Earl Spencer pleaded poverty in his divorce proceedings in South Africa, arguing that most of his family's pounds 100m fortune was tied up in the Northamptonshire estate at Althorp, where his sister, Diana, is buried. Steve Boggan says that few observers believe he is broke - especially the newspapers which he was last night trying to gag.
He is reported to have personal wealth of pounds 6m, an income of pounds 1m a year and a family fortune of pounds 100m but yesterday Earl Spencer was portrayed as a man who was a little strapped for cash.
Lawyers representing him at his divorce hearing in Cape Town said all his assets were tied up, either at Althorp or in London and Guernsey-based family trusts. He could not, they argued, afford to pay the pounds 3.75m being demanded by his estranged wife, Victoria Lockwood.
On the third day of the hearing, which will decide whether the full divorce case will be heard in South Africa or England, the High Court was told that the earl, 33, was left in South Africa, where he now lives, with "only" two houses, their contents, two trucks and a Mercedes.
And, just in case that was likely to produce a few sniggers, his lawyers were busy trying to prevent the media in South Africa from reporting the details. They applied last night for an injunction against the Cape Times in an attempt to stop it and its sister paper, the Argus, from publishing details of the case, even though it is being held in open court.
They argued that his eldest of four children, Lady Kitty, had been upset by gossip at her school and by roadside Cape Times posters referring to "Spencer's Other Women". The paper was fighting the application last night on the grounds that details were freely available on satellite television and in foreign newspapers.
In court, pleas for poverty on Earl Spencer's behalf were ridiculed by Jeremy Posnansky QC, who is appearing on behalf of Lady Spencer as an English family law expert. He introduced the details of Earl Spencer's wealth on Monday - figures which have not been contested by his side.
The earl has offered a settlement of only pounds 300,000 for Lady Spencer and his four children and has suggested she could not be trusted with the pounds 3.75m she has demanded. Rejecting that figure, his lawyers referred to the five months she spent undergoing treatment for alcoholism and eating disorders. In her turn, she alleges that he had affairs with 12 women during that time.
Commenting on Earl Spencer's assets, Mr Posnansky said: "It is surprisingly common that when a divorce court approaches, a husband's businesses go down."
During attempts to reject the figure of 12 extra-marital affairs, Leslie Weinkove, for Earl Spencer, pointed out that Lady Spencer's side had named "only" three - Sally Ann Lasson, Chantal Collopy and Josie Borain. "He is asked as to whether he had adulterous affairs with them. If there are 10 or 12 people involved, would it be usual to pick only three of them?" asked Mr Weinkove.
The hearing will decide whether the couple's full divorce will be heard in South Africa, Earl Spencer's choice, or in England, where most of his assets are and where Lady Spencer would most likely land a larger settlement.
The question of whether the outcome could be fully reported was being argued at the High Court. Kanthan Pillay, the Cape Times' managing editor, said the paper planned to appeal if Earl Spencer's gagging order was granted. "We will be arguing that a substantial number of our readers already have access to details about the hearing on CNN, Sky, the BBC and the Internet," he said.
"Also, this hearing is in open court, so all we are doing is acting as the eyes and ears of the public. It would be ludicrous to stop our readers from seeing information that is already freely available."
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