Spain's former king gets a taste of the real world

  • Article by: RAPHAEL MINDER , New York Times
  • Updated: July 9, 2014 - 6:35 PM

His legal liability may be limited by new legislation.

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Spain’s King Juan Carlos, right, talked to his son, Spain’s newly crowned King Felipe VI, on June 19, when he stepped down.

Photo: Zipi • Associated Press,

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– When he gave up the Spanish throne recently after nearly four decades, Juan Carlos I, 76, forfeited some perks and privileges, not least among them immunity from legal proceedings.

And in the weeks since his son Felipe took the crown, Juan Carlos has gotten a glimpse of what it might be like to be treated by the courts like any other citizen, including the threat of two paternity suits.

But the former king’s exposure to legal liability is likely to be limited. On Thursday, the Spanish parliament is scheduled to give final approval to legislation declaring that he can only be tried by the country’s Supreme Court.

In the process, the governing Popular Party has ignited a fresh debate over the fairness of the practice of shielding government officials from prosecution, especially at a time when nearly every major Spanish institution, from the royal family down, has been caught up in corruption cases.

In relation to the United States and some other European nations, Spain is more generous in granting legal protection to its officials. About 10,000 lawmakers, judges, police officers and other civil servants have some form of special legal rights that allow them to be tried only by the country’s highest courts, rather than by ordinary courts and tribunals.

In the wake of the debate triggered by the legal status of Juan Carlos, the government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy announced recently a broader review of Spain’s legal protection system, which is likely to limit its reach.

The proposal to grant Juan Carlos protection covering both criminal and civil lawsuits has angered opposition lawmakers and divided some legal experts.

Juan Manuel Gómez Benítez, a former judge who now works for a private law firm in Spain, noted that officials lose their protected status once out of office, just as he lost his special status once he left the bench.

But such protection, Gómez Benítez added, had also never previously extended as far as civil lawsuits.

“The king who has abdicated is nothing more than a former head of state and as such should not get any protection,” Gómez Benítez said.

“The government and its parliamentary group have acted against the constitutional principles that guarantee equality before the law and prohibit arbitrary usage of public powers,” he said.

The government, however, has strongly defended Juan Carlos. His legal protection is “reasonable, fair and sensible,” Rajoy said in June.

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