By Sian Harrison, PA
Britain's Duke of Sussex’s claim against a tabloid newspaper publisher over hacking allegations may be one of the central cases at a planned English High Court trial later this year.
Harry is one of a number of high-profile figures bringing damages claims against Mirror Group Newspapers (MGN) over alleged unlawful information gathering at its titles.
Other celebrities involved in the case include the singer and former Girls Aloud member Cheryl, the estate of the late singer George Michael, ex-footballer and television presenter Ian Wright and actor Ricky Tomlinson.
Mr Justice Fancourt is considering what the scope of a planned six to seven-week trial, due to start in May, should be at a hearing in London on Wednesday – including which claimants should be selected as “test cases”.
Lawyers for the claimants are suggesting Harry and Cheryl’s cases are “representative” claims and should be among those chosen for the trial.
David Sherborne, representing the claimants, told the court Harry’s claim “covers the largest number of private investigators”, with 25 of the main private investigators who are alleged to have engaged in unlawful activity in the overall case.
The judge was told lawyers have identified 148 articles published about Harry between 1996 and 2010 which allegedly used information obtained through unlawful means – such as phone hacking – which have been narrowed to a sample of 50 and may be reduced further.
Mr Sherborne said Harry would be the only witness in his claim, if the judge approves him as one of a small number of “sample” cases to be tried.
The barrister said the articles identified in relation to Cheryl, who was referred to in court by her maiden name of Tweedy, were published up to 2011 – after the hacking scandal broke.
MGN is opposing the claimants’ suggestions of the Duke of Sussex and Cheryl and suggests alternative claimants including Mr Wright.
Andrew Green KC, for the publisher, told the court: “The Duke of Sussex clearly is not representative, there is just no way it can be said that he is.”
Mr Green said that only a small number of the articles relating to Harry would be dealt with if he was chosen, meaning other test claimants whose cases involve a smaller number of articles would be more representative.
He also said other suggestions for test claimants, including Mr Wright and Mr Tomlinson, also covered a large number of private investigators, and that Mr Wright would cover the category of sports personalities.
He argued Cheryl was more representative, but that the scope of the articles about her was relatively small and only one of the articles was published in 2011.
Mr Justice Fancourt is expected to give his decision on which cases should be selected later on Wednesday.
MGN, the publisher of titles including The Mirror, The Sunday Mirror and The Sunday People, has previously settled a number of claims against it in relation to unlawful information gathering, as has News Group Newspapers (NGN) – the publisher of the now-defunct News Of The World and The Sun – in a separate ongoing legal action.
An earlier trial of representative claims, including those brought by former Coronation Street actress Shobna Gulati, ex-footballer Paul Gascoigne and actress Sadie Frost, was heard in 2015 and is the only trial which has taken place during the long-running litigation.
A raft of other cases have been settled since by both MGN and NGN. The phone-hacking scandal led to the closure of the News Of The World in 2011.
The Duke of Sussex is involved in other litigation against newspapers and is bringing two separate legal actions against Associated Newspapers Limited (ANL), publisher of The Mail, The Mail On Sunday and MailOnline.
It was announced on Wednesday that a hearing in one of his claims, over The Mail On Sunday’s coverage of Harry’s judicial review against the Home Office about his security arrangements for his family when they are visiting the UK, is due to take place at the High Court on March 17.
The duke and ANL previously agreed to pause the case in order conduct negotiations with a view to reaching a settlement until January 20.
The High Court heard in December last year that if no settlement could be agreed, the duke would ask the court to either strike out ANL’s defence or give summary judgment in his favour, avoiding the need for a trial.
A preliminary hearing in a separate legal action by Harry over alleged unlawful information gathering at ANL titles, which is being brought alongside other high-profile figures including Baroness Doreen Lawrence and Sir Elton John, has been set for March 27.
Harry has been outspoken in his criticism of the British press, most recently in his memoir Spare and in a number of television interviews.