The publisher of The News Of The World has lost a bid to bring an end to litigation over the phone hacking scandal – 15 years after it began and following the settlement of more than 1,000 claims.
News Group Newspapers (NGN), publisher of the now-defunct newspaper and of The Sun, asked Mr Justice Fancourt to impose a final deadline for claims to be issued against it in relation to alleged unlawful information gathering at the newspapers.
The publisher has admitted wrongdoing in relation to The News Of The World, but not The Sun, and has settled around 1,028 claims so far – plus an additional 358 applications which were made to a compensation scheme run by parent company News International between 2011 and 2016.
Lawyers for NGN told a hearing in London last week that it is now time to bring the lengthy litigation to an end.
However lawyers representing a number of claimants and potential claimants said there could be as many as “20,000 -25,000 potential victims of NGN’s unlawful information gathering” and argued there should not be a final cut-off date for new claims.
Anthony Hudson QC, for NGN, told the court on Thursday: “We say after 15 years of litigation, the resolution and compromise of more than 1,000 claims, the enormous use of court time during that period, vast quantities of disclosure (of evidence) and the huge costs that have been incurred and paid, we suggest that now is the appropriate time to ensure that any intended claims are brought within a reasonable time and that the slow drip feed of the evidence – which on the claimants’ approach could last many more years, possibly another decade – is brought to a conclusion.”
He said: “To NGN’s knowledge, no other comparable litigation in the English courts has been as prolonged as (this).”
Hudson said the litigation has “morphed over the years” from voicemail interception to other forms of unlawful information gathering.
He said the allegations have been in the public domain since former News Of The World journalist Clive Goodman was arrested in 2006, and that it would be “difficult for anyone living in this country to be unaware” of the phone hacking scandal and its aftermath.
He added: “This has been going on forever and everybody knows about it, and if you don’t know about it by now, there is really no reasonable explanation for that.”
Hudson told the court the actor Hugh Grant (pictured) had recently filed a claim in relation to alleged unlawful activity at The Sun, having previously reached a settlement with NGN in relation to The News Of The World in 2017.
He said: “Hugh Grant has just filed a claim. He brought a claim in 2012 and there is no reason that we can see why he could not have brought this five years ago.”
The barrister later added: “It has taken him all these years to bring this further claim in relation to The Sun.”
The barrister said there have been around 45 hearings since 2016, taking up about 70 hours of court time, and that legal costs have been “exorbitant”, with total costs for the third tranche of the litigation alone reaching nearly £35m.
He revealed that actress Sienna Miller’s claim was settled in December last year, incurred costs of more than £1.5m – which the publisher paid as part of the settlement, along with undisclosed damages.
David Sherborne, representing the claimant group, said NGN’s application for a final cut-off date was “misconceived” and argued the “vast majority of victims do not know they have a claim due to the intentionally covert nature of NGN’s unlawful information gathering and its deliberate concealment of the same”.
Giving judgment on Friday, Mr Justice Fancourt said he did not agree with NGN’s submission that the majority of those who may have a claim to bring already know about that potential claim.
The judge said: “More claims are now being brought that do not arise from an article being published.
“Even when claimants did have an article published about them it is not obvious this was how the information was gathered.”
He added that new claimants are also learning of potential claims from appearing as witnesses in other claimants’ cases.
The judge said the court’s position on the matter may well change in the future.
The court heard there are currently 52 claims registered, with a further 436 claims at the pre-action letter stage and 82 more claims “in the pipeline”.
NGN revealed last week it made a loss of £51.8m in the year to 27 June 2021 – £49m of which was made up of costs related to phone-hacking and other legal claims.
Picture: Reuters/Monica Almeida