Duke of Sussex’s phone-hacking claim ‘entirely speculative’, High Court told

The Duke of Sussex’s allegation that his mobile phone was systematically hacked over a number of years is “entirely speculative”, lawyers for a tabloid newspaper publisher have told the High Court.

Harry, 38, is suing Mirror Group Newspapers (MGN) for damages, claiming journalists at its titles – the Daily and Sunday Mirror and Sunday People – were linked to methods including phone hacking, so-called “blagging” or gaining information by deception, and use of private investigators for unlawful activities.

His case is being heard alongside similar claims by actor Michael Turner, who is known professionally as Michael Le Vell and best known for playing Kevin Webster in Coronation Street, actress Nikki Sanderson and comedian Paul Whitehouse’s ex-wife Fiona Wightman.

The allegations in their claims about unlawful activity at MGN’s titles – the Daily and Sunday Mirror and the Sunday People – cover a period from as early as 1991 until at least 2011, the court has been told.

Giving his closing arguments on Wednesday, MGN’s barrister Andrew Green KC said the claims brought by the four and others in the current wave of the long-running litigation were “wildly overstated” and “driven forward by lawyers”.

MGN phone hacking trial
The Duke of Sussex giving evidence during the phone hacking trial against Mirror Group Newspapers (Elizabeth Cook/PA)

Outlining MGN’s case in relation to Harry, Mr Green said the “genesis” for his claim was his introduction to his barrister David Sherborne at an Elton John party in the south of France, where the duke asked the lawyer “what he could do to bring an end to the harassment that he and his wife were experiencing from the tabloid press”.

He told the court that, while there is “one payment record for which he is entitled to damages on the basis there was some form of unlawful information gathering”, the part of the duke’s claim relating to phone hacking “simply doesn’t get off the ground”.

Mr Green said the duke could “point to nothing” to suggest his phone, and those of his associates, had been “systematically hacked” over a 16-year period in the way alleged, adding that part of his claim was “entirely speculative and bears little relation to the evidence”.

The barrister also told the court in London that the publisher has so far spent £105 million settling more than 600 claims relating to unlawful information gathering, and said £55 million of that had gone to claimants’ lawyers.

He said that the previous “excoriating judgment” in 2015, in the case of actress Shobna Gulati and others, involved “genuine victims of reprehensible conduct” and their claims were “backed up by extensive call data and direct evidence”.

Mr Green told the court the litigation has had a “catastrophic effect” on MGN, which has a parent company with a market capitalisation of less than £250 million and has “paid a very heavy price” and is “still living with those consequences”.

However he said the current “fourth” wave of litigation is of a different nature to those cases and has involved people being told by associates they may have a claim, who then contact solicitors and are “encouraged to bring claims”.

Mr Green said there had been “rocket-propelled lawyer-driven litigation of a pretty unusual type”, leading to claims being launched using “template formulaic pleadings”.

MGN phone hacking trial
Barrister David Sherborne is representing the Duke of Sussex and other claimants in the hacking trial (PA)

He pointed to one example of the “carelessness” with which cases had been put forward, saying that in the Duke of Sussex’s pleaded case there was an instance which referred to him as “her”, suggesting parts of it were “cut and pasted without any real thought as to whether they apply to the particular claimant”.

Referring to these more recent cases against MGN, he said: “The claims advanced are wildly overstated”, adding that voicemail allegations were “nothing more than a speculative hope without evidential foundation”.

“The relevant periods as pleaded are invariably utterly unjustifiable,” the barrister told the court.

Earlier on Wednesday Mr Sherborne told the court Harry was seen as a “prime target” by tabloid newspapers and the idea journalists would not have used illegal methods to gather information on him is “implausible”.

The findings made by judge Mr Justice Fancourt in relation to the four will be used to determine the outcome of dozens of claims brought by others against MGN, including actor Ricky Tomlinson, the estate of the late singer George Michael, ex-footballer and television presenter Ian Wright and Girls Aloud singer Cheryl.

MGN is largely contesting the claims and denies that any of the articles complained of resulted from phone hacking, while contending that the vast majority did not arise from any other unlawful activity.

The publisher has made a limited number of admissions of unlawful activity in relation to the duke, Ms Sanderson and Ms Wightman, for which the publisher has apologised and accepted they will be entitled to some damages, but denies the majority of their claims and Mr Turner’s entire case.

Mr Sherborne said on Tuesday that the findings made in the 2015 ruling on the only other trial on unlawful information gathering at MGN were a “solid basis” on which the judge could base his own conclusions.

The trial is due to conclude on Friday and Mr Justice Fancourt will deliver his ruling at a later date.