A planned trial of the Duchess of Sussex’s privacy action against the Mail on Sunday over the publication of a letter to her estranged father has been postponed for a “confidential” reason.
Meghan, 39, is suing Associated Newspapers Ltd, publisher of the Mail On Sunday and Mail Online, over an article that reproduced parts of the handwritten letter sent to 76-year-old Thomas Markle in August 2018.
At a High Court hearing in London on Thursday, attended remotely by lawyers and members of the press, Mr Justice Warby agreed to adjourn the trial – which was due to start on 11 January next year – until the autumn following an earlier private hearing.
The judge said the private hearing was necessary to protect “the confidentiality of the information relied on” by Meghan in her application to postpone the trial.
The confidential information was said by the judge to be the “primary” reason for the duchess wanting the trial to be adjourned – and her application was not opposed by ANL.
However, ANL’s lawyers did ask the judge to consider 76-year-old Mr Markle’s situation, saying he is “elderly and sick” and wants and intends to give evidence at trial.
In a witness statement before the court, ANL’s group editorial legal director Liz Hartley said she had spoken to Mr Markle and provided a summary of what he told her.
He said: “This case is causing me anxiety and I want to get it over with as quickly as possible.”
Mr Markle told Hartley he has a number of serious health conditions before adding: “None of my male relatives has ever lived beyond 80 years of age.
“I am a realist and I could die tomorrow. The sooner this case takes place the better.”
Hartley said in her statement that Mr Markle had contacted a Mail On Sunday journalist because he “considered that he had a right to tell his side of the story following publication of what he considered to be a misleading article in People magazine”.
She added: “He continues to feel that he has been misrepresented and that the claimant should not be pursuing this claim.
“He is anxious that he should have his day in court so that he can tell the truth in public, have his evidence tested under cross-examination and defend himself against the suggestion that he breached the claimant’s privacy without any reasonable justification.
“Despite his state of health, Mr Markle was and is planning to travel to London to give evidence in person and I can confirm that his intention to give evidence is as firm as it has always been.”
The judge said other reasons put forward by the duchess’s legal team in support of the postponement included Meghan’s application for summary judgment – a legal step which would see the case resolved without a trial.
The court will hear the summary judgment application in January next year, when Meghan’s lawyers will argue that ANL’s defence has no prospect of succeeding at a trial.
Granting the application to adjourn the trial, Mr Justice Warby said: “The right decision in all the circumstances is to grant the application to adjourn.
“That means that the trial date of January 11 2021 will be vacated and the trial will be re-fixed for a new date in the autumn.”
Her lawyers also brought a bid to challenge another judge’s ruling which allowed ANL to rely on an unauthorised biography of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, called Finding Freedom, in its defence of the claim – which was rejected by Mr Justice Warby.
At a separate remote hearing on Thursday afternoon, Judge Francesca Kaye dealt with issues relating to disclosure of relevant documents ahead of the trial.
The judge refused an application by Meghan’s lawyers for Paul Dacre – the former editor of the Daily Mail and current editor-in-chief of DMG Media, ANL’s holding company – to be added as a “custodian” of potentially relevant documents which were said to relate to the publisher’s belief that publishing the duchess’ letter to her father was in the public interest.
Sections of the letter to Mr Markle were published in the newspaper and online in February last year, and it was announced the duchess would be bringing legal action in October.
The headline on the article read: “Revealed: The letter showing true tragedy of Meghan’s rift with a father she says has ‘broken her heart into a million pieces’.”
The duchess is seeking damages from ANL, the newspaper’s publisher and operator of the website, for alleged misuse of private information, copyright infringement and breach of the Data Protection Act.
ANL wholly denies the allegations, particularly the duchess’s claim the letter was edited in any way that changed its meaning, and says it will hotly contest the case.
Meghan is suing Associated Newspapers over five articles, two in the Mail On Sunday and three on Mail Online, which were published in February 2019.
Picture: Chris Jackson/PA Wire