Court error means 'Goldfinger' can keep £33million

John "Goldfinger" Palmer, the notorious timeshare fraudster, was wrongly allowed to keep more than £33m because of a blunder by the Court of Appeal, the most senior judge in the country ruled yesterday.

Palmer had been ordered to pay a £33,243,812 confiscation order after he was convicted in 2001 of conspiracy to defraud thousands of people over timeshare agreements in Tenerife and sentenced to eight years in prison.

But in July last year the Court of Appeal ruled that because of flaws in the legal procedures he did not have to pay the money. They later ruled that the decision could not be challenged.

Yesterday Lord Woolf, Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, ruled that the appeal judges had "misunderstood and misapplied" the law.In overturning the confiscation order, he said the Court of Appeal had "wrongly decided" the case. The decision, however, makes no difference to the decision to quash Palmer's confiscation order.

Palmer, 53, from Bath, is reported to be worth £270m. He was nicknamed Goldfinger after being found not guilty of handling gold from the £25m Brink's Mat robbery at Heathrow in 1983.

Palmer still faces the threat of an £80m civil action by many of the 16,000 victims of the Tenerife timeshare scheme. His challenge to his eight-year jail term was dismissed by the Court of Appeal in November last year.

After the Court of Appeal's decision to reject the confiscation order there were at least 10 other applications from other criminals to have their orders ruled unlawful.

Lord Woolf, sitting with four judges before a specially constituted Appeal Court, had reviewed the decision amid concerns that the ruling would open the floodgates to further applications.