MADRID - Spain's government is crafting a new legal shield for King Juan Carlos after he steps off the throne and loses the absolute royal immunity that has protected him for 39 years.
The 76-year-old king, hurt by royal scandals in the twilight of a reign that steered Spain from dictatorship to democracy, is handing the crown to his son Felipe who will be sworn in on Thursday.
But when King Felipe VI is crowned, his father Juan Carlos will cease to be covered by Spain's 1978 constitution, which states that the person of the king "is inviolable and shall not be held accountable".
In October 2012, that immunity thwarted two legal suits demanding that Juan Carlos undergo paternity tests to show whether he was the father of two extramarital children.
It is a status that is increasingly being questioned, however, as Spain grapples with the first royal succession since the restoration of the monarchy after the death of General Francisco Franco in 1975.
Juan Carlos himself declared in a televised address in December 2012 that "justice is equal for all" as he distanced himself from a corruption scandal swirling around his son-in-law, former Olympic handball champion Inaki Urdangarin.
This year, the king's younger daughter Princess Cristina was officially named a tax crime suspect in relation to her husband's allegedly dodgy business practices.
There has been no suggestion that the king is linked to Urdangarin's affairs but the monarch's popularity has nevertheless been hit by that scandal and by his own exploits, in particular a luxury 2012 African elephant-hunting safari that shocked many Spaniards.
Juan Carlos's legal status thus poses a unique challenge to Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's conservative government.
Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria said this month that the government would propose to parliament a fundamental law setting out the king's legal status after his abdication.
Immunity for life
In any case, she said, Juan Carlos's constitutional immunity for actions taken while king will not expire.
"One loses immunity for the future, but that does not mean one regains responsibility for previous acts," the deputy premier told journalists.