Earl Spencer tries to bar journalists from divorce hearing

Earl Spencer and his former wife Caroline have failed in a bid to oust the media from their high court divorce settlement battle.

Both wanted a blanket ban on any publicity – but Mr Justice Munby ruled today that he would not agree to that.

The judge called on the parties to agree what restrictions they wanted on coverage of the hearing, which is expected to last all week.

Nicholas Mostyn QC, representing the Earl, brother of the late Diana, Princess of Wales, said the reason why the media were allowed in to the once-private family division hearings was because of lobbying to open up “so-called secret proceedings” involving battles over children.

He said it was not the object of the reforms brought in last April 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.

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.”

Lewis Marks QC, representing 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.”

Mr Justice Munby said: “I am not going to make a blanket exclusion order.”

In his reasons, Mr Justice Munby said it was a new public policy that the media should be allowed as a right to attend family division hearings of any nature unless proper grounds could be shown to exclude them.

He said it had been argued by those representing the Spencers that the only reason the media was interested in their case was because of who they were.

“That is dangerous territory because it potentially gives privilege to one group in the community over and above others,” he said.

This would mean one law for the celebrities and “another law for those who live their lives in tranquility and anonymity”.

Marks and Mostyn will submit applications to the judge tomorrow morning for injunctions on press coverage which could mean very little of the hearing can be reported.

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