British billionaire ordered to pay €21k to French playwright after losing case

Secretive British billionaire David Barclay was ordered to pay damages of €21,000 to a French playwright on Tuesday after a court in northern France rejected his attempt to sue for defamation.

British billionaire ordered to pay €21k to French playwright after losing case
David Barclay, left, with his twin brother. Photo: AFP

Barclay, who with his twin brother Frederick owns The Daily Telegraph and the Ritz Hotel, had filed suit against Hedi Tillette de Clermont-Tonnerre over a play that won critical reviews in Paris earlier this year. 

Entitled Les Deux Freres et les Lions (The Two Brothers and the Lions), it does not mention the brothers directly, but has clear parallels with the pair who were born into a modest Scottish family and went on to build a vast property and media empire.

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Barclay had sought €100,000 euros in damages for libel and violation of privacy and had sought to have the work – which played at a small Paris theatre until March 31 – banned. 

“In the text, there are no facts revealed that were unknown, egregious, intimate or even imaginary and pejorative which are likely to constitute a  particularly serious intrusion into the (plaintiff's) life,” the judges wrote. 

The court ordered the 85-year-old to pay €6,000 in moral damages to the writer, as well as €5,000 to each of the three theatre companies involved in producing the play for infringing their right to show the work. 

He was also ordered to pay €35,000 in legal costs. 

“This is a remarkable ruling,” Clermont-Tonnerre's lawyer Olivier Morice told AFP.

“In severely penalising David Barclay to pay damages and interest, the court has recalled the major principles for safeguarding creative freedom,” he said. 

But Barclay's lawyer Christophe Bigot said the British tycoon, who with his brother has an estimated fortune of £8 billion (€9.3 billion), would likely appeal the ruling. 

In its publicity blurb, the 150-seat Theatre de Poche describes the play being about: “The irresistible rise of two Scottish immigrants.

“This tale is about twins from a poor background who came to have one of the biggest fortunes of Great Britain by the end of the 20th century.”

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The divorce law pitfalls in France that foreigners need to be aware of

France now has an out-of-court divorce option designed to make the process simpler and less expensive, but as Paris-based lawyer Caterina Guidiceandrea warns, it has some pitfalls for non-French people.

The divorce law pitfalls in France that foreigners need to be aware of
Happy ever after? Maybe not. Photo: AFP

In France it is now possible for couples to divorce without going through a long and sometimes expensive court process by signing a divorce agreement – but this may not be ideal for couples where one or both person is not French.

What is an out-of-court divorce and how does it work?

On January 1st 2017, the divorce par consentement mutuel (divorce by mutual consent) was created, allowing couples to acknowledge their consent to divorce in an extra-judicial contract without a court proceeding.

To divorce by mutual consent, it is essential that couples agree on all aspects of their divorce with the help of their respective lawyers. They especially need to settle the consequences of the divorce on their children (custody and residence), on their assets and all financial measures (alimony and compensatory allowance).


The consent reached by the couple is then set out in a divorce agreement, prepared by the parties’ lawyers. Following a 15 day cooling-off period, the divorce agreement is signed by the spouses and countersigned by each lawyer.

Once signed, the agreement is submitted to a French notaire for registration. Registration is what makes the divorce agreement enforceable in France.

How long does it take to get a get an extra-judicial divorce?

Signing a divorce agreement is the quickest way to divorce in France.

Whilst the duration clearly depends on how the negotiations between the couple progress, it is technically possible to sign and register a divorce agreement in France within approximately one month.

Can I sign the divorce agreement remotely?

No, it is not possible to sign the divorce agreement remotely. Both spouses and their respective lawyers need to be physically present on the day of signing.

The French National Bar Association clearly indicated, on February 8th 2019, that “the divorce agreement by mutual consent without a judge must be signed in the physical presence and simultaneously by the parties and the attorneys mentioned in the agreement, without substitution or possible delegation”.

This requirement has not changed since Covid-19.

I am not French, can I sign a divorce agreement?

Yes, you can sign a divorce agreement even if you are not French. However you must have a sufficient connection to France, based on your habitual residence or on your spouse’s French nationality.

International couples should however be very careful when signing a divorce agreement as not all countries recognise this type of divorce.

As the divorce agreement is entered into out of court – except when a minor child requests to be heard in court – public authorities from certain countries do not recognise and enforce this type of divorce. This is for instance the case in certain States in the USA.

In practice, this means that, a couple having signed and registered a French divorce agreement, would be considered as divorced in France, however still be married in their home country/countries if local authorities refuse to register and enforce the contract.

Enforcing a divorce agreement outside of France could also be problematic for expats who move countries on a regular basis.

It is essential to assess the possibility of signing a divorce agreement with your lawyer to ensure that it is enforceable and will be registered outside of France.

Should the French out-of-court divorce not be recognised by the authorities in your country of origin or should it not be appropriate, it will be necessary to take the matter to court.

Caterina Giudiceandrea is a registered lawyer in Paris, France