Exclusive: Peter Smith J to face bias allegations in Saudi royals trial

Mr Justice Peter Smith is facing allegations of bias over a judgment he handed down in November in a case featuring the Saudi royal family.

The judge, who had to recuse himself from the British Airways (BA) air cargo case last year over issues of conflict, will have his November judgment challenged in the Court of Appeal (CoA) on 16 May.

The defendant in the case, Prince Abdul Aziz Bin Fahd, secured permission to appeal Peter Smith J’s ruling on Friday (18 March). The appeal is being brought on five grounds, including an allegation of “apparent bias” on the part of the judge.

The exact nature of the allegations against Peter Smith J are not yet known. However, The Lawyer understands they could relate to a critical article written by Blackstone Chambers’ Lord Pannick QC in The Times last September about the judge’s conduct in the BA case.

Two Blackstone silks are currently instructed by the defendant in the Saudi case and Pannick himself represented the prince until 2014.

Friday’s directions hearing was presided over by Master of the Rolls Lord Dyson, the second most senior judge in the country. The Lawyer understands the appeal hearing has been expedited to this May in order for it to fall prior to Dyson’s planned retirement in July.

Friday’s hearing also saw the court consider plans to hear part of the CoA date in private, though it was finally decided it would be heard publicly. The appellate court rarely considers such action and only undertakes private hearings if it is ruled necessary for the proper administration of justice.

One Essex Court’s Lord Grabiner QC has been instructed by Clyde & Co partner Martin Davies for the appellant. Davies is acting off the record for the Saudi prince in his capacity as longstanding lawyer to the Fahd family.

Howard Kennedy partner Steven Morris is on the record for the appellant and has instructed Blackstone’s Ian Mill QC and Shaheed Fatima QC.

The respondent, Janan Harb, is represented by Selborne Chambers’ Romie Tager QC and Ian Clarke QC, instructed by Hughmans Solicitors.

Harb, who claimed she was the “secret wife” of the late King Fahd – the defendant’s father – won £20m in damages following Peter Smith J’s ruling in November.

That ruling was thought to be the conclusion of a 12-year legal battle between Harb and the Fahd family. She had claimed the late king had promised to provide her with “lifelong financial support” and after his death the prince had reneged on a deal to pay her £12m and transfer two flats in Chelsea, London to her name.

The latest allegations against Peter Smith J follow questions about his conduct in previous cases. Last July the High Court judge recused himself from the BA air cargo cartel case after the airline lost some items of his luggage on a flight to Italy.

Peter Smith J escalated a complaint from BA’s customer services team to its chief executive Keith Williams and the lawyers acting for the airline on the cartel case. Lawyers for BA claimed the row over the luggage could affect his judgment in handling the ongoing case.

The judge was previously reprimanded by the Office of Judicial Complaints in 2008 after failing to recuse himself from a case. The reprimand followed negotiations between Peter Smith J and Addleshaw Goddard over the possibility of him joining the firm on a £750,000-a-year package.

Peter Smith J declined to comment.

The legal line-up:

For the appellant, HRH Prince Abdul Aziz Bin Fahd

One Essex Court’s Lord Grabiner QC, instructed by Clyde & Co partner Martin Davies; and Blackstone Chamber’s Ian Mill QC and Shaheed Fatima QC, instructed by Howard Kennedy partner Steven Morris

For the respondent, Janan Harb

Selborne Chambers’ Romie Tager QC and Ian Clarke QC, instructed by Hughmans Solicitors