To the bewilderment and dismay of many international observers, an Englishwoman, Serena Wylde, was due to stand trial in Lagos tomorrow (Tuesday) as a result of making a complaint to an official regulatory body of the Portuguese legal profession.
Then this afternoon, the court in Lagos confirmed that Ms Wylde’s trial date has been suspended. The decision followed an urgent application made by her Portuguese lawyer questioning the impartiality of the trial judge.
Shortly before the suspension announcement, the British organisation Fair Trials International issued a statement saying “it beggars belief” that the trial was being held. “The prosecution flies in the face of free speech and puts those in positions of power beyond reproach,” said the organisation's' chief executive, Jago Russell.
Ms Wylde, who owns a holiday home in Praia da Luz, faces a possible nine-month jail sentence because of a letter she sent in confidence in January 2005 to the bar association, Ordem dos Advogados.
In her letter she called for disciplinary action to be taken against a prominent lawyer in Lagos, Pimenta de Almeida Borges. It arose from a dispute she had in 2004 with a neighbour about a gate and a garage. Mr Borges had been acting for the neighbour.
Ms Wylde claimed that she and her neighbour settled their dispute out of court in August 2005 and that Mr Borges was instructed accordingly, but he carried on legal proceedings away. This caused considerable anxiety for both her and her neighbour, said Ms Wylde.
She told the regulatory body in her letter that Mr Borges had acted in “an improper and unscrupulous manner”. She asked that his conduct be investigated. In June 2006, Borges also wrote a letter of complaint to the regulatory body – about Ms Wylde, claiming she had defamed him.
While still investigating the matter, the regulatory body forwarded Ms Wylde's letter to the public prosecutor's office which began proceedings against Ms Wylde for aggravated criminal defamation. The first inkling she had of this was in February 2007 when two policemen arrived at her Praia da Luz home and told her to report to the office of the Judicial Police (PJ).
Mrs Wylde, a 59-year-old businesswoman from Putney in London, has a close connection with Portugal. She has a Portuguese husband and speaks the language. Both of her parents, from whom she inherited her holiday home, are buried in the Algarve.
Mr Borges is the son of a former Supreme Court judge. He comes from a prominent family in Portugal and has described himself in correspondence with the prosecutor 's office as “a well-to-do and cultured individual”. He is seeking €50,000 in damages, although he admits “it is difficult to fix a sum to indemnify the offence suffered by one who exercises his profession with such honour, dignity and seriousness”.
Fair Trials International is taking a rather different view. They believe “this type of criminal action has the effect of placing the legal profession in Portugal above reproach and outside of any effective regulation”.
Fair Trials International added: “Serena Wylde took the responsible route of making a complaint when she encountered what she considered to be inappropriate actions by a lawyer. She did this, not to further her own interests, but to seek to uphold the integrity of the legal profession and to protect others from unprofessionalism. As a result she is being put through a harrowing and completely unjustified ordeal”.
It certainly has been an ordeal for Ms Wylde. She said in 2009: “It is devastating to be charged with a criminal offence. In my case this happened because I told what I believe to be the truth and it has been turned against me by those who don’t want to hear it. This ordeal has made me question every reference point of my daily security, and even my own sanity.”
Britain's former Justice Secretary, Jack Straw said in December 2009 he had discussed the case with Portuguese State Secretary Jose Magalhães and would "follow it up" . Straw said he was using the case as an example of why close cross-border co-operation in justice and home affairs issues was crucial in Europe. "Nobody asked me to intervene - I just raised it because I saw a news item on television about the situation and decided to pursue it," he said.
It was hoped the case would be dropped. But no. The legal action has been brought by the State, with Mr Borges as a civil claimant. Now that it has been suspended, the challenge to the conditions for a fair trial will be assessed by a higher court in Évora. If successful, a different judge will hear Ms Wylde's case