Britain’s Prince Harry returned to the High Court in London on Thursday where his lawyer fought an attempt by a newspaper publisher to throw out his and other high-profile figures’ lawsuit that alleged widespread unlawful acts by journalists.
Harry, the singer Elton John and five other high-profile people are suing publisher Associated Newspapers, alleging they were the victims of phone-hacking and other serious privacy breaches by journalists from the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday or private investigators working on their behalf.
Associated is seeking to have the lawsuit thrown out before a trial, arguing that the claims, some dating back 30 years, were outside a six-year time limit for legal action. The publisher’s lawyer Adrian Beltrami told the court on Wednesday the claims were rejected “in their entirety”.
Explaining why they have not sued before, David Sherborne, the lawyer for Harry and the other claimants, said they had been put “off the scent” by unequivocal denials made at a 2011 public inquiry by top executives from Associated.
“Those categorical denials were believed by a number of individuals who bring claims,” he told the court on the fourth and final day of the preliminary hearing, adding only recent discoveries had turned their suspicions into grounds for action.
Phone-hacking first came to public knowledge in 2006 when the royal correspondent and a private investigator working for a Sunday tabloid owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Group Newspapers (NGN) were arrested and later convicted of accessing voicemails on the mobile phones of royal aides.
Subsequent revelations five years later forced Murdoch to shut the paper, led to its editor and others being jailed, a public inquiry into press standards, and millions of pounds being paid in damages by NGN and another newspaper group.
Associated has always denied it was involved in such illegal practices.
In court filings, Harry and the others have detailed a series of unlawful activities by Mail journalists or 19 private investigators working for them from 1993 to 2011 and beyond, ranging from tapping their phones and bugging their homes to obtaining medical records by deception.
The British royal, who flew over from his California home for the hearing, in his statement described Associated’s journalists as criminals, a term the publisher said was “inflammatory and deeply offensive”.
He attended court for part of Thursday’s afternoon session, watching the legal argument intently, while occasionally examining documents on his lawyer’s computer screen.
Four more of the claimants have also made appearances at court: Elton John, his husband David Furnish, actor Sadie Frost, and campaigner Doreen Lawrence, whose son Stephen was murdered in a notorious 1993 racist attack in London. The other two are actor Elizabeth Hurley and former lawmaker Simon Hughes.
While Harry and Elton John make the headlines, the involvement of Lawrence is potentially the most difficult for Associated as the Daily Mail had long campaigned for her son’s killers to be brought to justice.
She now says she feels betrayed by the publisher after being informed of allegations it tasked private investigators to tap her phones and monitor her bank accounts, with Sherborne saying it amounted to “nothing short of gaslighting”.
In a statement, Associated said its “admiration” for Lawrence was undimmed and it was saddened “she has been persuaded to bring this case”.
The judge, Matthew Nicklin, said he would reserve judgment until a later date on whether the case should proceed to trial, and is not expected to rule for some weeks.
“I will try and do it as soon as I can,” he said.
During an exchange with attorney Sherborne, he suggested that if it did allow a trial, it would be “massive” and could last a “substantial period of time”.