Duke of Sussex and others face wait for ruling on Mirror Group hacking claims

The Duke of Sussex leaving the Rolls Buildings in central London after giving evidence in the phone hacking trial against Mirror Group Newspapers (MGN). A number of high-profile figures have brought claims against MGN over alleged unlawful information gathering at its titles. Picture date: Wednesday June 7, 2023.
The Duke of Sussex leaving the Rolls Buildings in central London after giving evidence in the phone hacking trial against Mirror Group Newspapers (MGN). A number of high-profile figures have brought claims against MGN over alleged unlawful information gathering at its titles. Picture date: Wednesday June 7, 2023.

The Duke of Sussex and others suing a tabloid newspaper publisher over alleged unlawful information gathering face a wait to find out whether they will win their case.

Harry, 38, is suing Mirror Group Newspapers (MGN) for damages, claiming journalists at its titles – the Daily and Sunday Mirror and Sunday People – were linked to methods including phone hacking, so-called “blagging” or gaining information by deception, and use of private investigators for unlawful activities.

His case is being heard alongside similar claims by actor Michael Turner, who is known professionally as Michael Le Vell and best known for playing Kevin Webster in Coronation Street, actress Nikki Sanderson and comedian Paul Whitehouse’s ex-wife Fiona Wightman.

MGN phone hacking trial
Michael Turner, known professionally as Michael Le Vell, arrives at the Rolls Buildings (James Manning/PA)

The allegations in their claims about unlawful activity at MGN’s titles cover a period from as early as 1991 until at least 2011, the court has been told.

The high-profile trial of their claims came to a close on Friday after seven weeks of evidence from dozens of witnesses, including former journalists, editors, private investigators and MGN executives.

Many other witness also submitted written testimony to the trial, such as the friends, family and colleagues of those bringing cases against the publisher.

Harry faced eight hours of questioning over two days during a witness box appearance that drew the attention of the world’s media.

It was thought to be the first time a senior member of the royal family has personally appeared in court proceedings since 2002, when the Princess Royal pleaded guilty to a charge under the Dangerous Dogs Act after her pet bit two children in Windsor Great Park.

At the end of the hearing, Mr Justice Fancourt, the judge deciding the case, said that preparing his judgment would take “some time”.

“You will appreciate I have an investigation to conduct having listened to a trial over seven weeks,” the judge said.

In his concluding arguments, David Sherborne for the claimants said Andrew Green KC, for MGN, had sought to portray alleged unlawful activity as “something out of a Beano comic”, having described it as involving “a few rotters”.

MGN phone hacking trial
Former Coronation Street actress Nikki Sanderson (Aaron Chown/PA)

Mr Sherborne said this showed the “truly dismissive nature of the defendant’s attitude to the claims that have been brought against it by thousands of victims”.

He also said it was “utterly implausible” that Harry would not have been targeted, given that former MGN editor Nick Buckley, described as the “king of hacking” had his mobile number – which the barrister said was like having the “keys to the treasure room”.

It emerged on Friday that Harry is seeking about £440,000 in damages if his case is successful, while MGN argues he would only be entitled to around £37,000 if the judge rules against the publisher.

The duke alleges 147 stories from 1996 to 2010, published by MGN titles, used information obtained through unlawful means.

The articles cover the duke’s relationship with his family and ex-girlfriend Chelsy Davy, a few injuries and illnesses, his military service and allegations of drug use.

Some 33 articles, dated between 1996 and 2009, were selected for examination during the trial of Harry’s and others’ contested claims against the publisher.

In a document released to the media on Friday afternoon, the duke’s lawyers suggested he could be awarded up to £320,000 if his case is successful in relation to all of these 33 stories.

A further document released by his legal team late on Friday indicates he is seeking further damages of about £120,000 relating to episodes of unlawful information gathering linked to MGN payment records – including records his lawyers say involved the targeting of his late mother, Diana Princess of Wales.

The duke may also be awarded more if the judge, Mr Justice Fancourt, concludes Harry is also entitled to “aggravated damages”, for additional distress or injury to feelings arising from the nature of the alleged wrongdoing.

Mr Green said MGN had set out the “appropriate award” should the judge find any of the articles complained of were the product of unlawful activity.

According to Harry’s lawyers, MGN had suggested a potential total figure of £37,000.

MGN lawyers have also argued that there is “nothing significant” in Harry and others’ claims “to warrant any award of aggravated damages”.

Harry has previously told the court that MGN’s alleged intrusion into his life contributed to “a huge amount of paranoia” in his relationships.

In his witness statement, the duke said that he found it “very hard to trust anyone, which led to bouts of depression and paranoia”.

MGN phone hacking trial
The Duke of Sussex giving evidence during the phone hacking trial against Mirror Group Newspapers (Elizabeth Cook/PA)

Meanwhile Ms Sanderson’s total suggested compensation is £357,500 according to her lawyers, with MGN’s suggested figure if she wins her claim being a total of £7,000, and Mr Turner’s lawyers say he should receive £131,250, while the publisher says he is not entitled to any damages.

Ms Wightman’s lawyers say she should receive about £105,000, while MGN say she is entitled to £5,000 for an admitted episode of unlawful activity, and suggest she should only be awarded a further £3,000 if the judge finds in her favour.

Earlier on Friday, Mr Green concluded his closing arguments by saying the claimants had identified “no evidential foundation” for “adverse inferences” to be drawn over certain individuals not giving evidence in the trial.

Citing the example of Piers Morgan – former editor of the Daily Mirror – Mr Green said a case had not been made “that he personally ever engaged in hacking himself, still less that he was a habitual hacker at any point in time”.

He also said the claimants had not pleaded that “Mr Morgan had knowledge of the fact that private investigators he supposedly authorised were carrying out unlawful information gathering”, nor had they identified which private investigators he had authorised, to do what, and how frequently this was done.

“There is and was simply nothing for Piers Morgan to come along and defend himself in relation to that particular allegation,” Mr Green said.

Mr Green said the fact that witnesses from MGN’s legal department and others had given evidence over the knowledge of unlawful activity at a senior level meant that “Piers Morgan’s knowledge is irrelevant to the issue”.

“Either the board and the legal department knew or they didn’t,” Mr Green said.

He added that it was “difficult to see why Piers Morgan is actually a required witness for the purposes of this”, adding that Mr Morgan only attended a board meeting on two occasions.

Mr Green said the judge “can’t draw adverse inferences on the fact that he hasn’t been called as a witness”.

The findings made by judge Mr Justice Fancourt in relation to the four will be used to determine the outcome of dozens of claims brought by others against MGN, including actor Ricky Tomlinson, the estate of the late singer George Michael, ex-footballer and television presenter Ian Wright and Girls Aloud singer Cheryl.

MGN is largely contesting the claims and denies that any of the articles complained of resulted from phone hacking, while contending that the vast majority did not arise from any other unlawful activity.

The publisher has made a limited number of admissions of unlawful activity in relation to the duke, Ms Sanderson and Ms Wightman, for which the publisher has apologised and accepted they will be entitled to some damages, but denies the majority of their claims and Mr Turner’s entire case.

MGN lawyers previously said Harry is entitled to just £500 for instance of unlawful information gathering, which was not related to the articles complained of by the duke, for which the publisher has apologised.

In that instance, a private investigator was instructed by an MGN journalist at The People to unlawfully gather information about his activities at the Chinawhite nightclub one night in February 2004.

Mr Justice Fancourt will deliver his ruling at a later date.