A private investigator whose ‘confessions’ form a key element of a privacy case being brought against Associated Newspapers by Prince Harry, Baroness Doreen Lawrence, Sir Elton John and others has denied their allegations that he acted illegally against them on behalf of the Daily Mail or Mail on Sunday.
The development came as the Duke of Sussex made a surprise appearance at a preliminary court hearing, after flying in from the US overnight.
In a smart black suit and blue tie, Harry sat behind his lawyers in Court 76 of the Royal Courts of Justice, listening intently and making notes.
Sir Elton and his husband David Furnish also appeared in court in the afternoon, as did Baroness Lawrence, while the actress Sadie Frost attended like Harry for the whole day.
The claimants allege they were told that the investigator, Gavin Burrows, had admitted hacking phones, tapping landlines and bugging cars. The allegations were set out in a statement he provided to their lawyers 18 months ago.
Surprise appearance: Prince Harry arrives at the High Court yesterday
Claimants: Sir Elton John outside court
According to documents submitted by his lawyers, Prince Harry said he embarked on the case after being told Mr Burrows had ‘admitted to targeting me’.
Baroness Lawrence said she launched her case after being informed that Mr Burrows and another private investigator had recently confessed to carrying out a wide range of criminal activities on behalf of Mail newspapers. Sir Elton, Mr Furnish, Liz Hurley and Sadie Frost also cited Mr Burrows’ alleged confessions.
However, according to written submissions by Adrian Beltrami KC, counsel for Associated, Mr Burrows ‘has provided a signed witness statement denying that he was commissioned or instructed by Associated to carry out any unlawful activity’.
The Mail’s publisher earlier said in a statement: ‘We categorically deny the very serious claims made in this litigation and will vigorously defend them – if that proves necessary.’
The case has not yet come to trial and yesterday’s hearing was to hear three applications to the judge, Mr Justice Nicklin.
The judge quickly awarded the Mail victory in the first application it made. It asked for anonymity for journalists named in the claims, in order to prevent distinguished journalists having their reputations destroyed in the event that the claims never proceeded to a full trial. Mr Justice Nicklin said this was justified.
The Mail’s second application yesterday related to documents – accounting ledgers – which were confidentially supplied by the Mail to the Leveson Inquiry 12 years ago. Those documents are now being used in this case – in breach of a restriction order and confidentiality undertakings given to the inquiry, the newspaper group said.
Mr Beltrami told the judge: ‘We are in a situation, I am sorry to say it, where the only clear evidence of the use of unlawfully obtained information is from the claimants themselves.’
The judge has yet to decide on this application. In its third application the publisher asks the judge to rule that the claims are time-barred. They relate to events said to have taken place up to 30 years ago, the vast majority before 2007.
Under the law, privacy claims must be brought within six years. This is to ensure justice for all parties, and to prevent evidence being tainted by fading memories, mental incapacity and/or the death of potential witnesses (at least three are known to have died in this case).
Claimants: Baroness Lawrence outside court
The Duke of Sussex did not speak at yesterday’s hearing. As he arrived at court with his bodyguards, Harry smiled to television cameras and photographers. Sky News made the point that the duke was not giving evidence yet had decided to arrive by the main entrance, in contrast to Miss Frost, who used a side entrance.
His attendance at the Royal Courts of Justice is believed to be the first time a British royal has appeared in a courtroom since Princess Anne pleaded guilty at Slough County Court in 2002 after her dogs bit two children.
The duke sat flanked between his solicitor Callum Galbraith and Ashley Hansen, the communications chief of his Archewell foundation. He had a spiral-bound notebook, a bottle of water from Pret and his mobile phone which he occasionally used to send messages. He spent most of the hearing watching the barristers arguing points of law.
Next-but-one to him sat Miss Frost, while Sir Elton, Mr Furnish and Baroness Lawrence all sat behind them in the public gallery.
The claimants launched their action in October last year. Their lawyer David Sherborne alleged in written submissions to the court that the newspaper group engaged in ‘illegally intercepting voicemail messages, listening into live landline calls, obtaining private information … and using private investigators to commit these unlawful information gathering acts on their behalf’.
Baroness Lawrence was said to have become ‘deeply paranoid’ over the ‘unexplained disclosure of information’ that she thought was due to police leaks.
Mr Sherborne said: ‘She finds it hard to believe the level of duplicity and manipulation that was clearly at play, knowing now as she does that the Daily Mail’s outward support for her fight to bring Stephen’s killers to justice was hollow, and worse, entirely false.’
Associated Newspapers vigorously denies all the claims against it. Last night the newspaper said in a statement: ‘While the Mail’s admiration for Baroness Lawrence remains undimmed, we are profoundly saddened that she has been persuaded to bring this case.
‘The Mail remains hugely proud of its pivotal role in campaigning for justice for Stephen Lawrence. Its famous ‘Murderers’ front page triggered the Macpherson Report.’
The Mail successfully campaigned to bring to justice Stephen Lawrence’s killers. Its 1997 front page, with the headline ‘Murderers’ above pictures of five men accused of killing Stephen, was a key moment in British race relations history, kick-starting a campaign which ultimately led to the Macpherson Inquiry. Two of the thugs identified – Gary Dobson and David Norris – were later convicted of Stephen’s murder.
The hearing continues.