LONDON — Prince Harry’s lawsuit accusing the publisher of The Sun tabloid of unlawfully snooping on him can go to trial, but not on allegations of phone hacking, a High Court judge ruled Thursday.
The case also cannot deal with a claim that newspaper executives made a secret settlement pact with the royal family, the judge ruled.
The Duke of Sussex alleged the publisher of The Sun and the now-defunct News Of The World hacked his phone, employed investigators and used deception to unlawfully gather information on him dating back two decades.
News Group Newspapers (NGN), which is owned by Rupert Murdoch, argued that the suit should be thrown out because the claims were brought after the six-year limitation to do so expired.
Justice Timothy Fancourt said Harry was well enough aware of a phone hacking scandal that roiled Britain more than a decade ago that he could have brought his own case sooner. But the younger son of King Charles III can proceed on allegations about other unlawful information gathering (UIG), such as hiring private eyes to dig up dirt on him, the judge ruled.
“There is no evidence currently before me that the duke knew before the (deadline to file a suit) that NGN had done anything other than hack his mobile phone at the News of the World,” Fancourt wrote. “Knowing or being on notice of a worthwhile claim for voicemail interception does not of itself amount to knowledge or notice of a worthwhile claim for other forms of UIG.”
A spokesperson for News Group Newspapers called the ruling a “significant victory” that “substantially reduces the scope” of Harry’s legal claim.
Britain’s phone hacking scandal began at News of the World and was later found to have been widespread at other papers. Murdoch closed News of the World as a result in 2011, issued an unreserved apology in 2012 to those who were hacked and has continued to settle cases related to it. But The Sun has not accepted liability or admitted allegations.
The ruling given Thursday was similar to one Fancourt made in May in a case by actor Hugh Grant that also tossed out phone hacking allegations. Harry and Grant’s cases were argued together at an April hearing and their trial is expected to start in January.
Attorney Michael Gardner, who is not involved in the case, said the judge had thrown out most of Harry’s claims.
“On the face of it, his chances of winning those claims do not look good,” Gardner said. “This is but one of a number of very expensive privacy cases the Duke is currently pursuing in the High Court. If he loses he could be liable for literally millions of pounds in legal costs.”
In addition to rejecting part of Harry’s suit, the judge also shot down his effort to amend the case to include allegations that a so-called secret agreement between Buckingham Palace and Murdoch executives prevented him from bringing his claims sooner.
Harry’s lawyer had argued that the agreement called for a settlement and an apology to be worked out after litigation in other phone hacking cases was resolved in the courts.
Harry claimed his grandmother, the late Queen Elizabeth II, had approved of the deal to prevent members of the royal family from having to go to court and get questioned about embarrassing voicemails intercepted by reporters. He also said he learned his brother, Prince William, now heir to the throne, had received a “huge” sum to settle his claims.
The publisher denied there was any secret agreement, and Fancourt said Harry failed to produce witnesses or documents as evidence of such a deal.
Buckingham Palace did not return messages seeking comment on the alleged deal or settlement with the Prince of Wales.
Harry broke with family convention last month when he became the first senior member of the royal family to testify in court in more than a century. He testified in a separate phone hacking lawsuit against the publishers of the Daily Mirror in which he is seeking 440,000 pounds ($563,000).
Fancourt also presided in that case, the first of Harry’s three unlawful information gathering cases against British tabloid publishers to go to trial. The judge is expected to rule later this year.
Another judge is deciding whether to toss out a similar lawsuit against the publishers of the Daily Mail.
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