Aitken avoids prison over court bill from libel action

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The Independent Online
THE FORMER cabinet minister Jonathan Aitken escaped prison yesterday over a pounds 2m legal bill resulting from his failed libel action last year. But a High Court judge stopped him transferring his home in Westminster and land in Australia to his estranged wife, Lolicia.

Mr Aitken, who faces criminal charges of perjury and conspiracy to pervert the course of justice after the defamation case, had proposed handing the properties, his main remaining assets, to his wife as part of the divorce settlement.

Mr Justice Eady upheld an injunction on behalf of The Guardian and Granada TV, the victors in the libel case, freezing Mr Aitken's known assets. The former chief secretary to the Treasury and defence procurement minister had faced a jail sentence after failing to comply with the High Court order asking him to declare his assets throughout the world. Lawyers for The Guardian had applied for and received a notice of motion seeking his committal to prison. But yesterday the court was told Mr Aitken had deposited an affidavit and the motion to send him to prison was being withdrawn, although The Guardian disputed the contents of the affidavit.

Mr Justice Eady increased Mr Aitken's living allowance, realised from his assets, to pounds 9,000 a month. He had said the previous pounds 4,000 a month was inadequate and had asked for pounds 11,500. The judge let Mr Aitken realise some assets, apart from his properties, for some pounds 45,000 to go towards legal expenses, believed to involve his libel action, divorce case and impending criminal prosecution.

Aspects of yesterday's hearing cannot be reported under an order by Mr Justice Eady, who decided they may prejudice Mr Aitken's criminal trial. He is charged, with Said Ayas, his friend and business associate, with conspiracy to pervert the course of justice and perverting the course of justice. Mr Aitken is also charged separately with perjury.

In July Mrs Aitken filed for divorce in Switzerland, where she lives. The Westminster house is registered in Mr Aitken's name but he says it was bought with money from his father-in-law, and if his divorce settlement had been allowed to go ahead it would have become Lolicia's. The land in Australia was bought by Mr Aitken as an investment in 1972. His representatives were there arranging its transfer to Lolicia when they were halted by The Guardian's injunction.

In March Mr Aitken lost a pounds 150,000-a-year consultancy with GEC-Marconi after he was arrested on perjury and perversion of justice charges. He is unemployed, and is said to be writing a book. A large country house he owned in Sandwich, Kent, has been sold for an estimated pounds 500,000.