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Harry cannot use claims against Murdoch in NGN trial, judge rules

Rupert Murdoch was executive chairman of News Corp and director of NGN’s parent company and News Corp’s subsidiary, News International, now News UK (Lewis Whyld/PA)
Rupert Murdoch was executive chairman of News Corp and director of NGN’s parent company and News Corp’s subsidiary, News International, now News UK (Lewis Whyld/PA)

Claims made against Rupert Murdoch by several individuals, including the Duke of Sussex, as part of legal action against the publisher of The Sun over allegations of unlawful information gathering cannot be tested at trial, a High Court judge has ruled.

Barristers representing various individuals suing the company over allegations of unlawful information gathering claimed earlier this year that Mr Murdoch knew of unlawful activity as early as 2004 but “turned a blind eye” to the accusations while overseeing a “culture of impunity” at the publisher.

They asked the court to update parts of their case after the release of further information and to change parts of the duke’s claim to include allegations that NGN unlawfully gathered private information on the 39-year-old from the age of nine.

NGN denies the accusations, with its lawyers previously telling the court that the new claims were a “scurrilous and cynical attack”.

On Tuesday, Mr Justice Fancourt ruled the new claims against “trophy targets” such as Mr Murdoch could not be taken to a trial scheduled for January next year, stating they added “nothing material”, but said some other amendments could be made, including some concerning other senior NGN executives.

He said: “I also consider that there is a desire on the part of those running the litigation on the claimants’ side to shoot at ‘trophy’ targets, whether those are political issues or high-profile individuals.

“This cannot become an end in itself: it only matters to the court so far as it is material and proportionate to the resolution of the individual causes of action. The trial is not an inquiry.”

He continued: “I am disposed to take a restrictive approach to allowing the proposed amendments, on grounds of delay and because permitting all the amendments will either prejudice the trial date or at least create an unlevel playing field on which NGN is running uphill to be ready for the full trial.

“The claimants have sought to introduce a vast quantity of new allegations and material, much of which is likely to be highly contentious, and there is no prospect of the time listed for trial accommodating these allegations.”

In a summary of his judgment in relation to Harry’s claim, Mr Justice Fancourt said that the duke could only make some changes to his individual case, ruling that he could not introduce new allegations from 1994, 1995 and 2016 or new allegations of phone hacking.

But he said the duke could “in principle” change the details of his case to name “certain further journalists and private investigators”, and bring allegations of “landline voicemail interception”.

In his full judgment, he said: “It, therefore, seems to me preferable, in order to avoid or limit prejudice to NGN in preparing for trial and for broader case management reasons, for the 1994/1995 claim and the 2016 claim to be left to be dealt with in a new claim, if the duke wishes to bring one.

The Duke of Sussex is one of several individuals suing NGN (Victoria Jones/PA)
The Duke of Sussex is one of several individuals suing NGN (Victoria Jones/PA)

“Proceeding in this way will remove the greater disclosure burden from the existing claim, avoid the need to investigate quite different facts at different times in a short period of time, and ensure that there is no risk to the trial date or undue prejudice caused by granting permission for other amendments.”

He concluded: “I will therefore grant permission for some of the amendments that the Duke seeks to make but not others.”

The News Of The World was shut down in July 2011 after widespread allegations of phone hacking, with NGN since settling many claims with high-profile figures.

Mr Murdoch was executive chairman of News Corp and director of NGN’s parent company and News Corp’s subsidiary, News International, now News UK, at the time the paper closed.

At the hearing in March, barrister David Sherborne, representing the individuals, said that it should be “inferred from his dominant position” at NGN that Mr Murdoch “was aware of the nature and extent of NGN’s wrongdoing” when allegations were first published by the Guardian in 2009.

But Anthony Hudson KC, for NGN, said the new claims were “made entirely in the abstract” and were “designed to grab headlines” rather than progress the claims.

He continued that the claims “appear to be designed to precipitate a politically-fuelled quasi-public inquiry” and that the changes to the individuals’ cases were “not appropriate”.

Following the ruling, Mr Hudson said that the individuals “failed comprehensively” in relation to the claims related to “trophy targets”, while Mr Sherborne said “both sides were successful”.

Mr Justice Fancourt ruled that the individuals should pay a third of NGN’s costs.

A spokesperson for NGN said: “In 2011 an unreserved apology was made by NGN to victims of voicemail interception by the News of the World.

“Since then, NGN has been paying financial damages to those with proper claims. In some cases, it has made commercial sense for both parties to come to a settlement agreement before trial to bring a resolution to the matter. As we reach the tail end of the litigation, NGN is drawing a line under the disputed matters.

“These civil proceedings have been running for more than a decade and deal with events 13-28 years ago.

“At a hearing in March 2024, the claimants sought to introduce wide-ranging allegations into their pleadings.

“NGN argued that a number of these were irrelevant to the fair and just determination of claims, and had nothing to do with seeking compensation for victims of phone hacking or unlawful information-gathering.

“The court in its judgment today has thoroughly vindicated NGN’s position and did not give permission to introduce large and significant portions of the amendments.”

A statement on behalf of the individuals suing News Group Newspapers said: “The claimants are pleased that the court has today granted them permission to amend their case in relation to a number of significant issues vigorously opposed by NGN.”