Hugh Grant v The Sun
On 26 May 2023, Mr Justice Fancourt handed down a judgment dismissing part of an application related to phone hacking made by News Group Newspapers (“NGN”) in the claim of Hugh Grant v The Sun. NGN is the proprietor of The Sun and, until 2011, the proprietor of the defunct newspaper The News of the World.
Mr Grant has accused The Sun of undertaking unlawful information gathering (“UIG”) to uncover his private information for publication in its newspapers. The alleged UIG includes:
- Voicemail interception against Mr Grant’s mobile and landline telephones by journalists working for The Sun;
- “Blagging”, the obtaining of Mr Grant’s private information by deception;
- The use of listening and tracking devices at Mr Grant’s private property;
- The commissioning of burglaries on his residence; and
- The payment of private investigators.
NGN’s application requested the court to either make summary judgment or strike out Mr Grant’s claim in its entirety. It argues that Mr Grant has issued his claim too late and it is thereby statute-barred under s.2 of the Limitation Act 1980. This section prescribes that a claimant has six years from the date of the wrong to bring a claim. Given that the alleged UIG occurred between 1995 and 2011, on the face of it, Mr Grant is too late to bring a claim.
However, Mr Grant rebuts that his claim is statute-barred, pleading reliance on s.32(1)(b) of the Limitation Act 1980. This section states that the “period of limitation shall not begin to run until the plaintiff has discovered the…concealment…or could with reasonable diligence have discovered it”. That is, in cases where the wrong has been concealed by the defendant, the limitation period may be delayed until the claimant becomes aware, or should reasonably become aware, of the concealment. The fact that NGN has concealed or destroyed evidence in relation to phone-hacking has already been firmly established (see, for example, the Leveson Inquiry ).
Mr Grant argues that he did not know that The Sun targeted him until 2021, when he was provided evidence of the same by his solicitors.
In his judgment, Mr Justice Fancourt considered the relevant facts specific to Mr Grant’s claim and decided that he was in fact statute-barred from bringing a claim against NGN in relation to voicemail interception. However, he was not statute-barred from bringing a claim in respect of the other allegations listed above, including bugging, the commissioning of burglaries and the payment of private investigators by The Sun. These allegations will instead be determined at a trial in January 2024.
Why did the judge reach this conclusion?
In making his judgment, Mr Justice Fancourt considered a number of factors, including the applicable law pleaded by both parties and the specific facts and circumstances of Mr Grant’s claim.
Hugh Grant’s phone-hacking claim is struck out
Mr Justice Fancourt concluded that Mr Grant was statute-barred from bringing a claim against The Sun in respect of his allegations that journalists working for the newspaper had illicitly intercepted his voicemail messages. This activity is also known as “phone-hacking”.
There were a number of reasons for this decision. They ranged from the fact that Mr Grant is a founding member of the group Hacked Off (an organisation which was established in response to the phone-hacking scandal), to his vociferous tweets and social media activity on the subject. One key reason was the fact that Mr Grant had issued and settled a claim back in 2012 against The Sun’s sister paper, The News of the World, for the same allegation of phone-hacking.
In this respect, the striking out of Mr Grant’s claim in relation to phone-hacking was a highly claimant-specific issue. The particular circumstances of Mr Grant’s position were the determining factor in the judge’s decision.
Hugh Grant will go to trial in respect of other UIG
Unlike with phone-hacking, the judge deemed that Mr Grant did not have sufficient knowledge to bring a claim in respect of other UIG gathering before the expiry of the limitation period.
Since the seminal case of Gulati & ors v MGN , each misuse of private information is considered a separate tort, which allows for a distinct cause of action to rise. That Mr Grant is precluded from bringing one type of UIG, does not impose a blanket ban on the rest of his allegations: “sufficient knowledge or belief that NGN’s denials of phone-hacking were false does not necessarily mean that Mr Grant believed at that time that NGN had used different methods of UIG” (para 114).
The other UIG which Mr Grant alleges occurred (such as the commissioning of burglaries and the use of bugging) is not as well established in the generic litigation against NGN. Neither has Mr Grant been as vocal on these issues. Mr Justice Fancourt has therefore deemed that such allegations should be examined further at trial in January 2024.
This judgment should not be seen as a victory for The Sun. Out of the five allegations of UIG brought by Mr Grant, only one was struck out. The reason for this was highly specific to Mr Grant’s circumstances. Mr Grant has been decidedly vocal on the issue of phone-hacking, with Mr Justice Fancourt even labelling him a “self-professed student of the phone hacking story” (para 97). The judge did not believe this was the same case for the rest of his allegations.
Mr Grant will now have to await trial next year to plead his case in full, along with numerous other individuals who have brought similar claims. That is when the real test against NGN will begin.
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