Prince Philip’s testament generates court battle

A major debate over privacy is raging in the UK after The Guardian newspaper announced it had filed a lawsuit against the media’s exclusion from a hearing on Prince Philip’s will that took place months ago. Queen Elizabeth’s husband passed away in April of this year.

In September, Andrew McFarlane, president of the Superior Court’s Family Division, ruled that Philip’s will would be kept secret for 90 years. Among the few present were an attorney representing the Duke’s estate at the Farrer & Co law firm, the Queen’s private attorneys, and the Attorney General, the government’s chief legal adviser.

The media were not notified or authorized to attend the hearing, the public interest being represented by the attorney general.

A Guardian News & Media spokesman told CNN that the Supreme Court’s decision to ban the press from hearings without informing the media or allowing them to make their notes “is a clear threat to the principles of open justice.”

“It is also worrying that the court seems to believe that only the attorney general can speak in the public interest,” continued the spokesman. “We are asking for permission to argue that the behavior of the higher court in this instance constitutes a failure of open justice and that the case should be re-examined.”

Under British law, if a person prepares a will before his death, it becomes a public document after being admitted for probate, and anyone can obtain a copy of the Probate Register for a fee.

However, anyone can ask the court to “seal” a will and keep it private, according to Geoff Kertesz and Judith Swinhoe-Standen of the UK law firm Stewarts.

“The court must be convinced that it would be ‘undesirable or inappropriate’ to make the will public,” they explained.

“Historically, the courts have only approved these requests for senior members of the royal family. It is unclear under what other circumstances, if any, the court might agree to uphold a private will.”

A recent senior royal whose will was recently made public was Diana, Princess of Wales, who gave up her title of Her Royal Highness when she divorced Prince Charles. The will was revealed in 1998, the year after his death.

Judge McFarlane said in his ruling that “it has become the standard that, upon the death of a senior member of the Royal Family, a request is made to seal his will” and that “it seems that such requests have always been heard privately and always were granted”.

According to the judge, the first member of the royal family whose will was sealed was Prince Francis of Teck, the younger brother of King George V’s wife, Queen Mary, who died in 1910.

Law and royalty expert Michael L. Nash told CNN, “It was Queen Mary who used these unusual royal powers and prerogatives never used before.”

Francis died suddenly at age 40, after an unsuccessful medical examination of his nose, according to Nash, who is also the author of the book “Royal Wills in Britain from 1509 to 2008” (“Royal Wills in Britain from 1509 to 2008” ”, no edition in Brazil).

He said that Prince Francis was a “reckless gambler” but also an “extremely lovable character”. In the first version of the will, the queen’s brother had left precious family jewels for his mistress.

Nash, who saw a copy of the will that appeared in Northern Ireland’s archives, said the prince was constantly in financial trouble.

After his death “Queen Mary knew that the creditors, as soon as they saw the will, would appear and everything else Frank had in his possession at his death would have to be sold in order to pay off these immense debts.”

The author continued: “She was horrified that the people might know about the state her brother had gotten into.”

Nash also pointed out that the family has already faced legal challenges regarding the secrecy of the royal wills.

The most recent of which was considered in court in 2007: a request by Robert Andrew Brown, who claimed to be the illegitimate child of the Queen’s sister, Princess Margaret. Brown tried to open Margaret’s will as well as the Queen Mother’s, but the request was rejected and treated as a fantasy.

Privacy turned the great debate of the modern era for the British monarchy, the question routinely emerging as to how much privacy a family member deserves.

Critics often say that royals use their ranks and privileges to secure exemptions and avoid scandal, while noting that the Windsors are taxpayer-funded.

At his trial, McFarlane said he was the keeper of a safe containing more than 30 envelopes, each of which allegedly contained the secret will of a dead royal.

The most recent additions were made in 2002 with the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret.

The author also addressed why privacy was granted to royal wills.

“The answer to the question that there should be an exception for senior members of the royal family is, in my view, clear: it is necessary to increase the protection afforded to the privacy of this unique group of individuals, in order to protect the dignity and the status of the public role of the Sovereign and other close members of her family,” he said.

Lawyers Kertesz and Swinhoe-Standen said there was a notable difference in the treatment of the wills of the Duke of Edinburgh (Prince Philip) and those of royalty before him.

“All previously sealed royal wills must be kept confidential indefinitely, but Prince Philip’s will is different in that his privacy is restricted for 90 years,” the pair said.

“After 90 years, only a few authorities will be able to inspect it and then invite the court to decide whether the will should be made public at that time or kept confidential for another period,” he added.

Expert and author Nash described setting a deadline as an “important advance,” as the previous position was to hide wills forever. “This brought great apprehension to historians, lawyers, researchers, anyone who had a valid reason to read the will,” he added.

“I imagine future cases that 90 years have fallen to, say, 50 years or even less so that there is some possibility that people living now can read (a will) at some point in the future during their lives.”