Decision day for privacy

By Ian Dunt

Two pivotal rulings in the ongoing debate over privacy arrived today, with decisions on phone-hacking and super-injunctions marking out the future of the debate.

As if to demonstrate the increased complexity of privacy law in Britain, reports then emerged in the afternoon that a Premier League footballer had taken out an injunction against Twitter and several of its users over claims he had had an affair with a reality TV star.

Twitter users served with privacy injunction

The long-awaited report on injunctions from master of the rolls Lord Neuberger recommended that the media should be informed in advance about injunction hearings. It also appeared to encourage challenges from the press.

Meanwhile, the high court selected the test cases in the ongoing phone-hacking row, with Actor Jude Law and football pundit Andy Gray among those having their claims heard.

The super-injunction report is being treated a signpost for where the privacy debate goes from here, after senior judges and ministers engaged a tug-of-war over the issue.

“We have tried to achieve a procedural system which strikes a fair and proper balance between the principles of open justice and freedom of expression for the public and media and an individual’s right to confidentiality and privacy,” the report said.

Super-injunction report in full

The report, which has been worked on for a year, comes at a time of unparalleled interest in issues of privacy, with super-injunctions, which prevent the media even revealing the fact that an injunction exists, at the centre of the controversy.

The committee found that super-injunctions should be used sparingly, for short periods of time, when failing to anonymise the order would make it redundant.

The committee suggested that the John Terry affair injunction, which was lifted in 2010 to reveal that he had had an affair with England team mate Wayne Bridge’s ex-girlfriend, was a turning point for the device and that its use has declined since then.

“There was justifiable concern [last year] that super-injunctions were being applied for and granted far too readily,” it said.

Some commentators believe the cases covered by injunctions are mere tittle-tattle but Lib Dem peer Lord Stoneham tried to highlight to public interest element of some cases when he unilaterally revealed an injunction over Sir Fred Goodwin in the Lords yesterday.

The former RBS chief is alleged to have had an affair with a senior colleague. Soon after Sir Fred broke the injunction using parliamentary privilege the high court partially lifted the order.

Today, Lord Neuberger said parliamentary proceedings which contravened injunctions – essentially live court cases – could be considered contempt of court.

Lord Judge said: “It is, of course, wonderful for you [the press] if a member of parliament stands up in parliament and says something which in effect means an order of the court on anonymity is breached.

“But you do need to think whether it’s a good idea for our lawmakers to be flouting a court order just because they disagree with a court order or they disagree with the privacy law created by parliament.”

The committee was unwilling to say whether ministers should write up a privacy law, something many critics think is necessary given the conflict between articles eight of the Human Rights Act, which guarantees privacy, and article ten, which guarantees freedom of expression.

“It will take quite an effort for parliament to get a grip on this,” Lord Judge said.

He said senior judges would hold talks with the speakers of the Commons and the Lords over the issue.

Downing Street said the government would consider the report carefully.

“The report of Lord Neuberger does not herald a tectonic shift in the law but it will hopefully provide a useful bedrock of fact and analysis from those best placed to judge how the system has actually been working in practice,” James Quartermaine, solicitor for the sports and media group at Charles Russell, told politics.co.uk.

Meanwhile, Mr Justice Vos confirmed that Mr Law, Mr Gray, interior designer Kelly Hoppen, agent Sky Andrew and Labour MP Chris Bryant will have their claims heard in the litigation against News of the World.

The decision comes as several more high-profile figures emerge to launch legal actions, including former Winchester MP and Lib Dem frontbencher Mark Oaten, whose high-flying career fell apart when he was revealed to be visiting a rent boy.

The newspaper is thought to be offering substantial settlement claims in a bid to prevent cases going to court. It will be particularly concerned at the prospect of private investigator Glenn Mulcaire being questioned before a judge.

Last week, actress Sienna Miller accepted £100,000 from the newspaper in a move that surprised observers, who expected her case to be one of the handful which went through.

Eight claimants in the litigation, including former media secretary Tessa Jowell, have received apologies. Another nine have been asked for more evidence of their claims before the newspaper decides whether to offer apology and compensation.