By Brian Cathcart
ON THE THIRD day of the London High Court hearing in relation to claims that the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday illegally breached the privacy of Sir Elton John, Prince Harry, Baroness Lawrence and four others, the newspapers argued that the cases came too late.
The claims concern alleged unlawful practices by the two papers mainly in the years 2000 to 2010, and Adrian Beltrami QC, counsel for the papers’ owner Associated Newspapers, argued that since this was beyond the usual six-year time limit the judge should throw them out.
The claimants argue that they sued once they had the evidence to justify doing so and that they could not reasonably be expected to have done otherwise, especially as Associated has adamantly denied unlawful information gathering ever since the UK phone-hacking scandal broke in 2006.
In lengthy and detailed legal argument, Beltrami suggested to the judge that the claimants, who also include David Furnish, Elizabeth Hurley, Sadie Frost Law and Sir Simon Hughes, had all admitted in their claims that they had suspicions about the Mail papers more than 10 years ago, and that they had failed adequately to justify waiting so long to act on those suspicions.
Most, he also pointed out, had already sued other newspapers some years ago, yet they had failed to act against the Mail papers at the same time.
Beltrami also challenged the notion that substantial new evidence against the Mail has emerged to justify the claims, asserting that the claimants relied heavily on vague statements made by private investigators – statements that, he said, were ‘too vague to be meaningful’ and not enough to convince any court.
The judge, Mr Justice Nicklin, made few interventions in the course of these arguments but where he did he appeared sceptical. Given that numerous claimants continue to sue the Murdoch and Mirror newspaper companies in relation to hacking and other illegal practices that took place in the same period – and to receive large settlements without having to go to trial – it would be surprising to many if the claims against the Mail papers were thrown out.
Beltrami encountered a difficulty in his efforts to challenge as ‘stale’ elements of the evidence brought by the claimants, since the evaluation of evidence would normally take place at the trial – which he was arguing was unjustified. At one point, when he pointed to apparently contradictory statements made by one private investigator, Gavin Burrows, the judge interrupted: ‘A trial point if ever I saw one.’
The hearing will now go into a fourth day, when counsel for the claimants, David Sherborne, will respond to the Associated case on the timing issue. Once those arguments are complete the judge is expected to reserve judgment, meaning that he will give his decisions in a few days’ or weeks’ time.
Besides the issue of timing he must rule on the matter that absorbed the first two days of the hearing, relating to whether or how far the claimants may rely on documents – ‘ledgers’ – relating to Associated’s use of private investigators that were the subject of legal ‘restriction orders’ intended to keep them private. Parts of the ledgers were published in 2017 and after, and the judge has asked for details of how much and what use the claimants want to make of them.