The Duchess of Sussex has won her High Court privacy claim against the Mail On Sunday over the publication of a “personal and private” handwritten letter to her estranged father.
Meghan, 39, sued Associated Newspapers Limited (ANL), the publisher of The Mail On Sunday and Mail Online, over a series of articles which reproduced parts of the letter sent to 76-year-old Thomas Markle in August 2018.
She is seeking damages for alleged misuse of private information, copyright infringement and breach of the Data Protection Act over five articles published in February 2019, which included extracts from the “private and confidential” letter to her father.
Her lawyers argued, at a hearing in January, that ANL has “no prospect” of defending her claim for misuse of private information and breach of copyright.
They asked the High Court to grant “summary judgment” in relation to those claims, a legal step which would see those parts of the case resolved without a trial.
In a judgment on Thursday, Mr Justice Warby ruled that the publication of Meghan’s letter to her father was “manifestly excessive and hence unlawful”.
The judge said: “It was, in short, a personal and private letter. The majority of what was published was about the claimant’s own behaviour, her feelings of anguish about her father’s behaviour – as she saw it – and the resulting rift between them.
“These are inherently private and personal matters.”
Mr Justice Warby said that “the only tenable justification for any such interference was to correct some inaccuracies about the letter”, contained in an article in People magazine which featured an interview with five friends of Meghan.
But the judge added: “The inescapable conclusion is that, save to the very limited extent I have identified, the disclosures made were not a necessary or proportionate means of serving that purpose.
“For the most part they did not serve that purpose at all.
“Taken as a whole the disclosures were manifestly excessive and hence unlawful.”
He ruled: “The claimant had a reasonable expectation that the contents of the letter would remain private. The Mail articles interfered with that reasonable expectation.”
The judge added that there was “no prospect that a different judgment would be reached after a trial”
Mr Justice Warby also granted summary judgment in relation to most of the duchess’ copyright claim, saying The Mail On Sunday’s articles “copied a large and important proportion of the work’s original literary content”.
The judge said ANL’s case on ownership of the copyright of the letter “seem to me to occupy the shadowland between improbability and unreality”, adding: “There is no room for doubt that the defendant’s conduct involved an infringement of copyright in the electronic draft (of the letter) of which the claimant was the owner or, at worst, a co-owner.”
However, he said the issue of whether Meghan was “the sole author”, or whether Jason Knauf, formerly communications secretary to the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, was a “co-author”, should be determined at a trial, despite being one “of minor significance in the overall context”.
Mr Justice Warby also said that there would be a further hearing on March 2 to decide “the next steps” in the legal action.
A Mail on Sunday spokesperson said: “We are very surprised by today’s summary judgment and disappointed at being denied the chance to have all the evidence heard and tested in open court at a full trial.
“We are carefully considering the judgment’s contents and will decide in due course whether to lodge an appeal.”
Gerard Cukier, litigation partner at Keystone Law who has specialised in issues like privacy and defamation for 30 years, said he believes the “strongly worded” judgment will be difficult to appeal as Mr Justice Warby left “little room for interpretation”.
In a statement after the ruling, the duchess said: “After two long years of pursuing litigation, I am grateful to the courts for holding Associated Newspapers and The Mail On Sunday to account for their illegal and dehumanising practices.”
She added: “The world needs reliable, fact-checked, high-quality news.
“What The Mail On Sunday and its partner publications do is the opposite.
“We all lose when misinformation sells more than truth, when moral exploitation sells more than decency, and when companies create their business model to profit from people’s pain.
“But, for today, with this comprehensive win on both privacy and copyright, we have all won.
“We now know, and hope it creates legal precedent, that you cannot take somebody’s privacy and exploit it in a privacy case, as the defendant has blatantly done over the past two years.”
Meghan’s data protection claim was not considered at the hearing in January and is still outstanding.
The duchess sued ANL in September 2019 over five articles in the Mail On Sunday and MailOnline, which were billed as a “world exclusive” featuring “Meghan’s shattering letter to her father”.
A double-page spread in the Mail On Sunday carried the headline: “Revealed: the letter showing true tragedy of Meghan’s rift with a father she says has ‘broken her heart into a million pieces’”.
Picture: Chris Jackson/PA Wire