Royal Family have 'washed their hands' of Harry's legal battles, says ex-BBC expert

The Duke of Sussex (right) leaving at the Royal Courts Of Justice, central London, after a hearing on the allegations of unlawful information gathering brought against Associated Newspapers Limited (ANL) by seven people - the Duke of Sussex, Baroness Doreen Lawrence, Sir Elton John, David Furnish, Liz Hurley, Sadie Frost and Sir Simon Hughes. Picture date: Tuesday March 28, 2023.
Harry has six ongoing civil litigations against the British press. (PA) (PA)

The Royal Family have "washed their hands" of Prince Harry's various legal actions that are ongoing against the British press, a royal commentator has said.

On Thursday, a judge ruled the Duke of Sussex’s claim over allegations of unlawful information gathering against the publisher of The Sun will go ahead to a trial.

Jennie Bond, who was royal correspondent for the BBC for 14 years, said the palace were likely to be "standing back" from Harry's long-term campaign to reform the press through legal action — something that he has previously called his "life's work" while claiming his father, King Charles, had deemed such an undertaking a "suicide mission".

"They're just going to be standing back from this as much as they possibly can," Bond told Talk TV.

Watch: Expert says Royal Family have 'washed their hands' of Harry's legal action

"They didn't want Harry to pursue this, I don't think, publicly. The last thing they want is to see a member of their family in court, which is exactly what we have seen with Harry against one of his other newspaper claims against The Mirror, standing up and making all sorts of allegations.

"It's not what they do, it's not they proceed, as we have seen from William settling out of court.

"So I think really, they have just washed their hands of this and are letting Harry get on with it - with some despair."

Her comments follow with the news that only part of Harry's claim against News Group Newspapers (NGN), the publishers of The Sun and the now-defunct News of the World, will be taken to trial, which will take place in January 2024.

LONDON, ENGLAND - JULY 01: Prince William, Duke of Cambridge (left) and Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex arrive for the unveiling of a statue they commissioned of their mother Diana, Princess of Wales, in the Sunken Garden at Kensington Palace, on what would have been her 60th birthday on July 1, 2021 in London, England. Today would have been the 60th birthday of Princess Diana, who died in 1997. At a ceremony here today, her sons Prince William and Prince Harry, the Duke of Cambridge and the Duke of Sussex respectively, will unveil a statue in her memory. (Photo by Yui Mok - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
Prince Harry and Prince William have only been seen together in person a handful of times since the Sussexes' exit from royal life in 2020. (Getty Images) (WPA Pool via Getty Images)

In a summary judgement handed down by Mr. Justice Fancourt on 27 July, it was decided that Harry's claims relating to phone-hacking had been brought too late, but that the aspects of his claim relating to other forms of unlawful information gathering (UIG) "must be tried".

What did the judgement say?

A preliminary hearing between Harry and NGN took place in April, during which the publishing company attempted to have the entire claim struck out before a trial.

Justice Fancourt did strike elements of Harry's claim, because he deemed that "the Duke has no realistic prospect of establishing at trial that before the Applicable Date he did not know and could not with reasonable diligence have discovered facts that establish [he had] a worthwhile claim" over phone-hacking.

The Limitation Act of 1980 means there is a six-year time limit on making claims of this kind, so Harry had to prove there was no way a reasonable person could have known they had a chance of making a "worthwhile" claim within that time limit for these phone-hacking allegations to be heard at trial.

LONDON, ENGLAND - JUNE 7: Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, gives a thumbs up as he leaves after giving evidence at the Mirror Group Phone hacking trial at the Rolls Building at High Court on June 7, 2023 in London, England. Prince Harry is one of several claimants in a lawsuit against Mirror Group Newspapers related to allegations of unlawful information gathering in previous decades. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)
Harry became the first royal to give evidence in court in over a century during his recent trial against Mirror Group Newspapers. (Getty Images) (Carl Court via Getty Images)

There were a couple of reasons why Justice Fancourt didn't think this passed the limitation test: one was that Harry was partly relying on what he called a "secret agreement" between the palace and the publishing company.

In his witness statement, Harry said: “My brother and I were also told by either the institution’s solicitor … or someone else from the institution that there was no possibility of either of us bringing a claim against NGN for phone hacking at that time.

“The rationale behind this was that a secret agreement had been reached between the institution and senior executives at NGN whereby members of the royal family would bring phone hacking claims only at the conclusion of the Mobile Telephone Voicemail Interception Litigation and at that stage the claims would be admitted or settled with an apology.

“The reason for this was to avoid the situation where a member of the royal family would have to sit in the witness box and recount the specific details of the private and highly sensitive voicemails.

He claimed this was a "major factor" in why he didn't bring his claim in 2012, when palace staff had brought claims.

Lawyers for Harry also claimed in court documents William settled a phone-hacking claim against Rupert Murdoch's UK newspaper group in 2020 for a "very large sum".

Fancourt found that there was "not strong evidence" to support the existence of any secret agreement, and that "the Duke is unable to identify between whom the secret agreement was made, or even who it was who told him about it", as well the fact that his evidence in his claim against Associated News Limited — the publishers of the Daily Mail — is "inconsistent" with his evidence about the secret agreement.

WINDSOR, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 10: Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex on the long Walk at Windsor Castle arrive to view flowers and tributes to HM Queen Elizabeth on September 10, 2022 in Windsor, England. Crowds have gathered and tributes left at the gates of Windsor Castle to Queen Elizabeth II, who died at Balmoral Castle on 8 September, 2022. (Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images)
Harry and Meghan have both taken a strong line on press intrusion, and cited it as one of the reasons behind their decision to leave life as working royals behind. (Getty Images) (Chris Jackson via Getty Images)

However, Fancourt acknowledged that emails from 2017 and 2018 between Sally Osman - former director of Royal Communications - and Rebekah Brooks, chief executive of News UK, "does imply [...] that there was a desire by the Palace to have an informal settlement of their phone-hacking complaints, which would avoid publicity about the hacked communications, and so a reluctance to issue claims".

The second reason Harry's phone-hacking claim didn't pass the limitation test was because both palace staff and a friend of William and Harry had made claims in 2012, and solicitors were instructed by the Royal Family to look into the phone-hacking claims.

"Had the Duke instructed [...] Harbottle & Lewis to investigate, a much fuller picture would have emerged," Fancourt said in the judgement, though he acknowledged that the legal team "acted on behalf of the Royal Family generally and were not instructed by [Harry] personally".

The allegations of UIG will still be heard at trial because, Justice Fancourt said, "there is no evidence currently before me that the Duke knew before the Applicable Date that NGN had done anything other than hack his mobile phone (at the News of the World).

"Knowing or being on notice of a worthwhile claim for voicemail interception does not of itself amount to knowledge or notice of a worthwhile claim for other forms of UIG".

Kensington Palace has previously declined to comment about claims of a secret agreement.