Britain’s royals used obscure legal procedure to hide distant relatives’ wills

Wills detailing the assets of distant relatives of the royal family have been kept secret through an obscure legal procedure, a court document has revealed.

The Windsor family has over the last century managed to exempt itself from a law requiring the wills of British citizens to ordinarily be made public.

The identities of the more than 30 royal wills that were sealed over that period had not been formally made public.

That changed on Wednesday when a senior judge published the list of royals whose sealed wills are stored in a locked safe. The contents of the wills themselves remain secret.

One name on the original list released by the court was Leopold de Rothschild, Edward VII’s close friend, suggesting his will was made secret in 1917. It is unclear how the British banker would have been able to achieve this, given the exemption was supposed to apply to senior royals.

Hours after publishing its original list on Wednesday the court issued a new list, with Leopold de Rothschild’s name removed. A spokesperson for the court said the inclusion of Rothschild’s name on the original list was “an error” as he was not a member of the royal family.

The official publication of the list discloses for the first time the extent to which the secret legal procedure has been used – without the knowledge of the public – to conceal the wills of even minor members of the royal family.

Another name on the list is Prince Georg Valdemar Carl Axel, who died in 1986. A member of the Danish royal family, he was only distantly connected to the Windsor line by virtue of being a second cousin to the late Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh.

He was born and died in Denmark, and it is not clear why an application to seal his will was made in London.

Other names on the list include the Duke of Windsor, who was King Edward VIII until he abdicated the throne in 1936, as well as more obscure minor members of the Windsor family, such as grandchildren of Queen Victoria and various children of George V and Queen Mary.

David McClure, a royal finance expert and author of the book The Queen’s True Worth, said the contents of the list demonstrated how the sealing of wills, supposedly only for the highest-ranking members of the royal family, was in fact much more widely applied.

“If you were a royal of any European royal house you could, if you made enough of a song and dance about it, have your will sealed. It does slightly make a mockery of the whole process that this should be for more senior royals.”

Norman Baker, a former Liberal Democrat minister who has also written a book about the royals, suggested some wills may have been sealed to cover up “just how much money they have accumulated from public funds”. A Buckingham Palace spokesperson said the royal family did not wish to comment.

For decades, lawyers for the royal family have successfully submitted legal applications to the high court to have wills kept secret after the deaths of family members. But the use of this procedure has drawn criticism, as it gives the royal family a right that is not granted to other British citizens.

The latest will to be sealed belonged to Prince Philip, who died this year. At a secret hearing in July, the president of the family division of the high court, Sir Andrew McFarlane, approved an application from the Queen’s private lawyers and the attorney general to keep his will secret for at least 90 years.

McFarlane said senior members of the royal family had to be exempted from the law requiring the publication of wills. This was “necessary to enhance the protection afforded to the private lives of this unique group of individuals, in order to protect the dignity and standing of the public role of the sovereign and other close members of her family”.

He published his ruling in September – the first time that a judgment ordering the sealing of a will of a member of the royal family had been made public. McFarlane ruled that “a level of transparency” had been established, adding that the list of the sealed wills should be made public – an instruction that was realised on Wednesday.

However, the small number of parties permitted to attend the court hearing, including the attorney general, successfully persuaded the judge to exclude the media from the hearing.

The Guardian is taking legal action to challenge the decision to exclude the media from the hearing. Its lawyers are seeking permission to argue that the high court’s failure to properly consider whether the press should be allowed to attend the hearing or make representations constitutes such a serious interference with the principle of open justice that the case should be reheard.

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