Publisher has settled more than 1,600 claims amid hacking litigation, court told

The publisher of The Sun newspaper has reached out-of-court settlements in more than 1,600 legal claims amid the long-running phone hacking litigation, the High Court has been told.

News Group Newspapers (NGN), which also published the now defunct News Of The World, has faced allegations of unlawful information gathering from a number of high-profile individuals, including the Duke of Sussex.

The publisher, which has previously denied allegations in relation to The Sun, has been accused of misusing people’s private information, including through the use of private investigators.

Its lawyer told a hearing in London on Wednesday, that the costs of the litigation have been “vast” and “imposed a huge burden on court resources”.

A trial of some of the 42 existing claims against NGN, including Harry’s, is due to take place in January next year.

But on Wednesday, NGN has asked judge Mr Justice Fancourt to instead hold an initial trial that month to decide whether the cases against the publisher have been brought too late and outside a legal time limit.

Anthony Hudson KC, representing NGN, said in written arguments that the first claim against the publisher relating to voicemail interception was issued 17 years ago, with wider phone hacking litigation in operation for 13 years.

He told the hearing: “Over the course of this litigation NGN has settled over 1,300 claims issued and pre-action claims.

“There have also been more than 350 claims settled in the compensation scheme.”

He said 13 trials had been listed and not gone ahead, adding that 61 weeks of court time had been fixed for use and then vacated.

The barrister said only about four existing claims would be eligible for a full trial in January.

In written submissions, Mr Hudson said a judge should first decide whether those bringing legal action “could with reasonable diligence” have known, more than six years before issuing their challenges, facts that would lead them to discover they had “worthwhile” claims.

He said that there was a “real prospect” that some or all of the existing claims would be found to be “time barred” and therefore dismissed.

Mr Hudson said all 42 existing claims were issued in 2022, except the Duke of Sussex who issued his in 2019.

“The earliest wrongs complained of in the extant claims allegedly occurred in 1993: ie 29 years before the commencement of all of the extant claims other than that of the Duke of Sussex, who issued proceedings 23 years after the earliest wrong alleged in his claim,” Mr Hudson said.

He said the legal limit for bringing claims “has expired, by a significant margin” in all claims.

The lawyer said a trial over this preliminary issue would be a “proportionate” and “efficient” way of taking the litigation forward and “promote” settlements.

NGN privacy case
The Duke of Sussex’s barrister, David Sherborne (Jordan Pettitt/PA)

David Sherborne, for the duke and others, told the court that it was a “no-brainer” that a full trial of claims should take place in January, arguing if it did not go ahead it would be “unfair” people who had been waiting two and a half years for it to happen.

He said NGN’s bid “makes no sense” and was “pointless”, telling the court that a full trial of a select number of cases would tackle limitation and determine issues that would affect other claims.

In written arguments, Mr Sherborne said the absence of an initial trial over the timing of claims had “clearly not impeded settlements”, adding that vacating the full trial in January would be “highly disruptive and prejudicial” to those bringing cases.

He told the hearing there was a “100% record of the defendant settling any claim before we reach trial”.

NGN has previously said about the civil cases against it: “In 2011, an unreserved apology was made by NGN to victims of voicemail interception by the News Of The World.

“Since then, NGN has been paying financial damages to those with proper claims.

“As we reach the tail end of litigation, NGN is drawing a line under disputed matters, some of which date back more than 20 years ago. In some cases, it has made commercial sense for both parties to come to a settlement agreement before trial to bring a resolution to the matter.

“There are a number of disputed claims still going through the civil courts, some of which seek to involve The Sun. The Sun does not accept liability or make any admissions to the allegations. Time limitation is now also an issue in a number of the outstanding claims.”

The hearing concluded on Wednesday, with Mr Justice Fancourt saying he would give a ruling at 10am on Friday.