United Kingdom

Baroness wins case against crooked 'Svengali' lawyer after handing him her £2m divorce payout

A 'financially unsophisticated' aristocrat could be left penniless after she gave full control of her £2million fortune to her disgraced lawyer who has since declared himself bankrupt. 

Baroness Jacqueline Van Zuylen told the High Court she has suffered sleepless nights due to stress after handing all her money - including her divorce payout - to 'Svengali' lawyer Rodney Whiston-Dew to invest on her behalf in 2012.

Baroness Van Zuylen, whose former husband was the scion of a mega-rich Dutch banking family, was promised a monthly income for life by the now-disgraced celebrity solicitor.  

But, she said he refused to hand her cash back and lawyers for the former semi-professional dressage rider - who says she has 'never worked' - told the court that she has been left having to 'beg, steal and borrow' to get by without her savings.

Mr Whiston-Dew denied any wrongdoing, claiming he did not have access to the Baroness' money, having invested it an offshore trust with her permission while trying to get her 'to rein in her extraordinary spending habits' and 'exorbitant personal expenditures'.  

Judge Nicholas Thompsell today ruled that he had carried out acts of 'deceit' towards his aristocratic client and ruled that he is personally responsible for reimbursing her. 

Baroness Jacqueline Van Zuylen (pictured) won her case against 'Svengali' lawyer Rodney Whiston-Dew, who had vowed to invest her £2.1m fortune on her behalf in 2012

Lawyers for the former semi-professional dressage rider, who says she has 'never worked', told the High Court at an earlier hearing that she has been left having to 'beg, steal and borrow'

Ruling in her favour, the judge said: 'She entrusted over £2.1 million - effectively her entire fortune - to the stewardship of, Mr Rodney Whiston-Dew.

'Less than half of this money has been returned to her and, with one exception, she has little idea of what has happened to the rest of it.  

'By means of this case, she is now seeking to make recovery of her losses against the first defendant and against the second defendant, a company incorporated in the Seychelles, now called GBT Global Limited.

'The claimant's overarching case is that she has been the victim of what Mr Dale describes as a 'fraudulent scam' and which I would characterise as being most likely a form of Ponzi scheme.

'Mr Dale put it very simply. She was deceived. 

'She paid over her money, not as a gift, and wants it and its fruits, to the extent that they are traceable, or compensation for being denied the ability to profit from its investment.'

Mr Whiston-Dew, who said he could not attend the final hearing of the case due to stress, was 'technically made bankrupt' during the course of the trial, his barrister told the court.

But he may still be liable to pay the Baroness back when his bankruptcy is over, having been found liable in deceit.

Mr Whiston-Dew (pictured), 70, who was struck off as a solicitor after being jailed in 2017 for his role in a £65million tax scam, will now be made to reimburse the aristocrat

'This head of claim may continue to be enforceable after the end of any period of bankruptcy,' the judge pointed out.

The final amount the Baroness will receive back has yet to be calculated.

Baroness Van Zuylen was the third wife of Baron Thierry van Zuylen, a scion of a Dutch noble family who made a fortune in banking, owned a string of high profile racehorses and was a leading figure on the French racing scene for more than 50 years.

After their split, the Baroness settled into rural high society in the picturesque Cotswolds village of Little Farringdon, while her daughter Allegra - an alumni of top girls' private school Cheltenham Ladies' College - went to New York to study art.

The Baroness, who claimed to be 'financially unsophisticated,' said she was persuaded by Mr Whiston-Dew to transfer cash including her divorce payout, in the sum of £2,103,619, via solicitors to GBT Global Ltd, an offshore company of which he was at the time director.

She claimed she was promised a monthly income for life and signed a power of attorney in Mr Whiston-Dew's favour, giving him the right to handle her financial dealings.

Baroness Jacqueline Van Zuylen with her daughter Allegra pictured back in October 2010

But in 2017, after losing faith in the arrangement, she says she asked for her money back plus an explanation of what happened to it, but received neither.

That same year, Mr Whiston-Dew was jailed for ten years for his role in a £65m tax avoidance scam, purportedly linked to an eco-friendly reforestation project in Brazil.

He was struck off the register of solicitors the following year.

The Baroness sued Mr Whiston-Dew and GBT Global Ltd, demanding the whole of her original sum back, plus compensation for lost potential investment gains.

Outlining her case, her barrister Derrick Dale QC told the judge that Mr Whiston-Dew had told the Baroness her money would be put into a long-term property investment in a block of flats in Norwich and land in Essex.

Baroness Jacqueline Van Zuylen says she was tricked into investing £2m in her High Court writ

'On the premise of very casual conversations, she is persuaded to transfer all her life savings,' he said.

'He immediately sets up a situation which involves him having control of everything.

'This is a complete fraudulent take, an investment scam. Her confidence is being manipulated and exploited in a Svengali way.'

The Baroness, giving evidence, told the judge she had not understood the arrangement she was getting into with Mr Whiston-Dew.

'My career has been a semi-professional dressage rider,' she told the judge. 'I've not been a businesswoman.'

During an earlier hearing in the battle, Mr Dale said Baroness Van Zuylen had been left in a 'desperate' situation with no access to her cash.

'She handed all of her money to Mr Whiston-Dew and, since he has gone to prison, although payments continued for a short period, she has received no money, no money at all,' he said.

'She has had to beg, steal and borrow in order to be able to survive in a day to day existence. She can't pay her rent on the property she lives in.'

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