Media blocked from reporting Earl Spencer divorce deal

Lawyers representing representing Earl Spencer and his former wife Caroline today succeeded in thwarting media coverage of the high court divorce settlement.

Family division judge Mr Justice Munby yesterday rejected an application for a blanket ban on reporting of the case to conform with new public policy on opening up the family courts to the press.

But when lawyers Nicholas Mostyn QC, representing the Earl, and Lewis Marks QC, for the countess, arrived in court today they asked the judge for an adjournment, saying the case might not return.

If the parties reach an agreed settlement, it will be confidential and not read out in court when the judge approves it.

Yesterday Mr Justice Munby refused to place a blanket ban on reporting the case, saying: “That is dangerous territory because it potentially gives privilege to one group in the community over and above others.”

He said it would mean one law for celebrities and “another law for those who live their lives in tranquility and anonymity”.

Both legal teams left the court yesterday preparing to draft injunctions intended to restrict reporting of the case.

But when the case resumed today they jointly applied for an adjournment.

Marks told the judge: “It might be that we shall not have to resume the hearing at all.”

Mr Justice Munby sat in silence for a while before saying: “I am slightly puzzled.”

He added that some might see what the legal teams were asking “as an attempt to circumvent the procedure laid down in the new rules” for media coverage.

Instead of a settlement being agreed and approved in court, the case would be treated as “box work”, he said.

Mostyn – with both teams of lawyers laughing – had also invited the judge to compel reporters in court to stay for his next case, saying that it could involve “someone from Milton Keynes”.

Yesterday Mostyn, arguing for a ban on reporting, told the judge that it was not the object of the reforms introduced in April to open the family courts to allow the press to report anything of news interest, particularly battles over how assets are split after a divorce.

“These parties have a reasonable expectation of privacy,” he said, adding that that expectation should override the “limited” freedom of expression allowed under the European Convention on Human Rights.

“There is nothing interesting about this case apart from the fact that it is Earl and Countess Spencer,” he went on. “If this were two anonymous people there would be no press people in here at all. It would be fundamentally boring.

“We are going to be looking at housing and budget.

“In these circumstances there is no overreaching freedom of expression consideration and privacy must prevail.”

Marks, for the countess, said: “There is no public interest in the outcome of this case.”

He said there might be a “prurient interest” in the private lives and family life of the couple which were matters protected by the right to privacy under the European Convention.

“It is inevitable that the witnesses will not give full and frank evidence in front of the media. There are matters which these parties will be inevitably inhibited if the ladies and gentlemen of the press are able to hear and even worse, report, what they have seen.”

He added: “This was not a case for which the rules were changed so that justice can be seen to be done.”

Neither the 44-year-old Earl, brother of Princess Diana, nor his 41-year-old former wife were in court today.

Details of their final settlement will not be made public unless there is a breakdown in their out-of-court negotiations and a further hearing becomes necessary.

The court was being asked to determine just how much Earl Spencer should pay Lady Caroline in a financial settlement following their divorce in March 2007 on the grounds of his “unreasonable behaviour” which ended their six-year marriage.

The couple have two children, aged five and three.

Mr Justice Munby later signed a confidential consent order, bringing the proceedings to an end.

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