The Duchess of Sussex has won a High Court bid to keep secret the identities of five friends who gave an anonymous interview to a US magazine, in the latest stage of her legal action against Associated Newspapers.
Meghan is suing the publisher of the Mail On Sunday and Mail Online over an article that reproduced parts of a “private and confidential” handwritten letter she sent to her estranged father Thomas Markle, 76, in August 2018.
At a preliminary hearing in London last week, Meghan‘s lawyers applied for the five friends who gave an interview to People magazine to remain anonymous in reports of the proceedings.
Mr Justice Warby has now concluded that “for the time being at least” the duchess should be granted an order that protects the identities of the five individuals.
He found that their public identification at this stage would have “very limited if any value” to the principle of open justice.
In the People article, published in February last year, the friends spoke out against the bullying Meghan said she has faced.
They have only been identified in confidential court documents.
The duchess, 39, says her friends gave the interview without her knowledge, and denies a claim made by ANL that she “caused or permitted” the People article to be published.
Mr Justice Warby said in his judgment that both Meghan’s team and ANL have “demonstrated an eagerness to play out the merits of their dispute in public”.
“This approach to litigation has little to do with enabling public scrutiny of the legal process, or enhancing the due administration of justice,”, he said.
“Indeed, in some respects it tends to impede both fairness and transparency.”
The judge said: “This will be a judge-alone trial, not a trial by jury.
“But to fight proceedings in court and through litigation, PR or sensational reporting at one and the same time is not designed to enhance understanding of the legal process.”
Ruling in favour of Meghan, he said ANL had “invoked the open justice principle, but they have not explained in any convincing way how the public identification of the five friends would have any real value in advancing the purposes served by that principle”.
“In my judgment, at this stage, such disclosure would have very limited if any value to that end.”
At a hearing last week, Meghan‘s lawyers argued that the friends – referred to as A to E – have a right to anonymity both as confidential journalistic sources and under their own privacy rights.
Justin Rushbrooke QC, representing the duchess, said in written submissions to the court: “To force the claimant, as the defendant urges this court to do, to disclose their identities to the public at this stage would be to exact an unacceptably high price for pursuing her claim for invasion of privacy against the defendant in respect of its disclosure of the letter.
“On her case, which will be tried in due course, the defendant has been guilty of a flagrant and unjustified intrusion into her private and family life.
“Given the close factual nexus between the letter and the events leading up to the defendant’s decision to publish its contents, it would be a cruel irony were she required to pay that price before her claim has even been determined.”
Rushbrooke said that the publisher had made the interviews with People relevant to the case and had “forced” the duchess to identify the names of the five friends in a court document.
Meghan’s lawyers also argue that ANL has “already demonstrated a willingness to publish articles” based on the contents of court documents.
In written submissions, Antony White QC, acting for ANL, said the friends are “important potential witnesses on a key issue”.
“Reporting these matters without referring to names would be a heavy curtailment of the media’s and the defendant’s entitlement to report this case and the public’s right to know about it,” he said.
“No friend’s oral evidence could be fully and properly reported because full reporting might identify her, especially as there has already been media speculation as to their identities.”
He said the order sought by the duchess’s lawyers would leave Meghan entitled to disclose the identities to anyone – including the media – who could publish it, while ANL’s titles would remain barred from doing so.
White said the duchess had “used” her public profile and PR team to “publicise and promote the merits of her own position” since starting the action.
ANL won the first skirmish in the legal action on 1 May, when Mr Justice Warby struck out parts of Meghan‘s claim, including allegations that the publisher acted “dishonestly” by leaving out certain passages of the letter.
Court papers show Meghan has agreed to pay ANL’s £67,888 costs for that hearing in full.
Meghan is suing ANL over five articles in total – two in the MoS and three on Mail Online – which were published in February 2019 and reproduced parts of a handwritten letter she sent to her father in August 2018.
The headline on the article read: “Revealed: The letter showing true tragedy of Meghan‘s rift with a father she says has ‘broken her heart into a million pieces’.”
The duchess is seeking damages from ANL for alleged misuse of private information, copyright infringement and breach of the Data Protection Act.
ANL wholly denies the allegations, particularly the duchess’s claim that the letter was edited in any way that changed its meaning, and says it will hotly contest the case.
Picture: Chris Jackson/PA Wire