High society divorce and a rare jail term for contempt

16 February 2022

Philip Barnsley, Head of Family Law at Higgs LLP, looks at a high society divorce and a rare jail term for contempt.

On paper it was the stuff of fairy tales.

Princess Marie-Therese von Hohenberg was part of the Austrian Royal Family when she met and married Anthony Bailey, a former Labour Party fundraiser and multi-millionaire PR expert, in 2007.

The Salzburg wedding was attended by 600 guests and ran over four days.

While self-made Mr Bailey has no blue blood, he does have some quite notable connections, including Pope John Paul II and Prince Charles.

Unfortunately, the marriage faulted in 2016 – and the divorce has been as protracted as the lavish wedding. Mr Bailey was swiftly served with divorce proceedings outside his £6 million London property. Litigation continues to this day.

A hearing in the High Court in London was presided over by Mr Justice Peel who decided that Mr Bailey's refusal to comply with orders made by the court at previous hearings was sufficient to hand him a 12-month prison sentence.

Mrs von Hohenberg argued that Mr Bailey defied court orders by blocking the sale of his £4 million Portuguese villa and travelling abroad.

Like so many other cases that we read, the background is long, bitter and complex. Media reporting of the case has taken wildly differing approaches.

On February 7, the Daily Mail ran with the headline “My £2 million divorce battle with Princess ex-wife left me sleeping on office floor”.

Meanwhile, on February 8, the Law Society Gazette ran with a headline “Divorcee who showed ‘barefaced contempt’ for Court faces jail”.

So, what is the truth and who has it right?

I suppose that all depends on your perspective. 

In the piece in the Daily Mail, Mr Bailey goes to great lengths to paint himself as the victim here who has been left with nothing.  He bemoans the conduct of his ex-wife and her avaricious family for reducing him to sleeping in his office and relying upon the generosity of his friends to be able to survive. 

In addition, he claims that his health has been so significantly impacted that he cannot work and has to live in warmer climates in order to protect his health. He uses this as justification as to why he has been unable to attend previous hearings in chilly Britain.

For her part, the Princess – great granddaughter of Archduke Franz Ferdinand - tells of fantastic wealth still retained by Mr Bailey and the fact that he is living a luxury lifestyle including many holidays and trips abroad whilst living in a £4m mansion in Portugal and enjoying the trappings of a very successful and affluent lifestyle whilst doing everything that he can to delay and frustrate payments to her as ordered by the Court previously.

What transpired at the hearing before Mr Justice Peel in the High Court on February 1 is that Mr Bailey was found to be guilty of “dishonesty, wilful obstruction and barefaced contempt” for the Court process. 

The judge went on to say that the husband's behaviour was a “shameful spectacle, deserving of considerable opprobrium”. 

In an unusual step, the judge went on to find that a custodial sentence was justified in the circumstances, but has offered Mr Bailey a lifeline in that he can choose to purge his contempt by making good on the unpaid sum to his wife of £1 million and applying to the Court, who indicated that they would look favourably on such application, if he made good his breaches.

Whether that will happen remains to be seen – and it’s further complicated by Mr Bailey living in a foreign jurisdiction with all the complications of cross-border enforcement, particularly in the wake of Brexit.

Mr Bailey certainly is painting a picture of being destitute and unable to meet the orders made by the Court.  Whether the promise of an immediate custodial sentence which hangs over him should return to the UK is enough to change his approach, time will tell.

The judgment handed down by the High Court is unusual in its severity and certainly indicates that, in the view of Mr Justice Peel, Mr Bailey’s attempts to portray himself as the victim have fallen on deaf ears in London.

No doubt further litigation will follow in due course and it will be interesting to see how this case resolves itself, if indeed it ever does!

The last word has to go to the partner dealing with the matter for the Princess, who I think points out a rather sad element to all of this, when he says: “No parent involved in a financial case on divorce wants to have to bring an application for the committal of the other parent to prison.

But in certain, rare cases when there is blatant, repeated and wilful non-compliance with court orders, then it may be necessary to ensure that justice is done, and a fair outcome is achieved as envisaged by the court.”

At Higgs LLP, we’ve not yet dealt with any princesses, but we have vast experience in dealing with high-value, complex separations.

Our philosophy has always been to focus on protecting relationships, children and wealth, settling matters in court only when absolutely necessary.

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