in her bid to prove she is oligarch Mr Bendukidze’s “secret daughter” with a claim to part of his $1billion fortune. This week we learnt that Ms Janan Harb, a former wife of the late King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, has succeeded in her claim for a £15million payout as well as two luxury flats in Chelsea because the King promised to look after her for life, yet his son reneged on the deal.

One interesting aspect of this case was the refusal of the defendant, Prince Abdul Aziz, to attend the High Court hearing, despite Mr Justice Peter Smith ordering him to give evidence in person. Apparently the Prince’s advisers feared his appearance would result in “a media circus” and was concerned how the case would be viewed by the Saudi public. He has since been ordered to pay £25,000 to charity for this contempt of court by non-appearance.

Clearly to someone like Prince Abdul Aziz this sum is a drop in the ocean. No doubt he feared adding credibility to the claim by facing it (literally) and wanted to avoid the risks of oral cross-examination.

Yet the media circus has happened anyway, in part fuelled by his failure to attend. Mrs Harb’s story is not simply on Daily Mail.com and in a raft of UK media but has also been reported by global publications including Arabian Business, New York Times and AFP.

International parties litigating in London need to understand that media interest in their disputes can be managed. Hiding is rarely a wise option. Our courts are transparent and our media cannot be muzzled as some may be accustomed to at home. Often the reputational aspects of a case endure and tend to outweigh any short-term legal or financial pain. No doubt social media across the Arab world is abuzz, currently illustrating this point all too well. Perhaps in this instance Prince Abdul Aziz would have been better off settling with Ms Harb in advance of this week’s judgment to avoid his much-feared moment in the spotlight? That’s one way to buy Ms Harb’s continued silence whilst muting the airwaves to boot.

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