Press fears that the courts are creating a privacy law under the Human Rights Act favouring those bent on staying out of the limelight were partially allayed this week when a High Court judge ruled that an individual has no overriding right to privacy when it conflicts with the public interest.
The Mail on Sunday enjoyed a substantial legal victory when it was given the go-ahead to name a health authority which employed an HIV-positive healthcare worker.
Mr Justice Gross overturned part of an injunction forbidding the naming of the worker and the authority. Patients treated by the NHS specialist, who has since stopped working, are still unaware of his condition because the authority did not contact them, as it was required to do.
The restriction on identifying the individual remains and, frustratingly for the newspaper, it is still unable to name the authority until after an appeal against the new judgment is heard. But MoS editor Peter Wright told Press Gazette: "I believe this is a very significant judgment for the freedom of the press because the judge has ruled that an individual’s interest in privacy is not an over-riding principle under the Human Rights Act and that where there is a genuine public interest, the public interest must prevail."
In his ruling, the judge said there was substantial public interest in the story. "It goes to public health and its management," he said, adding: "Maintaining ‘N’s’ [the local authority’s] anonymity is a restraint too many. With cogent justification, anonymity should not become a feature of public debate."
Associated Newspapers was awarded 75 per cent of the costs in the case, likely to amount to more than £50,000, after a two-and-a-half day hearing involving three firms of lawyers, two QCs and two junior barristers.
The newspaper had called for the Human Rights Act to be repealed after the injunction gagged it from naming the specialist.
It claims that the authority should have conducted a "look-back" exercise, writing to every patient telling them they may have been treated by someone who has proved to be HIV positive and to contact the authority for tests to be made. It would not have identified the healthcare worker.
Time went by and no look-back exercise materialised. The situation only came to light when the specialist involved began legal action to prevent the local authority from ever conducting such a procedure.
The MoS asked that the local authority be named, that it be allowed to ask it why it had not contacted patients, to be allowed to give the timescale and the profession of the specialist.
The judge ruled against a precise timescale and identifying the profession because it might have identified the healthcare worker once the authority was named.
By Jean Morgan