The papers have been talking about the “scandal” rocking the Dubai royal family, the “runaway princess” and her flight to London from Dubai further to the alleged breakdown of her relationship with her husband Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai.
There have been conflicting press reports. According to some reports the Sheikh is bringing divorce proceedings against Princess Haya in the English Court and is applying for their two children to live with him (reportedly, the children are currently in London with the princess). Others say the princess is seeking a divorce.
The couple, somewhat unusually, made a statement which cleared up some of the speculation around a hearing which took place in late July. It was explained that the hearing was in relation to the parties’ two children and not concerned with divorce and finances. It later emerged that whilst the Sheikh sought the return of the children to the UAE, Princess Haya was applying for a forced marriage protection order and for a non-molestation order – which are essentially protective orders. It’s understood the children have been made wards of court and that there’ll be a further hearing in November.
It seems likely in view of the court proceedings that questions will continue to be asked about the couple’s marriage and whether there will be a divorce and financial proceedings in the English court. It might be assumed that a wealthy man with a choice of potential jurisdictions would oppose divorce proceedings being brought in London which still has a reputation for making financially generous awards compared to other countries. The case may also raise other questions.
Is there a marriage which the English court can dissolve?
Princess Haya is the sixth wife of the Sheikh. In England polygamy is illegal so if you’re already married to someone, you can’t get married to someone else unless you get divorced first. The second marriage would be invalid if you didn’t get divorced. However in Dubai polygamy is legal and since England will recognise a marriage which has been validly contracted in a foreign country, the English court would potentially entertain an application for divorce.
Can the English Court deal with a divorce between two people who live in another country?
Under the current law, the English court will have jurisdiction where:
Both parties are habitually resident here
The couple were last habitually resident here and one of them still lives here
The respondent is habitually resident here
The petitioner is habitually resident here AND she has been (habitually) resident here for the last 12 months
The petitioner is habitually resident here AND she is domiciled here AND has been (habitually) resident here for the last 6 months
Both of the parties are domiciled here
One of the parties is domiciled here (currently this is only a fall back option if no other EU state has jurisdiction, but after Brexit it will simply be an additional ground).
Both habitual residence and domicile are legal concepts and come down to a factual analysis of all the circumstances. However if it was the princess looking to start the divorce process, she may have some difficulty. Having only arrived here very recently and her main home until now being in Dubai, she would be unlikely to meet the required criteria and would have to establish a 12 month period of habitual residence before she could petition. The princess does reportedly have a home and significant connections here, including her school and university education, however it’s only possible to have one habitual residence at a time, so she could not be habitually resident in Dubai and the UK simultaneously. If the princess says she is habitually resident here, the Sheikh could petition here on that basis (as a respondent there’s no required period of residence).
What if the divorce happened in Dubai?
If the divorce took place in Dubai, the English Court would recognise the Dubai divorce provided it was obtained in accordance with the law in Dubai and met certain criteria. The princess may however still be able make an application in the English Court for financial relief after a foreign divorce subject to what provision she received in Dubai.
Can the court make orders against the ruler of a foreign country?
Heads of state are generally immune to the jurisdiction of foreign courts and the enforcement of court orders. It’s not clear whether immunity has yet been raised as an issue. At least in relation to matters concerning the children, it would seem not.
No doubt there will be continuing speculation and many press reports about this high profile matter in the coming weeks and months.
Certainly the lawyers involved will be very much alive to issues around enforcement of any financial orders, as cases involving complex asset structures, particularly those held off-shore, like that of Mrs Akhmedova, can continue for years, with the receiving party to enforce the original court order.
Published: August 2019
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