There was a “a culture of secrecy” in Nigella Lawson’s relationship with Charles Saatchi, a court heard yesterday.
The TV cook is a “habitual criminal” according to Mr Saatchi, said lawyer Anthony Metzer, who is defending one of the couple’s former personal assistants.
Opening the trial, prosecutor Jane Carpenter told jurors that allegations of drug abuse by Ms Lawson were not central to the trial of Francesca and Elisabetta Grillo, who each deny a count of fraud.
Lawyers for the defendants, who are accused of spending more than £685,000 from a company credit card on themselves, had argued the case should not go ahead due to the “manipulation of the court process” by the TV cook and the millionaire art dealer, who had a high-profile divorce earlier this year.
On Tuesday, Isleworth Crown Court in west London heard that Mr Saatchi alleges Ms Lawson was so high on drugs that she was unaware of what she had or had not permitted the sisters to spend money on.
Anthony Metzer QC, defending Elisabetta Grillo, argued the case should be dropped as Mr Saatchi and Ms Lawson were at “loggerheads” and the alleged drug use damaged her “credibility as an honest witness”.
He told the court: “The defendants’ case is that Nigella Lawson lied to her ex-husband about her drug use and about the expenditure that was incurred by the defendants, both expressly and implicitly, because she was fearful of Mr Saatchi’s reaction if he knew about the extent of the expenditure and drug use. There was a culture of secrecy within Nigella Lawson’s marriage.”
He argued that the defendants would not receive a fair trial “as there has been a manipulation of the court process by the two main prosecution witnesses in this case”.
He said that if it did go ahead, “it’s a convenient forum for Mr Saatchi and Miss Lawson to rehearse disputed issues between them in the criminal courts where, of course, the possibility of libel is not possible”.
“If Mr Saatchi is telling the truth, then Miss Lawson is a habitual criminal.”
But after hearing submissions from Mr Metzer and Karina Arden, defending Francesca, 35, Judge Robin Johnson ruled that the trial should go ahead.
Prosecutor Ms Carpenter told jurors: “This case is about fraud. We say it’s fraud motivated by greed and that’s what this trial is about. Not about other issues of matrimonial discord or drug- taking.
“This trial, the prosecution say, relates to the high life lived by Francesca and Elisabetta Grillo.
“But we say that they did so not by their own endeavours but in a greedy and fraudulent free-for-all, by abusing the trust of their employers in a four-year spending spree.”
Ms Carpenter said the sisters were “employed to ensure the smooth running of Ms Lawson and Mr Saatchi’s household”, with duties that included looking after their children, even sometimes going on holiday alone with the youngsters.
They lived rent-free, with Elisabetta, 41, paid £25,000 a year and Francesca, 35, £28,000.
Ms Lawson, who employed the sisters before her marriage to Mr Saatchi, “acknowleged that they were extremely close to her family”, Ms Carpenter added.
Both were given credit cards to buy items for the household and family members with the balance paid off each month by direct debit without being closely scrutinised and an understanding that they would not use it for themselves.
Ms Carpenter added: “It must be a dishonest employee’s dream to have a company credit card that’s always accepted.”
She said the sisters’ expenditure on designer clothes and accessories came to over £685,000.
She said: “Despite the defendants’ silence, it’s anticipated that they will claim that Mr Saatchi and Miss Lawson permitted them to use the credit cards to buy themselves presents and withdraw cash because of the long hours they worked.”
The trial continues today with Saatchi due to give evidence at some point during the day.