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The £500m tycoon who 'sacked his servants because dinner was early'

As butler and housekeeper, Francisco and Maria de Sousa took their orders for three years from a mercurial multimillionaire who lived in a sprawling estate in Oxfordshire, where he liked his meals to be served on time.

Then one Saturday, the man they believed was their employer flew into a temper because of a chicken dinner that he said had been served too early. According to the couple's version of events, their boss, Kevin Cash, ranted at them in the kitchen and told them they were sacked.

They had been shouted at before, so they retired to the cottage where they lived rent-free, hoping that the storm would pass. But they soon learnt that they had been removed from their posts, without severance or references.

Yesterday, to add confusion to their grievance, an employment tribunal was told that the couple had not been employed by Mr Cash. They were actually working for a trust based in a Caribbean tax haven, and therefore had no valid claim against him, his lawyers claimed.

The mysterious Mr Cash is reputed to be worth £500m, but has never appeared on any rich list. He claims to own no property in the UK apart from a house in London's Regent's Park.

He describes himself as a "consultant" to a family trust based in the Virgin Islands which owns North Aston Hall, the sprawling £16m Oxfordshire estate where the de Sousas were employed. But lawyers representing the couple suggested that this story is a sham, and that Mr Cash is actually a very rich man who funnels his wealth into offshore havens to minimise his tax liabilities.

James Wynne, representing Mr de Sousa, suggested that Mr Cash controlled a variety of companies at "arm's length", and that the company which nominally employed Mr de Sousa was "directed in the same way that he directs all the other companies in his business empire".

He added: "We say it's a sham. Mr Cash did act as if he owned North Aston Hall. He did act as if he was the employer." But David Flood, for Mr Cash, who was not present at the hearing, said: "It appears that the claimant is attempting to use this tribunal as a form of effectively putting [Mr Cash] on trial generally as to his business and financial dealings, and using as justification the claimant's own decision not to accept that he was employed by a company rather than Mr Cash."

Mr de Sousa, 43, told the tribunal that he and his wife, 38, were jointly paid £2,600 a month, net of tax and national insurance, with a further £1,000 net paid each month by cash or cheque. The butler said he ended up working a 70-hour week and was required to look after dogs and deal with contractors on his days off. He added that the £1,000 payments were often given to him on an "erratic basis".

He said: "He told us he liked simple food such as roast chicken. The house had to be neat and tidy and he liked there to be plenty of flowers."