Harry may be forced to settle claim against Sun publisher due to legal costs

The Duke of Sussex could be forced to settle his legal claim against The Sun’s publisher over alleged unlawful information gathering because of the risk of high legal costs, the High Court has been told.

Harry, 39, alleges he was targeted by journalists and private investigators working for News Group Newspapers (NGN), which also published the now-defunct News Of The World.

He is among a number of people to bring cases against the publisher, many of whom have settled their claims in recent years – including actress Sienna Miller, ex-footballer Paul Gascoigne, comic Catherine Tate and Spice Girl Melanie Chisholm.

At a hearing on Wednesday, it was revealed that actor Hugh Grant had settled his case against NGN due to the risk of a £10 million legal bill if his case went to trial.

NGN has denied unlawful activity took place at The Sun.

David Sherborne, representing Harry and others, told a judge in London that “the Duke of Sussex is subject to the same issues that Sienna Miller and Hugh Grant have been subject to, which is that the offers are made that make it impossible for them to go ahead”.

The barrister said the duke had previously said “he would continue to bring his claim”, adding that “settlement is forced upon” people bringing claims in the NGN litigation.

In a series of X posts made during the hearing in London, Mr Grant said he wanted to see his allegations that NGN was involved in the burglary of his flat, bugging his car, blagging medical records and other unlawful activity “tested in court”.

The actor said he was offered “an enormous sum of money to keep this matter out of court” that he did not want to accept.

He added: “But the rules around civil litigation mean that if I proceed to trial and the court awards me damages that are even a penny less than the settlement offer, I would have to pay the legal costs of both sides.

“My lawyers tell me that that is exactly what would most likely happen here. Rupert Murdoch’s lawyers are very expensive. So even if every allegation is proven in court, I would still be liable for something approaching £10 million in costs. I’m afraid I am shying at that fence.”

In December 2021, Ms Miller settled her case over allegations of voicemail interception and misuse of private information against NGN for “substantial damages”, with the publisher making no admission of liability.

The actress said she wanted to “expose the criminality that runs through the heart of this corporation”, adding: “Unfortunately that legal recourse is not available to me or to anyone who does not have countless millions of pounds to spend on the pursuit of justice.”

A full trial of some of the 42 existing claims against NGN, including Harry’s, is due to take place in January next year.

But on Wednesday, NGN asked judge Mr Justice Fancourt to instead hold an initial trial that month to decide whether the cases against the publisher have been brought too late and outside a legal time limit.

MGN phone hacking trial
Barrister David Sherborne (James Manning/PA)

This potential preliminary trial would not determine the full details of the allegations NGN faces, and could result in findings that some claims are “time-barred” and therefore dismissed.

Lawyers for NGN argued this approach was the “most efficient” way of dealing with cases and could “promote” settlements, but the legal team for Harry and others claim it would be “highly disruptive and prejudicial”.

Mr Sherborne told the court there was a “100% record of the defendant settling any claim before we reach trial”, with it seeming “overwhelming likely” that there might be no claims left by December.

Anthony Hudson KC, for NGN, said Mr Sherborne had been “absolutely clear” that a full trial in January “will not take place”, alleging that it made Harry’s barrister’s wider arguments “irrelevant”.

Mr Hudson said this was “incredibly telling” and showed that those bringing claims were “delighted” with the “current regime” where cases are listed for trial, then settled and the issue of their timing never tested in court.

“We say that is not an appropriate way to manage this litigation any longer,” he said, adding that the publisher should not have to go to the “vast trouble and expense” of dealing with trials “over many weeks which would cost millions of pounds”.

Mr Sherborne replied: “I did not say that the claimants want to settle,” adding that it was “quite wrong” to suggest that the Duke of Sussex saying he wanted to continue his claim was “inconsistent with what I had said”.

In February, after settling the remaining parts of his phone hacking claim against the publisher of the Daily Mirror, the duke said his “mission continues”.

Harry is also pursuing a claim against the publisher of the Daily Mail – Associated Newspapers.

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.

“As we reach the tail end of litigation, NGN is drawing a line under disputed matters, some of which date back more than 20 years ago. 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.

“There are a number of disputed claims still going through the civil courts, some of which seek to involve The Sun. The Sun does not accept liability or make any admissions to the allegations.

“A judge recently ruled that parts of Mr Grant’s claim were out of time and we have reached agreement to settle the remainder of the case. This has been done without admission of liability. It is in both parties’ financial interests not to progress to a costly trial.”

The hearing concluded on Wednesday with Mr Justice Fancourt saying he would give a ruling at 10am on Friday.