Sir Frederick Barclay, whose fortune was estimated as £6bn as recently as May, faces the possibility of being sent to prison at the age of 87 after a high court judge ruled that he must stand trial for the non-payment of part of a £100m divorce settlement.
The court heard that the former owner of the Telegraph Media Group had considered applying for legal aid to fight a divorce battle with his wife of 34 years.
Barclay, who still owns half of the private island of Brecqhou and whose family sold the Ritz Hotel for an estimated £800m in 2020, is now “terrified” of being sent to prison for his failure to pay the £50m due to his wife last June.
He was also separately and additionally ordered to pay his wife’s legal costs, which are said to be approaching £500,000. The court was told that Barclay’s nephews, the sons of his twin brother Sir David Barclay, are paying for his legal fees but not those of his wife.
In evidence, Stewart Leech QC, for Hiroko Barclay, said the legal playing field was not level. “She owes her lawyers over half a million pounds and Sir Frederick Barclay owes his lawyers virtually nothing.”
Earlier this year, the court was told that Barclay had also “unilaterally halved” the maintenance payment of £60,000 awarded to his wife each month.
The court heard that Barclay, who started life as a painter and decorator alongside his brother, cannot access his fortune, which is held in a complex series of trusts.
Neither Barclay nor his brother, David, who died last year, were beneficiaries of the family trusts, which is essentially divided between Barclay’s daughter, Amanda, and three of David Barclay’s sons.
In the high court hearing, it was stated that Barclay said that he had no control over the complex trust structure. “I haven’t got anything,” he said.
Both Lady Barclay, 78, and Barclay appeared in court via an online link on Thursday but the judge ordered that both parties would have to appear in person in the three-day hearing due in July as non-payment is a quasi-criminal offence.
Lawyers representing Barclay have indicated that he will mount a defence to Lady Barclay’s application.
Scot Young, a property boss, was one of the few men to be committed to prison for contempt of court resulting from the non-payment of a divorce order when he was jailed for for six months in 2013.
In March, the court was told that Barclay had been evicted from his home. His lawyer, Charles Howard QC, told the court that “he’s got no money and his bank statements … show that.”
Sir Jonathan Cohen, who is hearing the case, criticised Barclay in his final order last May, saying he had behaved in a “reprehensible” fashion during the dispute after having sold his luxury yacht and “applied the equity for his own use” in breach of orders.
During Thursday’s hearing, the Guardian applied for documents in the complex case to be released to the media before the committal hearing, which was largely successful.