LONDON – A London judge said Thursday he would rule as soon as possible on whether to throw out or limit a phone hacking lawsuit brought by Prince Harry, Elton John and other well-known figures against a British tabloid publisher.
The Duke of Sussex made a late arrival and early departure for the finale of a four-day High Court hearing on his invasion of privacy case against the company that publishes The Daily Mail. His surprise appearance during three days of the legal wrangling indicates the lawsuit’s importance in the prince’s broader battle against the British press.
Harry, John, and actresses Elizabeth Hurley and Sadie Frost are among a group of seven people suing Associated Newspapers Ltd. for allegedly paying private investigators to illegally bug homes and cars and to record phone conversations.
The publisher denied the allegations and has argued that lawsuits based on alleged incidents dating as far back as 1993 should be thrown out because the cases were not filed within a six-year limitation period.
Attorney David Sherborne, who represents Harry and the other famous claimants, argued that the deadline for filing the lawsuits should be extended because the alleged snooping was covert and the publisher concealed evidence of it through denials “likely to lead the claimants off the scent.”
The claimants said they were unaware of phone hacking done for Associated Newspapers until private investigators, including Gavin Burrows, came forward in the last couple of years to disclose the covert work they allegedly did.
Burrows, who said in a 2021 witness statement that he came forward to “do the right thing” and help the people he targeted, has since issued another sworn statement saying he had not been commissioned by Associated Newspapers to do unlawful work.
In his earlier admission, however, he described how much he charged for different jobs and how Harry, John and his husband, David Furnish, and Hurley and Frost were “just a small handful of my targets.”
He said he “must have done hundreds of jobs" between 2000 and 2005 for a Mail on Sunday journalist whose name is redacted.
In one section cited by Sherborne, Burrows described tapping Hurley's home phone, hacking her voicemail and digging up travel and medical details on her when she was pregnant. Burrows said that John didn't have a mobile phone but he got a lot of information about the singer from Hurley's phone because she was close friends with him, and through the phone of John's gardener.
“I hacked, tapped and bugged Liz a number of times,” Burrows said in his earlier statement. "She (like Hugh Grant) was a huge earner for me. I could get an itemized phone bill for Liz and Hugh and sell each one for 5,000 pounds (about $6,185), much more than the average price on my menu."
Until she read Burrows statement, Hurley did not know who had been the source of the information about her, Sherborne said.
"That’s the trigger. That’s when the scales fall from her eyes,” Sherborne said.
Attorney Adrian Beltrami said the claims had been brought “far too late” and should be tossed out. He argued that a national scandal on phone hacking by journalists at other papers a decade ago could have inspired the claimants to look into articles written about them and file their lawsuits alleging wrongdoing within the time limits.
Justice Matthew Nicklin said there was a difference between applying time limits to discovery of the alleged unlawful information gathering and the articles that resulted from some of those acts.
"It’s clear what the claimants are not entitled to pursue because of limitation,” Nicklin said. “But what they are entitled to pursue is slightly more nuanced than simply striking out reference to the articles.”
Attorney Steven Heffer, who is not involved in the case, said the defense is unlikely to prevail at this stage if they concealed the unlawful activity.
“Other newspaper groups emphatically denied phone hacking or any unlawful information gathering, but have had to pay millions in damages and costs,” Heffer said.
The publisher is also seeking to have evidence of payments to investigators barred from being used by claimants because it was protected by confidentiality rules when it was turned over by the publisher to a government inquiry into media law breaking.
Sherborne argued the evidence is in the public domain.
Attorney Michael Gardner, who also is not involved in the litigation, said Harry and the other claimants face an uphill battle on several fronts.
“First, the events in question took place so long ago that they may now be statute barred,” Gardner said. “Secondly, the evidence they are relying on includes material that may be inadmissible. Thirdly, a key witness in the case appears to have signed two completely contradictory statements.”