Legal action by Doreen Lawrence and Prince Harry could mire Daily Mail for years

<span>Photograph: Matt Dunham/AP</span>
Photograph: Matt Dunham/AP

The timing could not be worse for Paul Dacre. The former editor of the Daily Mail has to deal with lawsuits alleging serious wrongdoing during his time in charge of the newspaper – just days before he is expected to fulfil his dream and be made a Tory member of the House of Lords.

Now Dacre faces the prospect of seeing the Daily Mail’s parent company Associated Newspapers dragged into a lengthy legal battle, where he could have to give evidence under oath about his newspaper’s activities in the name of journalism. According to a statement issued by lawyers for the six individuals, the claims include allegations of illegal activity such as homes being bugged, deceptive tactics used to obtain private medical information and the tapping of live phone calls.

The Daily Mail, which says the claims are “preposterous smears”, has until now avoided the scandal over phone hacking that has dogged Rupert Murdoch’s News UK and the Daily Mirror for the last 15 years. But while the latter two have mainly had to deal with cases relating to systematic interception of voicemails – a relatively simple crime to commit – the allegations against Associated Newspapers are murkier and appear to focus on the use of external private investigators.

David Sherborne, the barrister who successfully represented Coleen Rooney in the “Wagatha Christie” libel trial, has been signed up to represent the group that includes Prince Harry and Sir Elton John. Sherborne is known for delighting in getting headlines out of his court appearances – and may enjoy the chance to cross-examine Dacre, whose paper regularly criticised the lawyer’s work at the Leveson inquiry.

One of the biggest worries at Associated Newspapers will be any possible impact on advertising. Murdoch shut down the News of the World in 2011 when companies said they no longer wanted to be associated with accusations of phone hacking by its journalists.

Five of the individuals who are bringing the claims against Associated Newspapers are veterans of legal battles with other publications. Prince Harry, Elton John, David Furnish, Sadie Frost and Liz Hurley have variously sued Murdoch newspapers and the Mirror – enabling the Mail to dismiss their cases as a “fishing expedition by claimants and their lawyers, some of whom have already pursued cases elsewhere”.

But the allegation that has really hurt the Mail comes from Doreen Lawrence, the mother of Stephen, who was murdered in a racist attack in south London in 1993. Lady Lawrence is not a longtime press reform campaigner and her decision to sue the newspaper group has touched a raw nerve at the Mail. Dacre’s campaign on behalf of her son was regularly held up as a triumph of the Mail’s campaigning journalism that proved it cared about racial justice – and one that helped build the pressure that led to the conviction of two men.

Lawrence has issued legal proceedings against the newspaper, that has lauded its own support for her fight for justice.

Sources tell the Guardian that her legal claim includes allegations about information gathered on her and her family and associates before the Mail backed the family’s campaign for justice. Specific articles published by the newspaper about the Stephen Lawrence case have been examined by her lawyers as to where the information contained in them could have come from.

Early articles on the murder, published while Dacre was editor, were more critical and had suggested the family’s call for justice may be part of a leftwing political campaign.

Dacre would later U-turn after realising that Stephen’s father, Neville, was the man who had decorated his house, and pledged to campaign on Stephen’s behalf.

In an extraordinary statement released late on Thursday night Associated Newspapers singled out Lady Lawrence for criticism, suggesting she had only started the legal proceedings after being maliciously led astray by others.

A spokesperson for the company said: “It is deeply saddening that whoever is cynically and unscrupulously orchestrating these claims appears to have persuaded Baroness Lawrence – for whom the Mail has the greatest respect and admiration – to endorse the word of someone who is such a manifestly discredited and untrustworthy liar.”

Although the detail of Lawrence’s legal claim is unclear, the company said she may be relying on the evidence of Jonathan Rees. He is a south London private investigator who undertook widespread work for newspaper groups and was tried in relation to the murder of his former colleague Daniel Morgan, although the case later collapsed.

Whether Associated Newspapers is able to deal financially with the prospect of lengthy litigation is less clear. Although the Daily Mail remains the biggest-selling print newspaper in the country, it faces the same long-term sales decline affecting the entire industry and has recently been taken private by an offshore trust controlled by the chair, Lord Rothermere. Newspaper costs are rising substantially, while the Mail recently announced plans to merge parts of its newspaper business with its sister website MailOnline to save on costs.

The bigger worry for the Mail is that, if any of the claims are successful, it could open the door for other cases against the newspaper that could leave it in legal limbo for years. Lawyers for the group of six claimants suggest their cases “represent the tip of the iceberg” and that “many other innocent people remain unknowing victims of similar terrible and reprehensible covert acts”. News UK has already paid hundreds of millions of pounds in costs and damages relating to claims of phone hacking at the News of the World and the Sun, with cases heading into a third decade.

Even though some of the allegations against the Mail relate to articles published in the early 1990s, many current leading newspaper executives – such as its editor, Ted Verity, and the Times editor, Tony Gallagher – were at the newspaper during the time.

Given the slow progress of the court system, it is unlikely any trial would take place before 2024. By that point Dacre may be already in the House of Lords – but this would not stop him giving evidence.