Prince Harry’s phone hacking claims against Daily Mail publisher can go to trial, High Court rules
The phone hacking claims by Prince Harry and Baroness Lawrence against the Daily Mail can go to trial, but key evidence has been blocked
Prince Harry’s allegations that he fell victim to phone hacking and illegal activity at the Daily Mail can go to trial, a High Court judge has ruled, in a battle with the media also involving Sir Elton John and Baroness Doreen Lawrence.
The Duke of Sussex is part of a collection of high profile individuals who have accused the newspaper of years of unlawful behaviour including phone tapping, blagging confidential information, and tracking their movements.
Harry, Sir Elton, and Baroness Lawrence, whose son Stephen was murdered in a racist attack, are joined by actresses Sadie Frost and Liz Hurley, Sir Elton’s husband David Furnish, and former MP Sir Simon Hughes in the claim against Associated Newspapers Limited (ANL), the publisher of the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday.
The media organisation attempted to stop the case in its tracks, arguing the claims had been made too late, but in a ruling on Friday Mr Justice Nicklin said ANL had failed to deliver a “knockout blow”.
But in a decision that could cause havoc for the claimants, he said evidence obtained from the Leveson Inquiry, including ledgers showing payments to private investigators allegedly involved in phone hacking and illegal activities could not currently be used as part of the case against ANL.
The judge concluded that material had been provided to the press standards Inquiry by the newspaper group on the understanding it would not be disclosed elsewhere, backed by an order from Sir Brian Leveson. He said Prince Harry and his co-claimants could apply to the Inquiry for permission to deploy the ledgers in the civil case, remove parts of their claim that relied on them, or ANL could voluntarily provide the material itself.
Reacting to the ruling, the claimants said they are “delighted” with the result, while ANL called it a “significant victory for justice” that the ledger evidence had been blocked.
In statements released at the preliminary hearing earlier this year, Prince Harry said he lost friends and suffered from the pressures of “suspicion and paranoia” thanks to stories in the media he says were fueled by unlawful newsgathering.
He said his relationship with Chelsy Davy was wrecked as they were pursued by photographers around the world and she felt like she was being “hunted.
The Prince alleges the unlawful activity started as early as 1993, when he was a child, and continued for the next 15 years. He called it a “major betrayal given promises made by the media to improve its conduct following the tragic and untimely death of his mother, Princess Diana, in 1997.”
In a series of legal battles against the media, Harry has accused the Royal Family of hiding evidence of phone hacking from him and his brother, Prince William, for years. And he says strong statements to the Leveson Inquiry from Daily Mail executives that phone hacking had not taken place had delayed the process of bringing a legal claim.
In her claim, Baroness Lawrence says she was “numb with anger” when she learned last year from lawyers that her phone bills, communications, and bank accounts had been monitored by private detectives allegedly working for the Daily Mail – a newspaper she had campaigned alongside in the pursuit of her son’s killers.
“My landlines had been tapped, my voicemails hacked, my phone bills illegally extracted using deception which I now understand is called blagging, covert electronic surveillance was put on me including at a café that I used to go to when I wanted to talk to people privately, and corrupt payments had been made to police officers”, she said.
Baroness Lawrence claims she has evidence of the Daily Mail paying police officers involved in the first investigation into her son’s murder, which floundered amid suspicion of corruption and a cover-up.
Vowing to fight against this fresh “injustice”, Lady Lawrence added: “I cannot think of any act or conduct lower than stealing and exploiting information from a murder and from a mother who buried her son, and by people who pretended to be my friends.
“It has been a new trauma and injustice for me, and it seems that in my son’s death there was absolutely no one to protect him or me.
“I wonder who is good and who is bad, where is it that we can find integrity in the public institutions and people in authority that should be looking after us all.”
Sir Elton and his husband joined the legal action after learning in early 2021 from Liz Hurley that phones at their home in Windsor had been tapped by a private investigator for the Mail on Sunday, he said.
He also accuses the Daily Mail of obtaining medical information on his infant son, and discovering details of his own collapse on a plane while touring.
“Apart from being illegal and immoral for the Mail to be looking around and intruding into this area of my life, it was inhumane”, said Sir Elton.
He said they faced “frightening disclosures” about their private lives and “became deeply paranoid and suspicious”.
ANL denies all allegations of unlawful newsgathering. Its lawyers asked the judge to stop the case, saying claims had been lodged beyond statutory time limits.
Lawyers for ANL pointed out Prince Harry had admitted in his memoir Spare to a “keen interest in the prosecution of journalists from the News of the World”, and was “overjoyed” when News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks was arrested in 2011.
The judge said in his ruling that ANL “has not been able to deliver a ‘knockout blow’ to the claims of any of these Claimants”, and the argument over whether the case has been brought out of time can be revisited at trial.
The evidence from the Leveson Inquiry – if not allowed into the trial – has the potential to significantly damage the strength of the claims against ANL. It is alleged the newspaper group made payments to private investigators knowing they were engaging in illegal activity, and the payment ledgers form a key part of that allegation.
In a statement after the ruling, ANL said: “We welcome Mr Justice Nicklin’s decision that the information we and other newspapers supplied to the Leveson Inquiry under strict grounds of confidentiality remains subject to the Restriction Order imposed by Lord Justice Leveson.
“In a significant victory for justice and the Mail, the Judge ruled that the information should not have been used by the Claimants and must be struck out from the case.
“As Mr Justice Nicklin says in his judgment, this was an ‘abuse of process’ and if used, ‘it would bring the administration of justice into disrepute’.
“As we have always made unequivocally clear, the lurid claims made by Prince Harry and others of phone-hacking, landline-tapping, burglary and sticky-window microphones are simply preposterous and we look forward to establishing this in court in due course.”
Law firm Hamlins published a statement from the claimants, saying: “We are delighted with today’s decision which allows our claims over serious criminal activity and gross breaches of privacy by the Mail titles to proceed to trial.
“The High Court has dismissed ‘without difficulty’ the attempt by Associated Newspapers, publisher of The Daily Mail, The Mail on Sunday and the Mail Online, to throw these cases out. Indeed, the judge found that each of our claims had a real prospect of showing there was concealment of unlawful acts by the Mail titles and that this could not have been discovered until recently. Our claims can now proceed to trial.
“As we have maintained since the outset, we bring our claims over the deplorable and illegal activities which took place over many years, including private investigators being hired to place secretly listening devices inside our cars and homes, the tapping of our phone calls, corrupt payments to police for inside information, and the illegal accessing of our medical information from hospitals and financial information from banks. We intend to uncover the truth at trial and hold those responsible at Associated Newspapers fully accountable.
“The judge also found ledgers showing secret payments by The Mail and The Mail On Sunday to private investigators which had been provided to our lawyers and could not be used at this stage without the consent of the newspapers or the Government.
“This only delays the inevitable since they will have to be produced in the course of the claim by Associated in any event.
“However, if The Mail and The Mail On Sunday have nothing to hide, and they genuinely believe our allegations are unfounded, as they appear to claim, they should provide us with the ledgers voluntarily now, and let the claims proceed to trial as quickly as possible.”
Mr Justice Nicklin ordered the parties to return to court on November 21 for a hearing, as well as to indicate if any appeals are being lodged.